The Puritans on Independence

The First Examination, Defence, and Second Examination

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Editor(s): 
Polly Ha, Jonathan D. Moore, Edda Frankot
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     2017.
     512 pages.
     $155.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780199664825.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

One of the great pleasures of early modern English history is the steady appearance of analytically rigorous works focusing on “the godly,” those devout men and women who pushed for the further refinement of the Church of England’s theology and practice following the compromises of the early reign of Elizabeth I. Often termed “Puritans,” the godly have been the subject of fascination, and often derision, since they first appeared during the second half of the 16th century. They continue to attract the attention of scholars both because of their persistence in the face of persecution and because they were prominent among the supporters of Parliament’s cause during the English Civil Wars and Revolution of the middle decades of the 17th century. Identifying the relationship between religious and political motives for rebellion has vexed scholars for centuries, and it continues to draw the interest of some of the most creative minds in the field.

A central issue for the godly in post-Reformation England was the degree of autonomy that each community of believers should exercise. Historians have long identified a distinction between a mainstream puritan theology that embraced a presbyterian system of religious organization and a more radical tendency among those who viewed the congregation as the locus of authority in matters theological. As the Elizabethan era gave way to that of the early Stuarts, the radicals became more assertive within the community of the godly, sparking controversy and debate among those who were dissatisfied with the Church of England. Given the supremacy of the monarch in the Church, contemporaries would have readily understood the secular implications of any attempt to claim religious authority for the congregation. In recent years historians have increasingly highlighted the tensions that arose among the godly as the pressure to conform to the established church intensified.

In The Puritans on Independence, Polly Ha and her assistant editors offer a significant intervention into these scholarly discussions with the transcription of several texts that shed bright light into debates among the godly in the early 17th century. The protagonist of the story is Henry Jacob, who in 1616 established in Southwark the first independent congregation in England. Strikingly, in her editor’s introduction Ha demonstrates that Jacob’s notion of congregational independence had intertwined roots in both theological and secular traditions, the result being a thoroughly radical construct: “Jacob was not simply undermining episcopal rule through his assertion of congregational autonomy. He was rejecting all forms of representative government beyond the particular congregation as illegitimate” (11). Jacob’s intellect wandered widely, touching upon the major issues of the day, and his prominence among the godly in metropolitan London was evident in his ability to draw scorn from King James I.

Among other things, the king wrote in the margins of his copy of Jacob’s Supplication for Toleration (1609) that his assertion that the structure of authority of the Church of England was derived from that of the Church of Rome was a “notorious and shameless lye” (17). The stakes of Jacob’s arguments could not have been higher.

Collected and edited here are a series of texts embodying the intense disagreements between Jacob and a group of dedicated, godly opponents of independent congregations that were discovered among the papers of the presbyterian ideologue Walter Travers in the library of Trinity College Dublin. The texts wonderfully display the breadth and depth of the controversies roiling the godly during the second decade of the 17th century, a crucial period for the formulation of ideas that would burst into public view a generation later. Taken as a whole, they provide compelling evidence that the divisions and discord among the godly that characterized the turbulent years following the defeat of Charles I at the hands of Parliament’s army had their origins more than a generation earlier as Jacob and his critics contested over the true nature of the Christian polity. 

Ha and her team have provided a great service in making these texts available to the scholarly community. The documents are transcribed with great care and accompanied by extensive footnotes and images of key passages from the original manuscripts, such as one in which Jacob’s critics first use the term “independency” to highlight the novelty of his position (212). This volume reads like a prequel to the monumental Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, 1643-1652 (Oxford University Press, 2012) in its ability to deepen our understanding of challenging issues—and of the challenging people who tried to tackle them. It will doubtless long be embraced as a key resource for all those who wish to understand this period of intense theological and political upheaval.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joseph P. Ward is Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Utah State University.

Date of Review: 
April 22, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Polly Ha is a Reader in History at the University of East Anglia, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and Life Member of Clare Hall, Cambridge. She is Director of The History of Independence Project and formerly taught at the Universities of Cambridge and Southern California.

Jonathan D. Moore holds a PhD in historical theology and ecclesiastical history from the University of Cambridge. He is currently an Honorary Research Fellow of the University of East Anglia.

Edda Frankot is currently an editorial research fellow at the University of Aberdeen, where she is editing a digital transcription of the medieval Aberdeen burgh records. She is also Associate Editor of The 1641 Depositions and was formerly a lecturer at the Erasmus University Rotterdam.

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