One thing, however, was certain all the while. These two effective aggregations of English-born Independency beyond the bounds of England — the small Dutch scattering and the massive American extension – maintained bonds of brotherhood.
Continuing Westminister Assembly Establishes Presbyterianism in England,
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Six of the leaders were brought to the scaffold, including Henry Barrowe, a Gray’s Inn lawyer — of such note among those early Brownists by his writings that they were also called Barrowists — John Greenwood, a preacher, and the poor young Welshman, John Penry, whose brave and simple words on his own hard case, addressed before his death to Lord Burghley, thrill one’s nerves yet. All these were of Cambridge training, though Penry had also been at Oxford. Others died in prison; and of the remainder many were banished.
Among the observers of these severities was Francis Bacon, then rising into eminence as a politician and lawyer. His feeling on the subject was thus expressed at the time: “As for those which we call Brownists, being, when they were at the most, a very small number of very silly and base people here and there in corners dispersed, they are now — thanks be to God — by the good remedies that have been used, suppressed and worn out, so as there is scarce any news of them.” Bacon, doubtless, here expressed the feeling of all that was respectable in English society. For not only was it the theory of Brownism intrinsically that the Church of England was a false church, an institution of anti-christ, from which all Christians were bound to separate themselves; but the scurrilities against the bishops that had been vented anonymously by some particular nest of Brownists, or their allies, in the famous series of Martin Marprelate Tracts (1589), had disgusted and enraged many who would have tolerated moderate Nonconformity.
With respect to the theory of church government called Independency or Congregationalism, the state of the case in 1640 may be thus summed up: There was an unknown amount of traditional affection for the theory, even where it could not be articulately stated, in the native and popular antiprelacy of England itself. This vague and diffused Independency had also a few champions in known Separatist ministers, who had managed to remain in England through all difficulties, and perhaps it had well-wishers in a private opinionist or two, like John Goodwin, regularly in orders in the Church of England; but the effective mass of English-born Independency lay wholly without the bounds of England, partly in little curdlings of Separatists or Semiseparatists among the English exiles in some of the towns of Holland, but chiefly, and in most assured completeness both of bulk and of detail, in the incipient transatlantic commonwealth of New England.
One thing, however, was certain all the while. These two effective aggregations of English-born Independency beyond the bounds of England — the small Dutch scattering and the massive American extension — were not dissociated from England, had not learned to be foreign to her, but were in correspondence with her, in constant survey of her concerns, and attached to her by such homeward yearnings that, on the least opportunity, the least signal given, they would leap back upon her shores.
The opportunity came, and the signal was given, in November, 1640, when the Long Parliament met. It was as if England then proclaimed to all her exiles for opinion, “Ye need be exiles no more.” Accordingly, between that date and the meeting of the Westminster Assembly in July, 1643, we have the interesting phenomenon of a return of some of the conspicuous representatives of Independency both from Holland and from New England.
The necessity of an ecclesiastical synod or convocation, to cooperate with the Parliament, had been long felt. Among the articles of the Grand Remonstrance of December, 1641, had been one desiring a convention of “a general synod of the most grave, pious, learned, and judicious divines of this island, assisted by some from foreign parts,” to consider of all things relating to the Church and report thereon to Parliament. It is clear, from the wording of this article, that it was contemplated that the synod should contain representatives from the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Indeed, by that time, the establishment of a uniformity of doctrine, discipline, and worship between the churches of England and Scotland was the fixed idea of those who chiefly desired a synod. There had been express communications on the subject between the leading English Puritan ministers and the chiefs of the Scottish Kirk. Henderson had strongly taken the matter to heart, and in connection with it he had made a “notable motion” in the Scottish General Assembly of August, 1641. Might it not be well, he had urged, that the Scottish Church should employ itself in “drawing up a confession of faith, a catechism, a directory for all the parts of the public worship, and a platform of government, wherein possibly England and we might agree”?
Henderson’s notion was that, if such an authoritative exposition of the whole theory and practice of the Kirk of Scotland could be drawn up for the study of the English, and especially if care were taken in it not to be ultra-Scottish in mere minutia, the effect would be to facilitate the religious union of the two nations. The Scottish assembly, at any rate, had warmly entertained the notion, and had deputed the difficult and delicate work to Henderson himself. Henderson, however, had, on more mature thoughts, abandoned the project. He had done so for reasons creditable to his considerateness and good-sense. It had occurred to him that the English might like to think out the details of their church reformation for themselves, that it might do more harm than good to thrust an elaborated Scottish system upon them as a perfection already consummate, and that it might even be becoming in the Scots to hold themselves prepared, in the interests of the conformity they desired, to gravitate toward what might be the English conclusions on nonessential points. At all events, he had come to see that the work was too great for the responsibility of any one man. Possibly, too, he knew by that time (April, 1642) that a general synod of English divines would very soon be called.
Actually, in April, 1642, just when Henderson gave up the business as too great for one man’s strength, the English House of Commons were making arrangements for a synod of divines. On the 19th of that month it was ordered by the House, in pursuance of previous resolutions on the subject, “that the names of such divines as shall be thought fit to be consulted with concerning the matter of the Church be brought in to-morrow morning,” the understood rule being that the knights and burgesses of each English county should name to the House two divines, and those of each Welsh county one divine, for approval. Accordingly, on the 20th, the names were given in; on that day the divines proposed for nine of the English counties were approved of in pairs; and on following days the rest of the English counties — London and the two universities coming in for separate representation — were gone over, pretty much in their alphabetical order, the Welsh counties and the Channel islands coming last, till, on April 25th, the tale of the divines “thought fit to be consulted with” was complete. It included one hundred two divines, generally from the counties for which they were severally named; but by no means always so, for in not a few cases the knights and burgesses of distant counties nominated divines living in London or near it.
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