Casting Out Devils

Speaking Conservative Truth to Evil-Doers

Politics and Religious Liberty in 17th-Century England

leave a comment »

A Practical Discourse Concerning Death Covers

Front & Back Covers, A Practical Discourse Concerning Death

The Case of William Sherlock

By Paul A. Hughes

The following was originally written as an historical introduction to a new edition of the once popular but now nearly forgotten theological work, A Practical Discourse Concerning Death (1690) by Dr. William Sherlock.  The volume, in hardcover, is also available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online bookstores.  A paperback version has been made available, as well, from a single source.  The front cover features a portrait of John Donne (1572-1631) in his funeral shroud, which he commissioned before his death to remind him of his mortality.

William Sherlock was born in Southwark, a borough of London on the southern bank of the Thames, around 1641.  He was schooled at Eton and then Saint Peter’s College at Cambridge,[1] where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1660 and his master’s degree three years later.  In 1669 he became rector of St. George’s Church in Botolph Lane, then was elevated to Master of the Temple (1685) and finally Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral (1691).  In spite of becoming involved in several well-known controversies, Sherlock was considered one of the most popular theological writers of the century.

The 17th Century was a watershed in English history, which saw the evolution of parliamentary government and new restrictions on the monarchy; the foundations of union with Scotland and Ireland; and the development of the principles of free speech, press, religion, the right to bear arms, the right to due process, and freedom from the billeting of troops which were later written into the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution.  Events of the century also influenced development of the presumption of “inalienable rights” later expressed in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

The Tudors

The changes of the 17th Century were rooted in the Tudor reign.  Prior to Henry VII, Parliament served at the behest of the king in an advisory rôle, meeting only for short periods, and disbanded at the king’s will.  Henry expanded this rôle, using Parliament to create favorable legislation.  For instance, he had Parliament pass a law stating that it was not treason to obey a de facto ruler (which he was).  This approach was used to even more advantage by his son.  Henry VIII broke with the Roman Church for personal as well as political reasons, notably to secure the right to divorce.  In calling the Reformation Parliament of 1529, following the failure of Cardinal Wolsey to win his release from Catharine of Aragon,[2] the king sought legislative support from Parliament for his takeover of the English Church.  Through the Act of Supremacy, Henry had himself declared Supreme Head of the Church of England.

Thomas More, Archbishop of Canterbury, along with Cardinal Fisher, were beheaded for opposing control of the Church by the State and refusing to acknowledge Henry’s right.  In 1536, the leaders of the Pilgrimage of Grace, protesting dissolution of the monasteries, were treacherously executed at the king’s order.

Henry and Thomas Cranmer, the new Archbishop, proceeded to create a new English Church.  The Ten Articles (1536) made Baptism, penance, and the Eucharist essential to salvation.  The so-called Bishop’s Book (1537) declared the statement of faith for the Church; and in 1539, the Six Articles mandated adherence to the Established Church.  When new English Bible translations such as Coverdale’s (1535) and Cranmer’s (1540) ignited public interest, however, Henry complained to Parliament that the Bible was being “disputed, rhymed, sung, and jangled in every alehouse and tavern.”[3]

With the death of Henry, nine-year-old Edward VI, son of Henry with Jane Seymour, assumed the throne.  Under the influence of his uncle, Somerset, government moved toward religious toleration.  Parliament repealed the Six Articles, along with various treason and heresy laws passed under Henry.

When Somerset was replaced by Northumberland, however, anti-Catholic activity resumed.  Cranmer designed a new communion service that denied Transubstantiation,[4] and issued a new Book of Common Prayer to which, in the First Act of Uniformity (1549) all clergy must conform.  Altars were removed from churches due to their association with Roman Catholicism.  1552 saw a Second Act of Uniformity and yet another Book of Common Prayer.  In his Forty-Two Articles (1553), Cranmer spelled out the official doctrine of the Church.

That year, Mary I, daughter of Henry and Catherine of Aragon, assumed the throne and attempted to re-establish the Catholic Church, with compulsory attendance to mass and enforcement of heresy laws.  Nearly three hundred Protestant “Dissenters” were burned at the stake during the reign of “Bloody Mary,” including Archbishop Cranmer, Bishop Nicholas Ridley, and scholarly reformer Hugh Latimer.  At his burning, Latimer said to Ridley, “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”

Cranmer, suffering two years in prison, recanted Protestantism, yet in the end publicly denounced the Pope.  At his execution, he held his “unworthy right hand,” which had signed the recantation, in the flames.  Many Protestants fled to the Netherlands and other regions to escape persecution.

Taking the throne in 1558, Elizabeth I again broke with Rome, but was named “Supreme Governor of the Church” rather than “Supreme Head,” to avoid offending Catholics because she was a woman.  Her Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity established the Ecclesiastical Commission, later called the Court of High Commission.  Under these acts, all clergy and officials were required to take the specified Oaths of Allegiance; those who did not conform were subject to a charge of treason.  Soon this requirement was extended to teachers, university graduates, lawyers, and Members of Parliament.  Clergy who dissented from this requirement were estimated at the time to number 177.[5]

Like her father, Elizabeth continued to keep Parliament on a short leash, insisting that members had no right to discuss any matter not on the royal agenda.

In 1563, the Convocations—assemblies of the higher clergy, with representatives from the lower clergy, in Canterbury and York, respectively—adopted the Thirty-Nine Articles, a revision of Cranmer’s original Forty-Two.  Some articles that were offensive to Puritans were pushed by Elizabeth against the wishes of Parliament.  Elizabeth further denied Parliament the latitude to legitimate Calvinism; religion, she asserted, was the province of Church and Crown, not Parliament.  For criticizing her policies, Peter Wentworth was detained in the Tower of London for a month.  Peter’s brother Paul, in combination with Sir Anthony Cope, attempted to debate replacing the Book of Common Prayer with the Geneva Prayer Book and Discipline.  They were both condemned to the Tower, where Paul Wentworth died.

After Elizabeth was excommunicated in 1570, the often lax enforcement of the religious code tightened.  Failure to attend Anglican services was punishable by a £20 fine.  Beginning in 1593, offenders were prohibited from traveling more than five miles from home.  Two hundred people were executed for treason during Elizabeth’s reign, and four were burned for heresy.

Meanwhile, the Court of High Commission instituted a sort of Inquisition, administering the Oath to anyone suspected of disloyalty, and probing for heresy, absenteeism, etc.  Later, under Charles I, the High Commission would be used to drive nonconforming clergy, especially Puritans, from their offices.

Puritans began to hold conventicles, secret religious meetings, according to their own faith, outside the Established Church.  Attending conventicles was made punishable by death.  “Adherence to the Church” came to be considered “a test of loyalty to the state.”[6] In 1599, “Martin Marprelate” (pen name of an anonymous author) attacked Anglican bishops in a widely-circulated series of pamphlets, precipitating an anti-Puritan reaction.

The Stuarts

Elizabeth designated James VI of Scotland, son of her cousin Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, heir to her throne.  After Elizabeth died in 1603, Robert Cecil arranged his accession as King James I of England.  The English Parliament should have expected trouble, for James had long dealt firmly with the Scottish Parliament, as did he with Presbyterians and Calvinists.  He had recently published True Law of Free Monarchies, in which he asserted, though the phrase was not yet coined, the Divine Right of Kings.  It did not bode well that while coming from Edinburgh, arriving at the town of Newark, he happened upon a thief who had just been caught, and ordered his summary execution.[7]

Meanwhile, a group of Puritans assembled the so-called Millenary Petition—claiming the support of a thousand clergy—asking for church reforms.  James instead arranged a debate at Hampton Court the next January, during which he also approved the production of a new Bible, hence the King James Version.  After several days, however, when James perceived a Presbyterian (in his word, “Scotch”) church structure being proposed, he stormed out of the room, declaring, “If this be all that they have to say, I shall make them conform themselves, or I will harry them out of the land, or else the worse,” thus ending the conference.[8]

In 1605, a group of Jesuits conspired to blow up the king and Parliament together at once, loading the cellar of the meeting house with casks of gunpowder.  The plot was leaked and one Guy Fawkes captured, who under torture revealed all he knew about the conspiracy.  The conspirators who were not killed resisting arrest were executed.

James had initiated an adversarial relationship with Parliament, which continued throughout his reign.  He had dictated to the Scottish Parliament, and he intended to do the same in England.  He scolded members of Parliament like disobedient children, which the members deeply resented.  James needed the legislative branch to raise taxes in order to meet his expenses, both Court and private, but Parliament was called just eight times in more than twenty years.  From 1614, the year of the “Addled Parliament,” so called on account of intransigence on the part of both king and Commons, there was no session at all for seven years.

The Stuarts were not known for intensive burning of heretics, but there was active religious persecution and political repression.  James persecuted religions other than strict Anglican, expelling Catholic priests and levying heavy fines for non-attendance to Anglican worship.  He reaffirmed the 39 Articles and Act of Uniformity, depriving two hundred clergy of their office.  In 1615, a clergyman named Peacham was examined by the Court of High Commission.  In his home were found notes to a sermon of Puritan sentiments which, though never delivered, was nevertheless deemed treasonous.  Moreover, when Spain demanded the head of Sir Walter Raleigh upon threat of war, James gave it to them.

Parliament itself was a battleground.  Sir Francis Bacon, one of its most famous members, was accused of corruption by the House of Commons and forced into retirement; and a Catholic known as Floyd was “fined, branded, pilloried, and imprisoned” for practicing free speech, even though Parliament had no legal right to discipline a non-member.[9]

James finally called a new session of Parliament in 1621.  To his chagrin, the Commons expressed their concern, respectfully, for the state of the country, foreign and domestic, the intended marriage of Prince Charles to Infanta Maria[10] in particular; and asked for his support of beleaguered Protestants on the Continent—for which he warned them of dire consequences of treading on his prerogative.  In what became know as the Great Protestation, the House of Commons proceeded to enter a formal protest against the king in their record, in which they asserted their right to free speech.  When James heard of this action, he sent for their book and tore the offending page from it.

James died in 1625, and Charles I began his reign intent on conducting a war with Spain, which then shifted to France.  He asked Parliament for a large endowment of money but would not disclose how it would be used.  Parliament refused to provide the funds if the king’s favorite, Buckingham, was in charge of it, by which they hoped to pressure the king to sack him.  Charles, angry that Parliament dared interfere with his choice of advisers, dismissed the session.  The new Stuart king was even less flexible than his father.

The next Parliament impeached Buckingham and was quickly dismissed, as well.  The third Parliament, in 1628, was concerned about successive military failures attributed to Buckingham, and even more with martial law, oppressive taxes, and the billeting of soldiers[11] precipitated by ill-conceived military excursions.  Parliament passed the Petition of Right, which Charles was compelled to sign, thereby acknowledging that his subjects had rights.

As Puritanism grew in the country, so did their power in the House of Commons, and disputes with Charles soon came to a head.  In 1629, the king, having prorogued Parliament for several weeks, i.e., ordered a hiatus, sent an order for a second prorogation.  As the Speaker, Sir John Finch, rose to announce the king’s proclamation, several members held him down in his chair until Sir John Eliot passed through several measures then in question.  Charles promptly dismissed Parliament for this defiance, and would not call it again for what became known as the Eleven Years Tyranny.  He consigned nine leaders of the House of Commons to the Tower for contempt (or according to some sources, “rioting”), including Eliot; where several remained after ten years, and Eliot died of tuberculosis.

Charles resolved to rule without Parliament, and used his High Courts to quash dissent.  A clergyman who did not precisely follow the prayer book might be hauled before the ecclesiastical Court of High Commission for discipline.  In 1630, the special court known as Star Chamber had a Scot named Leighton, who had criticized the bishops, flogged and his ears cut off.  William Prynne, a Puritan, was imprisoned, fined, pilloried, and his ears cut off for oblique comments taken as libel against the king and queen.  Likewise, John Lilburne, just 22 years old, arraigned before Star Chamber for illegally importing religious publications from the Netherlands, was flogged, pilloried, gagged, and imprisoned, all the while demanding his civil rights, earning him the popular nickname, “Freeborn John.”[12]

To raise money without Parliament, Charles broadened the application of certain fines and taxes.  Sir Charles Hampden, a Member of Parliament, refused on principle to pay a levy of twenty shillings.  He welcomed the “test case” which was tried in the Court of Exchequer in 1637; Hampden lost, but the vote of seven judges to five was so narrow that it handed the king a moral defeat.

The English Civil War actually began in Scotland, where Charles had himself crowned king in 1633.  He and his father had been gradually diluting Presbyterian power in Scotland by the appointment of bishops.  In 1637, he attempted to introduce a new prayer book:  when the Bishop of Edinburgh stood to read it at St. Giles Cathedral, an elderly woman threw a stool at him, and a riot ensued.  This event inspired the National Covenant, by which the vast majority of Scots swore to defend the Scots kirk.  Charles gathered a hasty army to invade Scotland but was readily defeated, and defeated again in 1640.  Desperate for money, Charles called the Short Parliament (so called because he dissolved it after three weeks) and finally the Long Parliament[13] later that same year.

Seizing the initiative, Parliament abolished the special High Courts and stripped the Privy Council of most of its power.  They executed the king’s adviser, Strafford, for high treason; and remanded Archbishop Laud, Charles’ ecclesiastical adviser, to the Tower, where he was executed in 1645.  Among other measures, the Commons appealed to the public in a document called the Grand Remonstrance, a list of grievances—plus a list of proposals—not unlike the future American Declaration of Independence.  Charles responded by personally leading five hundred troops to the Commons to arrest five of their leaders:  Pym, Hampden, Hazlerigg, Holles, and Strode, who had been forewarned and fled.  Soon the king thought it prudent to retreat north to Yorkshire; and the queen absconded with the Crown Jewels to her native France.

The Civil War began in earnest in 1642.  The Royal Navy sided with Parliament, as did the Scots by alliance.  On the king’s side, his nephew Rupert, trained in Europe, proved an able general; but was eclipsed by the genius of Oliver Cromwell, erstwhile Member of Parliament with no previous military experience.  Cromwell defeated the Royalist army in the North at Marston Moor (1644), and (with Sir Thomas Fairfax) broke the king’s last remaining army at Naseby (1645).

Afterward, Pym and Hampden having died,[14] Parliament withheld pay from the army and hedged on religious toleration.  Taking advantage of this dissention, Charles renewed the war.  This time the Scots sided with the king.  Cromwell defeated first the Scots, then the balance of the king’s forces.  Charles was imprisoned and, at the insistence of the army, finally executed at Whitehall in 1649.  England was declared a Commonwealth.

The Protectorate

Parliament, having been purged of most of its members by force,[15] began to remake England into a Puritan state.  The Sabbath was enforced, adultery made a capital crime, and Christmas celebration discouraged.  The established church would be Puritan, diverse faiths tolerated, but Catholicism and Anglicanism suppressed.  Over the years, Parliament and Puritanism would become increasingly unpopular with the masses.  Moreover, Parliament was unpopular with the army, and the army was the real power in the land.

When the Long Parliament failed to dissolve itself, Cromwell acted, driving the members from the hall and locking the door.  A bard of the day wrote,

Brave Oliver came to the House like a sprite,
His fiery face struck the Speaker dumb;
”Begone,” said he, “you have sate long enough,
Do you think to sit here till Doomsday come?”[16]

The Protectorate was formed via a document entitled, The Instrument of Government, the only written constitution in the history of England.  For sake of stability, Cromwell took the title Lord Protector, but refused kingship when it was offered two years later.

Cromwell ruled as a well-meaning and scrupulous dictator until his death in 1658.  His power passed to his son Richard who, insufficient for the task, abdicated in less than a year.  The army called for the reconvening of the Long Parliament which, concluding its business, finally dissolved itself.  The new Parliament of 1660 immediately called for restoration of the monarchy.

The Restoration

The younger Charles, age 30, was soon recalled from refuge in the Netherlands upon agreeable terms.  It was made clear on both sides that the new king would harbor neither illusions nor aspirations toward ruling without consent of Parliament.  There were, however, recriminations, as those who were deemed “regicides”[17] suffered the traditional fate of traitors:  to be “half-hung, drawn, and quartered.”  The body of Cromwell was dug out of Westminster Abbey, hanged, and ignominiously dumped into a pit to join the desecrated remains of Pym and various others.  The religious questions remained unsettled.

The “Cavalier Parliament” of 1661, said to be “more royalist than the king and more Anglican than the bishops,”[18] entered with a high hand.  Due to general animosity toward Puritans, and in spite of the new sects which had taken root during the Interregnum—Quakers, Baptists, Unitarians, etc.—the Anglican Church was re-established as the state religion.  Parliament passed the Corporation Act requiring an oath and conformation to Anglican worship of all local government officials.  A new Act of Uniformity was passed the next year, requiring all clergy and schoolmasters to recognize the established Book of Prayer.  About two thousand Dissenters resigned in protest.  The Conventicle Act of 1664 punished those who attended nonconforming worship, soon followed by the Five Mile Act prohibiting ousted ministers from approaching within that radius of their former places of ministry.  Together, these four laws became known as the Clarendon Code.

Charles II, sympathetic to Catholics, issued a Declaration of Indulgence, by which he proclaimed that the laws disenfranchising Dissenters would not be enforced.  In response, Parliament pressured Charles to withdraw his declaration and passed the Test Act of 1673 requiring all holders of public office to deny Transubstantiation and receive Communion under Anglican auspices.

Meanwhile, three great disasters were visited upon England in quick succession.  The Plague swept through the country in 1665, but was worst in crowded London, with disposal wagons plying the streets to the lament, “Bring out your dead!”  The next year, the Great Fire of London claimed the heart of the city, including St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Just as Christians had been accused of burning Nero’s Rome, rumors spread that the city had been set ablaze by Papists.  Finally, in 1667, Dutch ships sailed up the Thames and destroyed or captured much of the English fleet at Medway dockyard.  Many of the warships were unmanned and at anchor, having been de-funded by Parliament, which had withheld support of the king’s enterprises.  A popular cry was raised about that time, “No popery or wooden shoes!”[19]

As Louis XIV of France expanded his power, anti-Catholic feeling swelled.  In 1678, one Titus Oates revealed an alleged “Popish Plot” in which Louis would land an army in England, Charles would be assassinated, and his younger brother James, a known Catholic, would be crowned king.  Hysteria gripped London, and one entrepreneur began marketing a special “Protestant flail” with which men on the street might defend themselves against attack.  Parliament responded by proposing an Exclusion Bill designed to prevent James, the heir apparent, from acceding to the throne.  For once, Charles withstood Parliament and dissolved the session before the bill could pass—a measure which he was to repeat on subsequent occasions.  Soon, however, fear of renewed civil war and of Parliament, plus the failed Rye House assassination plot (1683), turned the tide of public opinion, and the inventor of the Protestant flail was among those executed for allegedly bearing arms against the king.

Titus Oates, convicted of sedition and perjury during the reign of James II, was pilloried, whipped through the streets, and sentenced to life imprisonment.  In 1688, he was pardoned by William and Mary.

In the meantime, William Sherlock, already a popular writer and preacher, published his treatise, “Discourse Concerning the Knowledge of Christ, and Union with Him” (1674), in which he objected to the Puritan tenet of mystical union with Christ.  Sherlock wished to assert the individual’s need to honor Christ’s covenant with believers by offering up due love and obedience.  “We must not,” he wrote, “dream of fetching life from the person of Christ as we draw water out of a fountain, but if we would live for ever with Christ we must stedfastly believe and obey His gospel.”   Moreover, he argued against Puritan John Owen’s “Satisfaction Theory” (that God required the sacrifice of Jesus for forgiveness of sins) and the Calvinistic doctrine of Election.   Rather, he insisted that “God hath sent His Son into the world to make a plain and easy and perfect revelation of His will, to publish such a religion as may approve itself to our reason and captivate our affections by its natural charms and beauties, and there cannot be a greater injury to the Christian religion than to render it obscure and unintelligible.”[20]

Sherlock’s treatise raised a storm of protest from other points of view.  The printing press facilitated widespread dissemination of printed materials, and publication of sectarian pamphlets had escalated dramatically.  As one commentator expressed it, “The printing press had permitted the spread of Protestantism, and it permitted the divisions of Protestantism.”[21]

Two replies to Sherlock are worthy of note.  Robert Fergusson, a Presbyterian, wrote the essay, “The Interest of Reason in Religion,” in which he accused Sherlock of Pelagianism and Socinianism.[22] A particularly virulent attack was that leveled by Robert South, an Anglican with a popular following and Calvinist sentiments.  South wrote defending Calvinism in general and the doctrine of Satisfaction in particular, holding its orthodoxy.  Sherlock’s treatise, on the other hand, he considered so “fraught with vile and scandalous reflections upon God’s justice with reference to Christ’s satisfaction that it might pass for a blasphemous libel on both.”[23] Dr. South, however, was in one estimation “more a rhetorician than a philosopher, more of a wit than a Divine,” more destructive than constructive, and more intent on winning than the Truth.[24]

As the king lay dying in 1685, a Catholic priest was brought by James to hear his confession and grant absolution.  An anti-Catholic element in Parliament had already approached James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, an illegitimate son of Charles but a Protestant, about taking the throne.  Monmouth raised a volunteer army of five thousand, many of them Dissenters of the common folk, but was defeated at Sedgemoor.  Prisoners were drawn and quartered, or hanged and tarred; and the Duke, when captured, was beheaded.

James afterwards became increasingly heavy-handed and intent upon imposing Roman Catholicism on the country, while those who had preached non-resistance to the monarch began to rethink their policy.  He reinstated the Court of High Commission, removed Henry Compton[25] from the bishopric of London, appointed Catholics as bishops and heads of colleges, and converted Magdalen College, Oxford, into a Catholic seminary.[26] John Sharp, Rector of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, who later became Archbishop of York, was suspended for expressing anti-Catholic sentiments.  Also among those disciplined for anti-Catholic rhetoric was William Sherlock, who in 1687 engaged in a public debate, via pamphlets, with Lewis Sabran, a Jesuit who was well-connected in the French court and royal chaplain to James.  Moreover, the king began to issue Declarations of Indulgence initially designed to foster Nonconformist support and, failing that, to undermine the Anglican Church.

In May 1688, James ordered that his second Declaration of Indulgence be read in every pulpit on a given Sunday.  Seven bishops, led by William Sancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury, and including Thomas Ken, John Lake, William Lloyd, Thomas White, Jonathan Trelawney, and Francis Turner, met at Lambeth to discuss a petition requesting withdrawal of the order.  When they presented the petition to James, who had been given by rumors to expect a different request, he replied, “This is a great surprise to me.  I did not expect this from your church; especially from some of you.  This is a standard of rebellion. . . .  God has given me the dispensing power and I will maintain it.”[27] The bishops were arrested on 8 June and held in the Tower pending trial.  Sherlock refused to read the Declaration,[28] which was estimated to have been read at two hundred churches, at most.[29] The Seven Bishops were acquitted by a jury on 30 June amid general celebration; while the king had suffered his first major defeat in court.  The papal nuncio wrote home, “the whole church espouses the cause of the bishops.  There is no reasonable expectation of a division among the Anglicans, and our hopes from the Nonconformists are vanished.”[30]

Public sentiment was turning against James.  He might have rejoiced at the birth of a male heir on 10 June by his Catholic wife, Mary of Modena; on the contrary, the birth helped seal his fate:  for surely, thought many, the child would be raised a Catholic and threaten the peace.  James Francis Edward Stuart would never rule England as James III.

The Revolution of 1688

Plans were already underway to invite William of Orange, husband of James’s eldest daughter, Mary, and chief defender of Protestantism in Europe, to take the throne.  As William’s army approached London, James lost both heart and support, and fled to France.

These events placed the Anglican Church in a dilemma.  Archbishop Sancroft and William Sherlock were of the High Church party which, in spite of the institutional damage of James’s policies to the Anglican Church, had continued to preach “non-resistance,” i.e., passive obedience, of subjects to the legitimate monarch.  In 1684, Sherlock had advocated non-resistance in his treatise, “The Case of Resistance of the Supreme Powers Stated and Resolved according to the Holy Scripture.”  It is generally presumed that in this and other such cases, Sherlock was acting as the pen for Sancroft and his party.[31]

As the Convention Parliament met to arrange the Revolution Settlement, Sancroft gathered with associates to devise how James might regain the throne, with qualifications; but the meeting broke up without agreement.  At the end of January, 1689, Sherlock wrote the “Letter to a Member of the Convention,” arguing against installing William as king, and lamenting, “The Dissenter is very busie to undermine the Church, and the Commonwealth Man to subvert the Monarchy, and the Lord have Mercy upon us all.”[32]

Parliament in the end determined that William and Mary were to rule jointly, with the executive power vested in William.  From this time forward, moreover, the monarch would be limited to governing constitutionally, according to laws passed by Parliament.  The Settlement added a Declaration of Rights, from which derive many principles later found in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution, including the possession of arms; unfortunately, full rights initially were applied only to Protestants who conformed to the established Church.

Upon settlement of the accession, all clergy and public officials were required to take an Oath of Allegiance to William and Mary by 1 August 1689, or face suspension.  The Toleration Act of 1689 further required Nonconformists to agree to thirty-four of the Thirty-Nine Articles.  There were some exceptions made for Baptists and Quakers, but not for Catholics and Unitarians.[33] William moreover decreed that no “preacher whatsoever, in his sermon or lecture, should presume to deliver any other doctrine concerning the Trinity than that defined in the Creeds and Articles.”[34]

Eight bishops, led by Sancroft, and including Ken, Lake, Lloyd, White, and Turner, as before, and adding Robert Frampton and William Thomas, refused to take the oaths.  In all, about four hundred clergy, including Sherlock, refused to swear allegiance.  These became known as the “Non-jurors” or “Non-swearers.”  The bishops amongst them were all put out of their seats; Turner was implicated with William Penn and other well-known personages in a conspiracy to reinstate James; and Sancroft, who afterward became an increasingly bitter old man, was replaced by John Tillotson.

Sherlock was likewise suspended as Master of the Temple.  During this period of enforced reflection, being uncertain whether he would ever resume his clerical duties, he applied himself to writing his Practical Discourse Concerning Death.  This was to become his most popular work, and to continue in print for more than a century.

The Controversies

During this retirement, Sherlock committed himself to study, as well, on the question at hand:  the duties of the clergy toward sovereigns.  In his earlier treatise, “The Case of Resistance,” he declared that “all power is of God”; his only scruple on the accession William and Mary had been the question of legitimacy.  In 1690, he read the Convocation Book written but never published by John Overall, Bishop of Norwich, in 1606, in support of the accession of James Stuart; which justified recognizing his government as “settled” and had been endorsed by the convocations of Canterbury and York.  The book had lately been published by Sancroft with the intent of supporting James’s claim to the throne; but it had the opposite effect, particularly the statement overlooked by Sancroft that “the authority either so unjustly gotten, or wrung by force from the true and lawful possessor, being always God’s authority, is ever to be reverenced and obeyed.”[35] Sherlock had a change of opinion and recanted his refusal to swear allegiance.  The complex list of his reasons, real or imagined, is thus:

  1. His publicly stated reason, the influence of John Overall’s Convocation Book.[36]
  2. He was overheard to say that he deprecated schism.[37]
  3. His wife’s influence.[38]
  4. He wanted to preserve his position.[39]
  5. He wanted to wait to see who won, which was finally settled upon James’s defeat at Boyne, 1 July 1690.[40]

Therefore, in his treatise, “The Case of the Allegiance due to Sovereign Powers Stated and Resolved According to Scripture and Reason and the Principles of the Church of England,” which explained his reasons for recanting, Sherlock declared that the government having been “settled,” so was the question.  William was the de facto king:  ergo, his subjects owed their allegiance.[41] He went on to describe a fatalistic, almost Calvinistic view of God’s purposes.  Critics replied that neither the Convocations nor Overall’s book represented the position of the Church of England.[42] In a tract entitled, “Sherlock against Sherlock,” its author demonstrated contradictions to Sherlock’s prior statements under the Stuarts.  Samuel Johnson criticized Sherlock for taking so long to make up his mind, in “Remarks upon Dr. Sherlock’s Book, intituled, The Case of the Allegiance due to Sovereign Princes, stated and resolved, &c.”  Sherlock was called, in one treatise, “The Trimming Court Divine,” and the author of “Sherlockianus Delineatus” coined the rhyme, “He that recants against his will, / Is of the same opinion still.”[43]

“Numerous allusions to Sherlock and his wife,” writes historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, “will be found in the ribald writings of Tom Brown, Tom Durfey, and Ned Ward.”  He proceeds to record some of the popular verse inspired by Sherlock’s recantation:

When Eve the fruit had tasted,
She to her husband hasted,
And chuck’d him on the chin-a.
Dear Bud, quoth she, come taste this fruit;
‘Twill finely with your palate suit,
To eat it is no sin-a.

As moody Job, in shirtless ease,
With collyflowers all o’er his face,
Did on the dunghill languish,
His spouse thus whispers in his ear,
Swear, husband, as you love me, swear,
‘Twill ease you of your anguish.

At first he had doubt, and therefore did pray
That heaven would instruct him in the right way,
Whether Jemmy or William he ought to obey,
Which nobody can deny,

The pass at the Boyne determin’d that case;
And precept to Providence then did give place;
To change his opinion he thought no disgrace;
Which nobody can deny.

But this with the Scripture can never agree,
As by Hosea the eighth and the fourth you may see;
“They have set up kings, but yet not by me,”
Which nobody can deny.”[44]

As another historian summed up the aftermath,

A terrible storm assailed him after this.  Argument, satire, and abuse, sometimes, in vulgar prose, sometimes in doggerel rhyme, descended in torrents upon his devoted head.  Nonjurors reviled him on the one side, Revolutionists on the other; and people who did not care for either side joined in the old English cry against turncoats and time-servers.”[45]

Such attacks had apparently cultivated the habit in Sherlock, when not fighting back, of shrugging it off.  After taking the oaths, Sherlock resumed his post as Master of the Temple.  Presently, as Tillotson was elevated to Archbishop of Canterbury, vacating his previous position as Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Sherlock was offered and accepted that position, as well.

During the same period, Sherlock took also a major rôle in the First Socinian (i.e., Unitarian) Controversy, which became the Trinitarian Controversy.  In 1687, Thomas Firmin had published “A Brief History of the Unitarians called also Socinians” by Stephen Nye, and other essays including “Brief Notes on the Athanasian Creed,” which in explicating the tenets of Unitarianism called into question the doctrine of the Trinity.  Sherlock replied with “A Vindication of the Holy and Ever Blessed Trinity and the Incarnation of the Son of God” (1690), in which he maintained the fact of the Trinity but denied human ability to understand it.  “I will not,” he wrote, “pretend to fathom such a mystery as this, but only to show that there is nothing absurd in it.”  The Trinity, he continued, is composed of three persons with “infinite minds.”  Sherlock defended the Athanasian Creed, declaring its orthodoxy and that it expressed the True Faith.[46]

Pamphlets began to fly off the presses from all directions.  Perhaps the bitterest attacks on Sherlock came from Robert South, his old nemesis.  In “Animadversions upon Dr. Sherlock’s book entitled ‘A Vindication of the Ever Blessed Trinity’” (1693, published anonymously), he challenged Sherlock’s reasoning.  Later, South accused Sherlock of teaching not the Trinity but Tritheism—“three Gods”—and convinced the heads of the colleges at Oxford to declare Sherlock a heretic.  Sherlock in reply deprecated the dubious Latin of the decree and questioned whether the “heads” were truly representative of Oxford; rather, “he would undertake, any day in the year, to procure a meeting of twice as many wise and learned men to censure their decree.”[47]

On a side note, John Wesley, seventy years later, being at some loss at how to handle his continuing debate with Bishop Warburton, apparently considered the Sherlock-South contest fair warning against meeting sarcasm with sarcasm:

I should never have suspected Dr. Sherlock of writing anything in a burlesque way.  He never aimed at it in his controversy with Dr. South, and seemed exceeding angry at his opponent for doing so. Probably he knew himself to be overmatched by the Doctor, and therefore did not care to engage him on his own ground.  ‘But why should you be angry,’ says Dr. South, ‘at wit?  It might have pleased God to make you a wit too.’

Wesley concluded,

I think the danger in writing to Bishop Warburton is rather that of saying too much than too little.  The least said is the soonest amended, and leaves an ill-natured critic the least to take hold of.  I have therefore endeavored to say as little upon each head as possible.[48]

John Locke and Jonathan Edwards were among the luminaries who weighed in on the controversy, which lasted till 1708.  Another writer suggested that Sherlock’s Trinity came from Descartes and South’s from Aristotle.[49] Sherlock and another opponent in the fray, Thomas Burnet, Master of the Charterhouse, were featured in a musical parody to the tune of “A Soldier and a Sailor”:

A Dean and Prebendary
had once a new vagary,
and were at doubtful strife, sir,
Who led the better life, sir,
And was the better man,
And was the better man.

The Dean he said that truly,
Since Bluff was so unruly,
He’d prove it to his face, sir,
That he had the most grace, sir,
And so the fight began, etc.

When Preb replied like thunder,
And roared out ’twas no wonder,
Since gods the Dean had three, sir,
And more by two than he, sir,
For he had got but one, etc.

Now while these two were raging,
And in dispute engaging,
The Master of the Charter
Said both had caught a Tartar,
For gods, sir, there were none, etc.

That all the books of Moses
Were nothing but supposes;
That he deserved rebuke, sir,
Who wrote the Pentateuch, sir;
‘Twas nothing but a sham, etc.

That as for Father Adam,
With Mrs. Eve, his madam,
And what the serpent spoke, sir,
‘Twas nothing but a joke, sir,
And well-invented flam, etc.

Thus in the battle royal,
As none would take denial,
The dame for which they strove, sir,
Could neither of them love, sir,
Since all had given offence, etc.

She therefore, slily waiting,
Left all these fools a-prating,
And being in a fright, sir,
Religion took her flight, sir,
And ne’er was heard of since,
And ne’er was heard of since.[50]


Even in the midst of controversy, Sherlock was busy attending to his ministry.  He preached a sermon before Queen Mary at Whitehall in June of 1691, and another before the House of Commons on 30 January.  In 1694, he gave a memorable memorial sermon for the recently departed Mary II at the Temple Church.  Late in his life, he delivered the thanksgiving message before Queen Anne, upon the Duke of Marlborough’s great victory at Blenheim.

William Sherlock died in Hampstead in 1707.  About his private life, little is now known.  He and his wife had a son, Thomas; and possibly also a daughter, Mary, married to Second Baronet Thomas Gooch (d. 1754).  Thomas Sherlock (1678-1761), like his father, was educated at Eton and Cambridge, and served as Master of the Temple.  He later became bishop successively at Bangor, Salisbury, and London.  Upon the death of Archbishop Potter, Thomas was offered his position, but declined for an unidentified reason.  He is best known for the Bangorian Controversy, writing in opposition to Bishop Hoadly; and his most popular work, “The Tryal of the Witnesses of the Resurrection of Jesus” (1729), written in reply to Thomas Woolston.  A collection of his works was published by J. S. Hughes in 1830.

Of William Sherlock, Macaulay writes,

Among the divines who incurred suspension . . . the highest in popular estimation was without dispute Doctor William Sherlock.  Perhaps no simple presbyter of the Church of England has ever possessed a greater authority over his brethren than belonged to Sherlock at the time of the Revolution.  He was not of the first rank among his contemporaries as a scholar, as a preacher, as a writer on theology, or as a writer on politics:  but in all the four characters he had distinguished himself.  The perspicuity and liveliness of his style have been praised by Prior and Addison.  The facility and assiduity with which he wrote are sufficiently proved by the bulk and the dates of his works.  There were indeed among the clergy men of brighter genius and men of wider attainments:  but during a long period there was none who more completely represented the order, none who, on all subjects, spoke more precisely the sense of the Anglican priesthood . . . .[51]


[1] Also known as Peterhouse, Saint Peter’s was the original college at Cambridge, founded in 1284 by Hugh de Balsham, Bishop of Ely.

[2] Upon the refusal of Pope Clement VII to grant a divorce so that Henry could marry Anne Boleyn.

[3] Colin Rhys Lovell, English Constitutional and Legal History:  A Survey (NY: Oxford University Press, 1962), p. 261.

[4] Ironically, the Six Articles had prescribed death for anyone who denied Transubstantiation.

[5] But perhaps as high as 2000.  Lovell, p. 266.

[6] Lovell, 270.

[7] George Macaulay Trevelyan, A Shortened History of England (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1942), 278.

[8] Edward P. Cheyney, A Short History of England (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1904), p. 389.

[9] Lovell, 304.

[10] Daughter of King Philip III of Spain, the latter of whom insisted that Charles convert to Catholicism.  The marriage never took place.

[11] I.e., forced quartering and boarding of soldiers in private homes; specifically proscribed in the Third Amendment to the United States Constitution.

[12] See, in part, Trevelyan, 289.

[13] Technically, the Long Parliament was not dissolved until 1660.  Members had passed a law against dissolution without its consent.

[14] John Pym died of disease, probably cancer, in 1643; John Hampden was mortally wounded at the Battle of Chalgrove Field the same year.

[15] Largely in Pride’s Purge, 1648.  The remainder became the Rump Parliament.

[16] Trevelyan, 311.

[17] I.e., murderers of the king.

[18] Quoted without attribution in Lovell, 367.

[19] Lovell, p. 379.

[20] John Hunt, Religious Thought in England:  From the Reformation to the End of Last Century, vol. 2 (London: Strahan & Co., 1873), 154-156.  John Calvin (1509-1564) is ranked with Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli as one of the great Protestant reformers.  Calvinist teaching, as it has been formulated, includes the doctrines of Total Depravity, Unconditional Election (Predestination), Limited Atonement (attributed to Theodore Beza), Irresistable Grace, and the Perseverance of the Saints—often represented by the acrostic TULIP.

[21] Geoffrey F. Nuttall and Owen Chadwick, From Uniformity to Unity 1662-1962 (London: SPCK, 1962), 5.

[22] Hunt, 156, see also 218.  Pelagianism is named for British monk Pelagius (c. 360-c. 420), who taught absolute free will against the Augustinian doctrines of Predestination and Original Sin.  Socinianism stems from Italian teachers Laelius and Faustus Socinus, who taught against the Trinity and other orthodox dogma.  Their rationalistic views helped spawn Unitarianism and liberal Protestantism.

[23] Hunt, 210.

[24] John Stoughton, History of Religion in England:  From the Opening of the Long Parliament to 1850, 4th ed., vol. 5 & 6 (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1901), 161, 162.

[25] Compton later performed the coronation of William and Mary.

[26] Trevelyan, 347.

[27] Nuttall, 239; Cheyney, 504.

[28] Charles F. Mullett, “A Case of Allegiance:  William Sherlock and the Revolution of 1688,” Huntington Library Quarterly 10 (November 1946), 86-87.

[29] Hunt, 59.

[30] Roger Thomas, “The Seven Bishops and their Petition, 18 May 1688,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 12 (1961), 69, translated from the Italian, in Nuttall, 240.

[31] Presumably because Sancroft was a poor writer, according to Thomas Babington Macaulay, History of England (NY: Harpers, n.d.), cited in Hunt, 68.

[32] Nuttal, 243.

[33] Lovell, 400; Hunt, 279.

[34] Stoughton, 165.

[35] Hunt, 61-2.

[36] Mullett, 85; Hunt, 61.

[37] Mullett, 85.

[38] His wife was compared by critics to the temptresses Xantippe, Delilah, and Eve (Stoughton, 125).

[39] Hunt, 60, 62; Mullett, 90.

[40] Mullett, 85; Hunt, 63.

[41] Mullett, 88.

[42] Hunt, 62-3.

[43] Mullett, 91, 92.  “Trimmer” described a moderate, midway between Whigs and Tories, perhaps used pejoratively as “compromiser.”

[44] Macaulay, The History of England from the Accession of James II, IV, Ch. XVII (1848), downloaded as text from  The poem quotes Hosea 8:4.

[45] Stoughton, 125.

[46] Hunt, 202-4.  In 1694, the government began to arrest Unitarians for publishing anti-Trinitarian tracts.

[47] Hunt, 221; and Ben Mordecai’s Letters, I. 70 (quoted in Toulmin, 182) in Stoughton, 164.

[48] Letter from John Wesley to Samuel Furly, December 20, 1762.

[49] Hunt, 212-13.

[50] Hunt, 222.

[51] Macaulay, History III, 361-62.

© 2007 Paul A. Hughes


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: