Not Peace but a Sword

The Political Theology of the English Revolution, Expanded Edition

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Stephen Baskerville
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Pickwick Publications
    , August
     414 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Stephen Baskerville’s Not Peace But a Sword: The Political Theology of the English Revolution was originally published in 1993 by Routledge as a shortened revision of Baskerville’s University of London dissertation. Twenty-six years later, Baskerville and Pickwick Publications now offer this “expanded edition,” including previously excluded portions of that dissertation 

Given our chronological distance from the Puritan Revolution, and Baskerville’s disassociation of it from radicalism in other faiths (e.g., Hindu or Islamic), what then justifies a new addition with 146 pages of additional material? The answer, Baskerville argues, is found in treating the Puritan Revolution as the first religious revolution in modern Western history, a massive case study with excellent documentation. More importantly, Puritan “religious radicalism” and “spiritual militancy” went on to inspire other moments of “political radicalism.” Such subsequent radicalism, according to Baskerville, includes the American Revolution, “the abolition of slavery, and the struggles of the working class, and many others” (ix). 

The reader’s reaction to such assertion of continuity—an implicit Whig history that Baskerville considers unavoidable and perhaps even undeniable—determines the value that one will find in the book. If, on the one hand, you approve of connecting historical “movements” progressively, if you see parallels between one radicalism and another, and think of political ideas and “movements” holistically, your methodological wont is likely that of a political theorist like Baskerville, or Michael Walzer—Baskerville’s inspiration for this study. You will find Baskerville’s study fascinating. It will not bother you to see a sermon from 1601, excerpted without caveat, alongside one preached seventy or eighty years later. You will appreciate Baskerville’s long argument, drawn largely from sermons to the Long Parliament, that piety, scripture, and theology motivated early modern political thought. Most American political theorists have a lot to learn from Baskerville given that they would most likely study only a handful of English political theorists from this era (e.g., Thomas Hobbes), and the only Puritan among them would be John Milton.  

If, on the other hand, you insist on contextualizing or historicizing ideas and argue that time, place, and circumstance matter, your methodology is that of an historian and Baskerville’s study will frustrate you repeatedly, and you would be happier with John Wilson’s Pulpit in Parliament: Puritanism During the English Civil War, 1640-1648 (Princeton University Press, 1969), for example. Not only did Baskerville dismiss nuanced historiography in 1993, his new edition makes no effort to update historiography on Puritanism. Furthermore, a new twenty-eight page epilogue considers the Puritans’ opponents and asserts, “[i]t is probably not possible (and certainly pointless) to delineate precisely where ‘Puritan’ ideas left off and others began” (353). What then is uniquely revolutionary about revolutionary ideas if the revolution’s most ardent opponents share the same ideas? To press matters further: are the ideas Baskerville chronicles essentially or uniquely “Puritan” at all? To put a finer point on this, shouldn’t one distinguish English Puritan ideas from those of other Calvinists/Reformed: Marian exiles (e.g., John Ponet or Christopher Goodman), Scottish Presbyterians (e.g., John Knox), or French Protestants (e.g., Francois Hotman or Theodore Beza)—some of whom Walzer yoked together with Puritans in his Revolution of the Saints: A Study in the Origins of Radical Politics (Harvard University Press, 1965). And what of John Calvin, Heinrich Bullinger, or other continental Reformed theologians who treated tyrannicide very carefully, urged moderation by English precisians, and discouraged revolutionaries in both France or Scotland? To what degree are political statements about revolution even particularly Reformed given Lutheran political statements such as the Torgau and Magdeburg Declarations? Is political “radicalism” even uniquely Protestant, given the medieval roots of Protestant political theory? Is it even uniquely Christian given the rich vein of Roman legal precedents prerequisite to monarchomach thought? 

Baskerville’s response would no doubt be to direct the reader to his thematic organization and extensive quotation of sermons supposedly demonstrating that these concerns are Puritan concerns. Yet what should one then do with dissenting or nonconforming churchmen (i.e., “Puritans”) who did not share the “radical” political ideas Baskerville asserts to be essentially Puritan? And what should one do with fundamental differences between Independents and Presbyterians (both “Puritans”) on broader ideas of ecclesiology, liberty of conscience—the cover of the book, oddly enough, is John Rogers Herbert’s “Assertion of Liberty of Conscience by the Independents of the Westminster Assembly of Divines.” More particularly, what about differences over the execution of Charles I, and the status of the Solemn League and Covenant? Finally, what should one do with the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688-89 since it was not uniquely or essentially “Puritan?”

Despite these important shortcomings however, one can argue that Baskerville is in good company. His dissertation originally passed muster with Peter Lake. John Coffey’s Exodus and Liberation: Deliverance Politics from John Calvin to Martin Luther King, Jr. (Oxford University Press, 2013) argues a similar influence for Puritan political theology over the last few centuries. Harold Berman and his student John Witte have demonstrated the Reformation’s significance for subsequent legal and political theory. Baskerville’s study might, therefore, serve as a first word for those interested in Puritanism and politics, but it in no way should be the last. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Glenn A. Moots is Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Northwood University.

Date of Review: 
July 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stephen Baskerville is Professor of Government at Patrick Henry College, Purcellville, VA.


Stephen Baskerville

Glenn A. Moots accurately describes the problematic epistemological division of labor between historians and political theorists that has fragmented the study of political and religious ideas in seventeenth-century England (among other fields).  But one might hope that some fruitful accommodation is possible.  My aim was not to ignore historical context, but to provide a context larger than the daily ups-and-downs of the Civil War and Revolution or the personal biographies of the actors.  Like Walzer before me (and John S. Coolidge, it is worth adding for readers of this journal, in his fine but neglected study of Puritan theology), my chosen context was the larger social, economic, and other trends to which Puritanism was a response.  Some historians indeed do likewise, though usually employing a Marxist approach that both Walzer and I were keen to avoid.

Moots repeats criticisms which I am accustomed to hear from historians.  I might have expected that a political scientist would confront the larger arguments and implications.  Walzer argues that Puritans created nothing less than “radical politics” itself.  Surely this is a momentous enough assertion that it merits serious evaluation, one way or the other.  Certainly it has never been squarely refuted, nor (until my own effort) directly seconded.  Did I prove it?  Why or why not?

As for the distinctiveness (or not) of the Puritans’ ideas, compared with their contemporaries, this is another perennial (and Sisyphean) endeavor.  A complete answer would require a full-length study of the religious/political polemic of the period, though a succinct response might be provided with the assistance of a homely metaphor such as the Puritan preachers themselves were fond of using:  The revolutions – to use the word in its original, seventeenth-century sense – the revolutions of the moon in its orbit are in the same direction as those of the earth on its axis, but because the earth turns faster, the moon appears to move in the opposite direction.  I do not deny that there may have been other revolutions, nor that they were not often in the same direction as that of the Puritans.  I only argue that the Puritans, on the whole, were revolving faster.

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