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Revival – 3 – Purifying the Reformation – England and America

To understand the origins and nature of the great awakenings and revivals beginning in the eighteenth century, we must first look at the history of God’s people in England and the American colonies following the Reformation. Much of their history presented in this chapter is drawn from Chapters 6 through 9 in Evangelical Winter-Restoring New Testament Christianity.[1]

Although the reformers readily affirmed their allegiance to “the scriptures alone” as the authority of the church and living the Christian life, it was a far more difficult matter to shed centuries of the teachings and practices of the Catholic Church that conflicted with or undermined faithful adherence to the Scriptures. Therefore, implementation of reforms in the new Protestant churches often carried with it many of the old Roman Catholic ways of doing the business of church.

By 1550, the church in the West had settled into three branches of state religion: papal Catholicism, Lutheranism (Christianity allied with the state), and Calvinism (theocracy).[2] The Protestant branches were similar in that each was a compulsory religion, had strong ties with the state in one way or another, retained certain unbiblical elements of Catholic orthodoxy, and attempted to use the state to impose a religious monopoly. The false teachings and practices carried over from the Catholic Church would not be effectively challenged on a broad scale within the Protestant churches until the birth of the evangelical arm of the church in the great revivals that arose in England and the American colonies in the early eighteenth century.

Protestant Reformation – 1517

The Church of Jesus Christ had traveled a tortuous path through 1500 years of persecution, victories, corruption, triumphs, and tragedies. Along the way the universal church had accumulated an inordinate amount of wealth, excess doctrinal baggage, and a large measure of worldliness. But in spite of the faults and corruptions within the church, the sustaining inerrant truth of the New Testament and its doctrines were the church’s life preserver to which a faithful remnant clung, however tenuously, for a millennium and a half. The Reformation was a time of casting off of much of the church’s excesses, failures, and worldliness, but it would be a painful and imperfect parting for both Catholic and Protestant churches.

When Luther nailed the ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church on October 31, 1517, he called into question certain practices of the church and sought to change them. Initially his actions were not meant to divide the church but to rid it of the practices that many in the church felt were doctrinally contrary to the tenets of the New Testament. What many define as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in 1517 may be more correctly viewed as a step (although the last major one) in a centuries-long process that eventually led to the irrevocable separation of the Protestants from the Roman Catholic Church.[3]

Following the break from the Catholic Church, the years between 1520 and 1562 were a time of bloody martyrdom for the Protestants. But the worst was to come between 1562 and 1648 when Protestants fought for their very survival.[4] In a belated and half-hearted effort to reunite the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestants, Pope Paul III called for a council to consider reforms within the Catholic Church in the little town of Trent in the mountains of northern Italy. With two interruptions of several years each, the Council of Trent lasted from 1545 until 1563. The council developed a creed and a new catechism (religious instruction) for the church. The religious abuses that had caused much of the trouble for the church were corrected, and provision was made to better educate the clergy. Although significant reform had been accomplished within the Catholic Church, the essential character of the church remained unchanged which was considered a triumph for the preservation of the papacy.[5]

The efforts of the Catholics at Trent revitalized the church following the shock of the Reformation and spurred its efforts to stamp out Protestantism. Between 1562 and 1618, the Calvinistic Protestants suffered the greatest martyrdom. In 1618, the Lutherans were also dragged into the conflict with the Catholics. The Catholic-Protestant wars throughout the European continent eventually ended in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia which substantially fixed the boundaries of Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism in Europe to the present day.[6]

England – 1517 -1688

The progress of the Reformation and rejection of papal authority generally was a grass roots affair in every country as most rulers were aligned with the Catholic hierarchy. But the Reformation in England was unique in that it became the first nation-state to reject papal authority but not the church’s doctrines or forms of worship.

Henry VIII was eighteen when he became king of England in 1509 and ruled for thirty-eight years until his death in 1547. Henry became embroiled in a controversy with the papacy because of his desire to divorce his long-time first wife and marry Ann Boleyn (second of six marriages) with the hope of producing a male heir to inherit the throne. Failing to receive a timely reply from the Pope that Henry be allowed to divorce his wife, the powerful monarch took matters into his own hands and pushed the Parliament to rubber-stamp the necessary legislation which decreed that Henry was the supreme head of the Church of England. His actions were not meant as a rejection of Catholicism for he had previously rejected Luther’s concept of the church. But Henry’s proclamation of royal supremacy over the church effectively separated the English church from Rome and led to the dissolution of monasteries and the confiscation of church property which Henry sold to the aristocracy and gentry. Henry’s view of the Church of England (also called the Anglican or Episcopal Church) was that it was still Catholic in doctrine but now rested on the supremacy of the king and his descendants.[7] Although Henry thought Luther a heretic, many Protestants believed Henry’s rejection of papal authority was a step, however feeble, in reformation of the church.[8]

From Henry’s death in 1547 until 1688, the quest for domination of the religious order in England was a free-for-all among the Henry’s heirs, competing challengers for the throne, and Parliament, all of whom chose sides in championing the cause of Catholicism or the Church of England. Others dissenting Protestant groups felt the wrath of both as they defied the Roman church and the Church of England, depending on who was in power at the moment. These religious wars came to an end when William III and Mary came from Holland in 1688 and drove James II from the throne in what was known as the Glorious Revolution. Church historian B. K. Kuiper states that, “William had saved England, Holland, and America for Protestantism and liberty against the Catholicism and despotism of Louis XIV of France and James II of England.” Although the Episcopal Church of England remained the established and endowed church of the land, in 1689 religious toleration was granted to religious dissenters including Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, and Quakers. The only exceptions were Roman Catholics and those denying the Trinity.[9]

As we have seen, the English Reformation was the result of royal intrigues and politics of kings, queens, and Parliament. Therefore, reformation is perhaps too strong a word for what had occurred in England. The Church of England considered itself neither Protestant nor fully Catholic for the changes were more political and organizational than religious and doctrinal. As a result, unrest and desire for freedom from the strictures of the Church of England continued for a long time after the Reformation had run its course and become settled in other countries. Those members of the Church of England who pushed for a more thoroughly purified church were called Puritans. They objected to the rites, ceremonies, and episcopal form of government of the Church of England, but they wanted to remain in the church and work for reform from within. Separatists were those who believed the process of reforming the Church of England was hopeless and chose to separate from the church altogether. The Separatists were called Congregationalists or Independents. These were the Pilgrims who eventually founded the Plymouth Colony in 1620. Nine years later the Puritans followed and establish a reform-minded outpost of the Church of England in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.[10]

America – 1620-1640

It all began as a tiny ship approached the shores of a primitive continent called America. Historian Paul Johnson in his massive A History of the American People called the Pilgrim’s arrival on an old wine ship at New Plymouth on December 11, 1620, “…the single most important formative event in early American history.” The Mayflower contained a mixture of thirty-five English Calvinist Christians including some who had lived in exile in Holland to escape religious persecution in England. All were going to America for religious freedom. They were Separatist Puritans who had despaired of reforming the Church of England, its episcopal form of government, and the heavy influence of Catholic teaching. They were accompanied by sixty-six non-Puritans. The two groups contained forty-one families.[11]

The men and women that came to the American colonies at the beginning still considered themselves Englishmen and were in agreement with much of English law, politics, and social customs. Yet, the major motivating force that caused them to leave England was their differences concerning the nature of the Christian. The notion of consulting the Scriptures as opposed to the practices of the English clergy was expounded by a small group of separatists in the north of England. This small group who joined together in voluntary fashion believed in the authority of the congregation in the choice of ministers, i.e., self-government.[12]

The Separatists disdained the papacy, the Church of England, and also the Puritans of southern England (whom they believed had compromised their faith). In attempting to separate themselves from the world, they defied the efforts of King James I to make all worshipers conform to the practices of the Church of England. The Pilgrim Separatists were a humble people and often viewed as radicals because of their desire to separate from the Church of England as opposed to most Puritans who wanted to stay in the church and reform it from within.[13]

While crossing the Atlantic on the tiny Mayflower and fearing anarchy because of the larger number of non-separatists, they formed themselves into a political body similar. The Mayflower Compact established a government by consent, similar to their church covenant, with governing authority lying in the entire adult male body with no distinctions as to class, wealth, or church membership. Thus, the compact representing one-third separatists and two-thirds of the voyagers from London with other motives was signed by all adult male members including four servants. The separatists landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in November, far north of their Virginia destination, and became known as the Pilgrims. Years of harsh existence lay before them, but they were free to “establish once more on earth the Church of Christ in its pristine purity.”[14]

We must distinguish between the separatist band of outlawed Pilgrims that fled across the Atlantic on the Mayflower and the influential Puritans who would soon follow. The English Puritans had arisen about 1560 within the Anglican Church and sought reforms to bring about “a pure and stainless religion.”[15] But almost seventy years had passed since their origins, and the Church of England had rejected their efforts to reform the church. If the Puritans could not reform the church in England, they would bring the church to America and change it to their liking. This was not intended to be a separation from the Church of England but a separation from its corruption. This second group formed the great migration of English Puritans that began in 1628 upon the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Many were able men with wealth and social position. An astounding twenty thousand had made the harrowing voyage across the Atlantic and settled in the Salem area by 1640.[16]

Sherwood Eddy called those early years when colonial Puritanism was at its highest “…the finest expression of spiritual life that Britain or America or Continental Europe had at that time.”[17]

Larry G. Johnson


[1] Larry G. Johnson, Evangelical Winter – Restoring New Testament Christianity, (Owasso, Oklahoma: Anvil House Publishers, 2016).
[2] Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997) p. 288.
[3] B. K. Kuiper, The Church in History, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1950, 1964, p. 157.
[4] Ibid., p. 244-245.
[5] Ibid., pp. 233-234.
[6] Ibid., pp. 244-245.
[7] J. M. Roberts,The New History of the World, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 579-580; “Henry VIII,” Encyclopedia Britannica. (accessed August 10, 2015).
[8] Kuiper, The Church in History, pp. 223, 229.
[9] Ibid., pp. 253-257.
[10] Ibid., pp. 249-251.
[11] Johnson, A History of the American People, pp. 28-29.
[12] Evans, pp. 186-188.
[13] Kuiper, The Church in History, pp. 327-328.
[14] Sherwood Eddy, The Kingdom of God and the American Dream, (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1941), pp. 40-41.
[15 Ibid., pp. 48, 56.
[16] Kuiper, The Church in History, p. 328.
[17] Eddy, The Kingdom of God and the American Dream, p. 56.

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