Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive

--The Disintegration Of Christendom--Controversies--Persecutions.

We have briefly reviewed the history of two magnificent schemes of secular and spiritual empire, which, conceived in the minds of great statesmen and churchmen, sustained by the resources of the mightiest kingdoms of that age, inaugurated by soldiers of admirable prowess, explorers of unsurpassed boldness and persistence, and missionaries whose heroic faith has canonized them in the veneration of Christendom, have nevertheless come to naught.


We turn now to observe the beginnings, coinciding in time with those of the French enterprise, of a series of disconnected plantations along the Atlantic seaboard, established as if at haphazard, without plan or mutual preconcert, of different languages and widely diverse Christian creeds, depending on scanty private resources, unsustained by governmental arms or treasuries, but destined, in a course of events which no human foresight could have calculated, to come under the plastic influence of a single European power, to be molded according to the general type of English polity, and to become heir to English traditions, literature, and language. These mutually alien and even antagonistic communities were to be constrained, by forces superior to human control, first into confederation and then into union, and to occupy the breadth of the new continent as a solid and independent nation. The history reads like a fulfillment of the apocalyptic imagery of a rock hewn from the mountain without hands, moving on to fill the earth.

Looking back after the event, we find it easy to trace the providential preparations for this great result. There were few important events in the course of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries that did not have to do with it; but the most obvious of these antecedents are to be found in _controversies_ and _persecutions_.

The protest of northern Europe against the abuses and corruptions prevailing in the Roman Church was articulated in the Augsburg Confession. Over against it were framed the decrees of the Council of Trent. Thus the lines were distinctly drawn and the warfare between contending principles was joined. Those who fondly dreamed of a permanently united and solid Protestantism to withstand its powerful antagonist were destined to speedy and inevitable disappointment. There have been many to deplore that so soon after the protest of Augsburg was set forth as embodying the common belief of Protestants new parties should have arisen protesting against the protest. The ordinance of the Lord's Supper, instituted as a sacrament of universal Christian fellowship, became (as so often before and since) the center of contention and the badge of mutual alienation. It was on this point that Zwingli and the Swiss parted from Luther and the Lutherans; on the same point, in the next generation of Reformers, John Calvin, attempting to mediate between the two contending parties, became the founder of still a third party, strong not only in the lucid and logical doctrinal statements in which it delighted, but also in the possession of a definite scheme of republican church government which became as distinctive of the Calvinistic or "Reformed" churches as their doctrine of the Supper. It was at a later epoch still that those insoluble questions which press most inexorably for consideration when theological thought and study are most serious and earnest--the questions that concern the divine sovereignty in its relation to human freedom and responsibility--arose in the Catholic Church to divide Jesuit from Dominican and Franciscan, and in the Reformed churches to divide the Arminians from the disciples of Gomar and Turretin. All these divisions among the European Christians of the seventeenth century were to have their important bearing on the planting of the Christian church in America.

In view of the destined predominance of English influence in the seaboard colonies of America, the history of the divisions of the Christian people of England is of preëminent importance to the beginnings of the American church. The curiously diverse elements that entered into the English Reformation, and the violent vicissitudes that marked the course of it, were all represented in the parties existing among English Christians at the period of the planting of the colonies.

The political and dynastic character of the movements that detached the English hierarchy from the Roman see had for one inevitable result to leaven the English church as a lump with the leaven of Herod. That considerable part of the clergy and people that moved to and fro, without so much as the resistance of any very formidable _vis inertiæ_, with the change of the monarch or of the monarch's caprice, might leave the student of the history of those times in doubt as to whether they belonged to the kingdom of heaven or to the kingdom of this world. But, however severe the judgment that any may pass upon the character and motives of Henry VIII. and of the councilors of Edward, there will hardly be any seriously to question that the movements directed by these men soon came to be infused with more serious and spiritual influences. The Lollardy of Wycliffe and his fellows in the fourteenth century had been severely repressed and driven into "occult conventicles," but had not been extinguished; the Bible in English, many times retouched after Wycliffe's days, and perfected by the refugees at Geneva from the Marian persecutions, had become a common household book; and those exiles themselves, returning from the various centers of fervid religious thought and feeling in Holland and Germany and Switzerland, had brought with them an augmented spiritual faith, as well as intensified and sharply defined convictions on the questions of theology and church order that were debated by the scholars of the Continent. It was impossible that the diverse and antagonist elements thus assembled should not work on one another with violent reactions. By the beginning of the seventeenth century not less than four categories would suffice to classify the people of England according to their religious differences. First, there were those who still continued to adhere to the Roman see. Secondly, those who, either from conviction or from expediency or from indifference, were content with the state church of England in the shape in which Elizabeth and her parliaments had left it; this class naturally included the general multitude of Englishmen, religious, irreligious, and non-religious. Thirdly, there were those who, not refusing their adhesion to the national church as by law established, nevertheless earnestly desired to see it more completely purified from doctrinal errors and practical corruptions, and who qualified their conformity to it accordingly. Fourthly, there were the few who distinctly repudiated the national church as a false church, coming out from her as from Babylon, determined upon "reformation without tarrying for any." Finally, following upon these, more radical, not to say more logical, than the rest, came a fifth party, the followers of George Fox. Not one of these five parties but has valid claims, both in its principles and in its membership, on the respect of history; not one but can point to its saints and martyrs; not one but was destined to play a quite separate and distinct and highly important part in the planting of the church of Christ in America. They are designated, for convenience' sake, as the Catholics, the Conformists, the Puritans or Reformists, the Separatists (of whom were the Pilgrims), and the Quakers.

Such a Christendom was it, so disorganized, divided, and subdivided into parties and sects, which was to furnish the materials for the peopling of the new continent with a Christian population. It would seem that the same "somewhat not ourselves," which had defeated in succession the plans of two mighty nations to subject the New World to a single hierarchy, had also provided that no one form or organization of Christianity should be exclusive or even dominant in the occupation of the American soil. From one point of view the American colonies will present a sorry aspect. Schism, mutual alienation, antagonism, competition, are uncongenial to the spirit of the gospel, which seeks "that they all may be one." And yet the history of the church has demonstrated by many a sad example that this offense "must needs come." No widely extended organization of church discipline in exclusive occupation of any country has ever long avoided the intolerable mischiefs attendant on spiritual despotism. It was a shock to the hopes and the generous sentiments of those who had looked to see one undivided body of a reformed church erected over against the medieval church, from the corruptions of which they had revolted, when they saw Protestantism go asunder into the several churches of the Lutheran and the Reformed confessions; there are many even now to deplore it as a disastrous set-back to the progress of the kingdom of Christ. But in the calmness of our long retrospect it is easy for us to recognize that whatever jurisdiction should have been established over an undivided Protestant church would inevitably have proved itself, in no long time, just such a yoke as neither the men of that time nor their fathers had been able to bear. Fifteen centuries of church history have not been wasted if thereby the Christian people have learned that the pursuit of Christian unity through administrative or corporate or diplomatic union is following the wrong road, and that the one Holy Catholic Church is not the corporation of saints, but their communion.

The new experiment of church life that was initiated in the colonization of America is still in progress. The new States were to be planted not only with diverse companies from the Old World, but with all the definitely organized sects by which the map of Christendom was at that time variegated, to which should be added others of native origin. Notwithstanding successive "booms" now of one and then of another, it was soon to become obvious to all that no one of these mutually jealous sects was to have any exclusive predominance, even over narrow precincts of territory. The old-world state churches, which under the rule, _cujus regio ejus religio_, had been supreme and exclusive each in its jurisdiction, were to find themselves side by side and mingled through the community on equal terms with those over whom in the old country they had domineered as dissenters, or whom perhaps they had even persecuted as heretics or as Antichrist. Thus placed, they were to be trained by the discipline of divine Providence and by the grace of the Holy Spirit from persecution to toleration, from toleration to mutual respect, and to coöperation in matters of common concern in the advancement of the kingdom of Christ. What further remains to be tried is the question whether, if not the sects, then the Christian hearts in each sect, can be brought to take the final step from mutual respect to mutual love, "that we henceforth, speaking truth in love, may grow up in all things into him, which is the head, even Christ; from whom all the body fitly framed and knit together through that which every joint supplieth, according to the working in due measure of each several part, shall make the increase of the body unto the building up of itself in love." Unless we must submit to those philosophers who forbid us to find in history the evidences of final cause and providential design, we may surely look upon this as a worthy possible solution of the mystery of Providence in the planting of the church in America in almost its ultimate stage of schism--that it is the purpose of its Head, out of the mutual attrition of the sects, their disintegration and comminution, to bring forth such a demonstration of the unity and liberty of the children of God as the past ages of church history have failed to show.

That mutual intolerance of differences in religious belief which, in the seventeenth century, was, throughout Christendom, coextensive with religious earnestness had its important part to play in the colonization of America. Of the persecutions and oppressions which gave direct impulse to the earliest colonization of America, the most notable are the following: (1) the persecution of the English Puritans in the reigns of James I. and Charles I., ending with the outbreak of the civil war in 1642; (2) the persecution of the English Roman Catholics during the same period; (3) the persecution of the English Quakers during the twenty-five years of Charles II. (1660-85); (4) the persecution of the French Huguenots after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685); (5) the disabilities suffered by the Presbyterians of the north of Ireland after the English Revolution (1688); (6) the ferocious ravaging of the region of the Rhenish Palatinate by the armies of Louis XIV. in the early years of the seventeenth century; (7) the cruel expulsion of the Protestants of the archiepiscopal duchy of Salzburg (1731).

Beyond dispute, the best and most potent elements in the settlement of the seaboard colonies were the companies of earnestly religious people who from time to time, under severe compulsion for conscience' sake, came forth from the Old World as involuntary emigrants. Cruel wars and persecutions accomplished a result in the advancement of the kingdom of Christ which the authors of them never intended. But not these agencies alone promoted the great work. Peace, prosperity, wealth, and the hope of wealth had their part in it. The earliest successful enterprises of colonization were indeed marked with the badge of Christianity, and among their promoters were men whose language and deeds nobly evince the Christian spirit; but the enterprises were impelled and directed by commercial or patriotic considerations. The immense advantages that were to accrue from them to the world through the wider propagation of the gospel of Christ were not lost sight of in the projecting and organizing of the expeditions, nor were provisions for church and ministry omitted; but these were incidental, not primary.


This story of the divine preparations carried forward through unconscious human agencies in different lands and ages for the founding of the American church is a necessary preamble to our history. The scene of the story is now to be shifted to the other side of the sea.

Source: A History of American Christianity chapter 4, by Leonard Woolsey Bacon etext available at the Project Gutenberg website