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Yet, though Robert Nelson had too warm a heart to sacrifice the friendship of a good man to any difference of opinion, and too hearty a zeal in good works to let his personal predilections stand in the way of them, he belonged very distinctively to the High Church party. Some of his best and most prominent characteristics did not connect him with one more than with another section of the Church. The philanthropical activity, which did so much to preserve him from narrowness and intolerance, was, as Tillotson has observed, one of the most redeeming features of the period in which he lived;[92] the genial serenity of his religion is like the spirit that breathed in Addison. But all his deeper sympathies were with the High Churchmen and Nonjurors--men who had been brought up in that spirit of profound attachment to Anglo-Catholic theology and feeling which was prominent among Church of England divines in the age that preceded the Commonwealth.

The Church party of which, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, Nelson and his friends were worthy representatives, was rapidly losing strength. Soon after his death it had almost ceased to exist as a visible and united power. The general tone of feeling in Church matters became so unfavourable to its continued vigour, that it gradually dwindled away. Not that there was no longer a High Church, and even a strong High Church party. There has been no period in the history of the Reformed English Church in which the three leading varieties of opinion, so familiar to us at the present day, may not be distinctly traced. The eighteenth century is certainly no exception; from its first to its last year so-called High Churchmen were abundant everywhere, especially among the clergy. But they would scarcely have been recognised as such by Nelson, or by those with whom he chiefly sympathised. The type became altered, and not for the better. A change had already set in before the seventeenth century closed; and when in quick succession Bull and Beveridge, Ken and Nelson, passed away, there were no new men who could exactly supply their places. The High Churchmen who belonged more distinctly to Queen Anne's reign, and those of the succeeding Georgian era, lacked some of the higher qualities of the preceding generations. They numbered many worthy, excellent men, but there was no longer the same depth of feeling, the same fervour, the same spirit of willing self-denial, the same constant reference to a supposed higher standard of primitive usage. Their High Churchmanship took rather the form of an ecclesiastical toryism, persuaded more than ever of the unique excellence of the English Church, its divinely constituted government, and its high, if not exclusive title to purity and orthodoxy of doctrine. The whole party shared, in fact, to a very great extent in the spiritual dulness which fell like a blight upon the religious life of the country at large. A secondary, but still an important difference, consisted in the change effected by the Revolution in the relation between the Church and the Crown. The harsh revulsion of sentiment, however beneficial in its ultimate consequences, could not fail to detract for the time from that peculiar tone of semi-religious loyalty which in previous generations had been at once the weakness and the glory of the English Church.

The nonjuring separation was a serious and long-lasting loss to the Church of England; a loss corresponding in kind, if not in degree, to what it might have endured, if by a different turn of political and ecclesiastical circumstances, the most zealous members of the section headed by Tillotson and Burnet had been ejected from its fold. It is the distinguishing merit of the English Church that, to a greater extent probably than any other religious body, it is at once Catholic and Protestant, and that without any formal assumption of reconciling the respective claims of authority and private judgment, it admits a wide field for the latter, without ceasing to attach veneration and deference to primitive antiquity and to long established order. It is most true that 'the Church herself is greater, wider, older than any of the parties within her;'[93] but it is no less certain, that when a leading party becomes enfeebled in character and influence, as it was by the defection to the Nonjurors of so many learned and self-sacrificing High Churchmen, the diminution of vital energy in the whole body is likely to be far more than proportionate to the number of the seceders, or even to their individual weight.

Judged by modern feeling, there might seem no very apparent reason why the Nonjurors should have belonged nearly, if not quite exclusively, to the same general school of theological thought. In our own days, the nature of a man's Churchmanship is no key whatever to his opinions upon matters which trench on politics. High sacramental theories, or profound reverence for Church tradition and ancient usage, or decided views as to the exclusive rights of an episcopally ordained ministry, are almost as likely to be combined with liberal, or even with democratic politics, as with the most staunch conservative opinions. No one imagines that any possible change of constitutional government would greatly affect the general bias, whatever it might be, of ecclesiastical thought. But the Nonjurors were all High Churchmen, and that in a much better sense of that word than when, in Queen Anne's time, Tory and High Church were in popular language convertible terms. And though they were not by any means the sole representatives of the older High Church spirit--for some who were deeply imbued with it took the oath of allegiance with perfect conscientiousness, and without the least demur--yet in them it was chiefly embodied. Professor Blunt remarks with much truth, that to a great extent they carried away with them that regard for primitive times, which with them was destined by degrees almost to expire.[94] If the Nonjurors were nearly allied with the Jacobites on the one side, they were also the main supporters of religious opinions which were in no way related with one dynasty of sovereigns rather than with another, but which have always formed a very important element of English Church history, and could not pass for the time into comparative oblivion without a corresponding loss.

The doctrines of non-resistance and passive obedience, in defence of which so much was once written, and so many sacrifices endured, are no longer heard of. It is difficult now to realise with what passionate fervour of conviction these obsolete theories were once maintained by many Englishmen as a vital portion, not only of their political, but of their religious creed. Lord Chancellor Somers, whose able treatise upon the Rights of Kings brought to bear against the Nonjurors a vast array of arguments from Reason, Scripture, History, and Law, remarked in it that there were some divines of the Church of England who instilled notions of absolute power, passive obedience, and non-resistance, as essential points of religion, doctrines necessary to salvation.[95] Put in this extreme form, the belief might have been repudiated; but undoubtedly passages may be quoted in great abundance from nonjuring and other writers which, literally understood, bear no other construction. At all events, sentiments scarcely less uncompromising were continually held, not by mere sycophants and courtiers, but by many whose opinions were adorned by noble Christian lives, willing self-sacrifice, and undaunted resolution. Good Bishop Lake of Chichester said on his death-bed that 'he looked upon the great doctrine of passive obedience as the distinguishing character of the Church of England,'[96] and that it was a doctrine for which he hoped he could lay down his life. Bishop Thomas of Worcester, who died the same year, expressed the same belief and the same hope. Robert Nelson spoke of it as the good and wholesome doctrine of the Church of England, 'wherein she has gloried as her special characteristic.... Papists and Presbyterians have both been tardy on these points, and I wish the practice of some in the Church of England had been more blameless,'[97] but he was sure that it had been the doctrine of the primitive Christians, and that it was very plainly avowed both by the Church and State of England. Sancroft vehemently reproved 'the apostacy of the National Church'[98] in departing from this point of faith. Even Tillotson and Burnet[99] were at one time no less decided about it. The former urged it upon Lord Russell as 'the declared doctrine of all Protestant Churches,' and that the contrary was 'a very great and dangerous mistake,' and that if not a sin of ignorance, 'it will appear of a much more heinous nature, as in truth it is, and calls for a very particular and deep repentance.'[100] Just about the time when the new oath of allegiance was imposed, the doctrine of non-resistance received the very aid it most needed, in the invention of a new term admirably adapted to inspire a warmer feeling of religious enthusiasm in those who were preparing to suffer in its cause. The expression appears to have originated with Kettlewell, who had strongly felt the force of an objection which had been raised to Bishop Lake's declaration. It had been said that to call this or that doctrine the distinguishing characteristic of a particular Church was so far forth to separate it from the Church Catholic. Kettlewell saw at once that this argument wounded High Churchmen in the very point where they were most sensitive, and for the future preferred to speak of non-resistance as characteristically 'a Doctrine of the Cross.'[101] The epithet was quickly adopted, and no doubt was frequently a source of consolation to Nonjurors. At other times it might have conveyed a painful sense of disproportion in its application to what, from another point of view, was a mere political revolution. But with them passive obedience and divine right had been raised to the level of a great religious principle for which they were well content to be confessors. It must have added much to the moral strength of the nonjuring separation. Argument or ridicule would not make much impression upon men who had always this to fall back upon, that 'non-resistance is after all too much a doctrine of the Cross, not to meet with great opposition from the prejudices and passions of men. Flesh and blood and corrupt reason will set up the great law of self-preservation against it, and find a thousand absurdities and contradictions in it.'[102] How thoroughly Kettlewell's term was adopted, and how deeply the feeling which it represented was cherished by the saintliest of the High Churchmen of that age, is nowhere more remarkably instanced than in some very famous words of Bishop Ken. In that often quoted passage of his will where he professed the faith in which he died, the closing words refer to the Church of England 'as it stands distinguished from all Papal and Puritan innovations, and as it adheres to the doctrine of the Cross.' The special interpretation to be placed upon the final clause somewhat jars upon the ear, although not without interest in illustrating the strong religious principle which forbade the transfer of his political allegiance. Dr. Lee, who had excellent opportunities of knowing, says, 'there cannot remain any manner of doubt'[103] that Ken used the expression with particular reference to the sense in which his friend Kettlewell had used it.