London's Presbyterians

Reforming the Reformation: The Ambitious Goals of London’s Presbyterians.

Posted by rhiandavies - Tuesday, 28 Nov 2023


In February 1642, Edmund Calamy (1600-1666), the godly minister of the centrally located London parish of St Mary Aldermanbury, preached before the House of Commons, calling on Parliament to ‘reform the Reformation itself’. From the perspective of those like Calamy, the English Reformation had stalled during the reign of Queen Elizabeth with the defeat in the 1590s of the movement for the establishment of presbyterian government in the national church. More gravely, the cause of reformation had taken a retrograde step in the 1630s under the governance of Archbishop William Laud and his bishops, who were accused of introducing doctrinal and ceremonial innovations that shifted the Church of England back towards pre-Reformation practices. Calamy, and those like him, sought to convince Parliament that the time had come not only to reverse the innovations of the Laudian period, but to bring the Church of England in line with its Protestant neighbours: the presbyterian Church of Scotland, recently restored by the Covenanter revolution in the late 1630s, and the Reformed churches in the Netherlands and France.

London presbyterians and the British Revolutions, 1638–64 (Manchester University Press, 2021, now out in paperback)is a study of presbyterian clergy and laity in London who campaigned for, and attempted to establish, a presbyterian church polity in England’s capital. The book is a study in the politics of religion in the period of the British Revolutions, with one of its main themes being the attempt to establish a presbyterian reformation of the Church of England. From 1640 treatises appeared in print proposing that England’s parish churches should be governed by a consistory of the local minister and elders elected by the congregation. These parish presbyteries were to be united together through local meetings of ten or so parishes called classes, equivalent to rural deaneries. Each local classis would then send delegates to meet in regional ‘provincial’ assemblies, equivalent to a diocese, and finally, the national church would be governed by meetings of national synods when needed. Presbyterianism therefore sought to reform the national Church of England, while affording local parishes the autonomy to govern their own discipline. It was hoped that presbyterian polity would complete the Reformation begun in the Tudor period, but ultimately stalled due to the reticence of Elizabeth I and her bishops.

The proposal for a presbyterian reformation of the Church of England was, however, only one among many. Other suggestions for reform included retaining episcopalian government in the Church, but reducing the power of the bishops. Such propositions ranged from the bishop taking advice from a committee made up of local ministers, to the bishop being little more than the president for life of a church structured on presbyterian lines. Others among the godly argued for the implementation of the church system established in the New England colonies, with each congregation acting as a self-governing church but looking to the godly magistrate to enforce religious discipline. Many in Parliament were sceptical of allowing the clergy the autonomy to discipline their parishioners without a legal framework being in place. These MPs therefore sought to control the Church through parliamentary or local lay committees, a doctrine that presbyterians would dub ‘Erastianism’, after the sixteenth century religious controversialist Thomas Erastus, who opposed the autonomy of the clergy in a Christian state.     

In light of this competition, the presbyterians in London set out about building the momentum to reform the Church of England accord to their plaftorm. To do this they deployed personal and political networking, making alliances with like-minded clergy, laity and politicians, as well as engaging in outright political activism. The violence of the Civil War meant that many ministers from outside London would flee to the capital. Others were called by Parliament to join the Westminster Assembly of Divines to debate the religious settlement of the nation. This influx of godly ministers from the country would mean that London would become a central bloc in the campaign for the presbyterian reformation of the Church of England. Once the English Parliament had concluded its military alliance with the presbyterian Scottish Covenanters in 1643, the Scots, the Westminster Assembly and the London presbyterian ministers would work hand in hand to advance the demand for presbyterianism to be established in the English Church.

This campaign was ultimately a failure. While Parliament established presbyterian church government by passing the necessary legislation, presbyterianism was only established in practice in sporadic pockets throughout the nation, with only Lancashire and London establishing provincial assemblies. The refusal of Charles I in the peace negotiations of the late 1640s to accept any settlement involving all but a token experiment with presbyterian church government and the English Parliament’s falling out with their former Scottish Covenanter allies meant that presbyterianism in England was rendered an essentially voluntary affair. The rise of the New Model Army and the execution of King Charles in 1649, which the London presbyterians vocally opposed, meant that their dreams of reforming the Reformation were largely defeated. Nevertheless, London’s presbyterians made a rapprochement with the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell and regained favour under Richard Cromwell and the briefly restored Long Parliament in 1660. With the restoration of the Stuart monarchy, the London presbyterian ministry attempted to negotiate the retention of presbyterian elements within the episcopacy of Charles II’s Church of England. While the new King’s Worcester House Declaration (written by a committee that included Edmund Calamy) was favourable to this idea, it was rejected by the Cavalier Parliament, now buoyed with revanchist MPs opposed to anything that reeked of the revolutionary events of the previous twenty years.

By 24 August 1662, ‘Black Bartholomew’s Day’, presbyterian attempts to reform the Reformation were fully defeated. Many of London’s presbyterians, along with some 2000 clergy throughout the nation, chose to refuse to subscribe to the newly established Church of England and made the journey from reformers to dissenters.

London Presbyterians and the British revolutions, 1638-64
by Elliot Vernon


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