Martin Luther’s Reformation occurred when England was going through a period of intense spiritual darkness. There reached a period, not only in Britain but also over all Europe, when the pure, original gospel was lost and great spiritual and moral darkness followed. So England entirely lost her original biblical Jewish-Christian foundations.
However, this reforming movement that subsequently spread across Europe was to have profound consequences in England. The country became known as a Protestant nation. For Protestantism, in essence, means to take a stand for original biblical Christianity in its purest form, against all other forms which in anyway deviate from it.
King Henry VIII
King Henry VIII ascended to the throne in 1509 and married the older widow of his brother, Catherine of Aragon. After eight years they separated because Catherine failed to produce a male heir for him. He later fell in love with Anne Boleyn, who was a young and beautiful lady waiting to be the queen. He asked the papacy to declare the marriage to Catherine invalid, claiming that the original dispensation allowing him to marry her had been in error. But there were many obstacles that stood in the way of Henry’s demand.
Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, was related to Catherine and strongly opposed her being thrown off like a used robe. Through a series of events, King Henry took matters into his own hands, and in 1534 he declared himself the head of the Church of England and married Anne Boleyn. He was then excommunicated from the Church of Rome, but this in the end solidified English nationalism because people were asking why they were looking abroad for any part of British laws and not acting through their own Parliament.
In Henry’s reign, the average Englishman retained the feeling of his Welsh and Celtic Christian ancestors against the pope’s interference in England. So when Henry’s divorce issue was at its height and was being strongly resisted by the pope, Henry himself, in his indignation, came to understand what many Englishmen had realized long before: if England would be a nation, it must protect both spiritual and temporal jurisdiction from outside manipulation. As is so often the case in national affairs, it took a personal issue for Henry to see this clearly.
Henry now found it intolerable that the interests of England should be subjected to the will of an outside power. The decisive moment had been reached. He made up his mind that England would no longer submit to being governed by a religious authority, or any other authority for that matter, sitting hundreds of miles away, judging English matters by Italian, Spanish, or French standards. Henry, therefore, took measured steps until England was wholly independent of every kind of administration from Rome.
When a bill was finally passed through Parliament abolishing what still remained of papal authority in England, just a month later it was followed by a letter written personally by the “king as sovereign, recognizing no superior in earth, but only God, not subject to the laws of any earthly creature.”
The break between England and Rome was now complete. At this stage, the great revolution known as the English Reformation freed the English church and state from the bondage of Rome and ushered in the acceptance by England of the Protestant Christian religion. Christianity was now free to develop as it always should have been.
William Tyndale: The Bible for Every Person
It just so happened that God had prepared someone for this time: William Tyndale. Tyndale became gripped with a burning conviction that the entrance of God’s Word into a person’s heart brings light and revelation. For centuries the Scriptures had been denied to everyone except the priests, and besides, they were written in Latin anyhow.
So William Tyndale made sure that the Bible would be translated from Latin into the English language of the day so every person could understand and comprehend it. It was his hope that a copy of the Scriptures should be placed in the hands of every man, woman, and child. His desire was that even the poorest person should have access to the Bible and be able to read it. He was continually persecuted, and later driven from England to the Continent.
There Tyndale persistently continued his work and began shipping Bibles to England. It cost him his life—he was later burned at stake as a martyr in 1536. But just before he was martyred, he uttered his now famous prayer: “O God: Open the eyes of the King of England.” This prayer is inscribed on a metal plaque in front of his statue in London’s Thames Embankment Gardens.
God, in His faithfulness, answered Tyndale’s prayer and within a year, after the establishment of the Church of England in 1538, Henry VIII issued a proclamation that a copy of the Bible should be translated into the language that every person could read and understand, and that it should be placed in every church in the land. The clergy were encouraged to personal Bible reading and public reading of the Holy Word. Now that it was translated in English, the Bible became a regular feature of worship. Private ownership of the Bible increased, and in many homes it was the only book in the house that was read from extensively.
This definitely had a significant impact on the religious and political development of England. It was the Bible, above all, which led to the profound spiritual and moral change in the nation at that time. Historians say that the reign of Henry VIII must be credited with giving the people the English Bible. Though Henry VIII married six times, his role in the Reformation was undeniable.
He defied the Catholic Church after temporarily becoming the head of the Church of England; and his authority was used to put away image worship, paying sums of money for forgiveness of sins, and other religious superstitions. He also ordered fathers everywhere to teach their children the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Articles of the Christian Faith in English in their own homes.
Edward VI and Mary I
King Henry VIII died at fifty-six years of age and his son Edward VI, who was the son of Henry’s third wife, ascended to the throne in his place. But he also died of tuberculosis six years later at the age of twenty-four. In his short reign, Edward did much to carry on the work his father started of totally severing England from the Roman Catholic Church. He embraced the principles of the Reformation and diligently reestablished Protestantism in England; he also introduced the Book of Common Prayer.
Once King Edward died, Henry’s first daughter by the unwanted Catherine of Aragon became the queen—Mary I. The problem was that Mary was a devout Catholic. She was only eighteen years old when her father founded the Church of England, and she would not easily forget the offense when he defied the Catholic Church and the pope in order to marry his mistress instead of Catherine’s mother.
Mary felt that she had to avenge for that insult and make things right in the land. She wasted no time in her efforts to revive Catholicism in England. She did this by persecuting Protestants, which included burning some 300 Protestants at the stake, earning her nickname, “Bloody Mary.” But by God’s grace her reign lasted only five years and she also reportedly died at an early age of only forty-two. And much of what she had started was revoked by her half sister and successor, Elizabeth I.
Elizabeth I and the Puritans
Elizabeth I became Queen of England in 1558 after the death of her sister Mary. Elizabeth took up the great issue where her father left it and with a similar understanding of it. When she became queen at the age of twenty-five, she declared her intentions in the establishment of law and order, asking for beneficial cooperation among men, saying:
My lords, the law of nature moves to sorrow for my sister; the burden that is fallen upon me makes me amazed, and yet, considering I am God’s creature, ordained to obey His appointment, I will thereto yield, desiring from the bottom of my heart that I may have assistance of His grace to be the minister of His heavenly will in this office now committed to me. And as I am but one body naturally considered, though by His permission a body politic to govern, so shall I desire you all…to be assistant to me, that I with my ruling and you with your service may make a good account to Almighty God and leave some comfort to our posterity on earth. I mean to direct all my actions by good advice and counsel.
She sought to bring Ireland under the rule of her house and to establish Protestantism as the state religion, to whom every minister of God’s Word was responsible for his preaching and for all his spiritual administrations, where the king or queen was head. She almost succeeded in considerable measure.
The problem with Elizabeth was her compromise. She tried to return England to Protestantism by being a peacemaker between Catholicism and Protestantism. She retained the Catholic hierarchy of archbishops and bishops and also insisted that the Church of England’s preachers wear uniform vestments and conduct services according to a uniform liturgy.
With all these decrees, the Puritans felt that Elizabeth had betrayed them because the Catholic Church with its centralized power had already betrayed Christianity by mediating itself between God and man. The Puritans had an intense commitment to morality, a form of worship, and a civil society strictly conforming to God’s commandments as set forth in the Bible.
They feared that the Anglican Church would become just another version of the Roman Church, which would only establish the supremacy of a monarchy over a church that could be easily corrupted by kings and queens. So they refused to acknowledge any authority other than the Bible. That meant no human being—not a king, not a queen, not a pope, nor a bishop—was the supreme and sole source of religious standards.
King James I
Queen Elizabeth died in 1603 and was succeeded by James IV, who was already King of Scotland, having reigned there from his infancy. King James I King James I became King of England in 1603, when he was just thirty-six years old, and with that he became the head of the Church of England. He formed a plan for bringing Scotland into the same ecclesiastical system with England.
He summoned a conference of the bishops of the English church and the elders of the Scottish kirk, with the hope and purpose of carrying out his plan for the establishment of the Episcopal system with the king as its head throughout his entire realm. While the king was in progress to London, the Puritans presented their petition entitled:
The humble petition of the ministers of the Church of England, desiring reformation of certain ceremonies and abuses of the church…” Whereupon Dr. Raynolds, in the name of his brethren, humbly requested (1) that the doctrine of the Church might be preserved pure, according to God’s Word; (2) that good pastors might be planted in all churches, to preach the same doctrine; (3) that the Book of Common Prayer might be fitted to more increase piety; and (4) that church government might be sincerely ministered according to God’s Word.
But things got worse when King James I forced conformity in ecclesiastical matters that were left unfinished by Elizabeth. The British Christian heritage was once again attacked during the Puritan period. The king then did something unbelievable—he mandated the reading of his Book of Sports, which permitted recreations on the Sabbath (which was supposed to be a day of rest from all earthly pleasures and pursuits, dedicated solely to prayer and spiritual matters only).
The Puritans were very disappointed with this, and seeing that no good would come from the monarch’s meddling in religious affairs, they decided to board to another world as a result of religious persecution. They arrived in the New World on the Mayflower in 1620, intent on establishing a community that would abide and be ruled by God’s laws alone, not by those of men.
The Puritan political agenda that led to the revolution in 1642 was overwhelmingly a product of their religious beliefs, which stressed the right of every man and woman to interpret God’s law, as embodied in the Bible, and to appeal to that law above any other authority.
God raised up men like John Bunyan, Richard Baxter, John Milton, Thomas Goodwin, John Howe, and John Owen to keep the true light of the gospel burning. The Puritans left a lasting legacy of political reform not only in England but in the rest of the Continent as well, even as they packed their bags and fled for the safety of America, forming the moral basis of a new society in a New World.
An examination and the impact of the English Reformation would be beyond the scope of this article. However, having said that, it’s worth watching the next video by a BBC Channel 4 presenter on the Reformation, called Three Books that Changed a Nation.
It speaks of the battle for the soul of a nation. The battle we are in now-and who will win-Christ or the devil?!! This programme clearly states the battle then was over eternal salvation-not by the rites of the Church-but as the presenter says so strongly, we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ!
Excerpted from Reclaiming the Forgotten Biblical Heritage Volume 1, © Copyright 2014-All rights reserved.
Photo credit: The Christian Institute