The series continues: Motivated by the passions and ambitions of King Henry VIII, England joins the revolt against the religious authority of the pope.
England Rebels Against Rome
What is the truth about the Reformation in England? Did it represent a return to the true faith delivered by Jesus Christ? This series of articles contains startling facts that you need to consider!
Millions of books, pamphlets and tracts boldly proclaim as the Protestant foundation: “The BIBLE, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible, is the religion of Protestants.”
In the previous installments of this series, we learned from the Bible and the record of history that a remarkable change took place in nominal “Christianity” soon after the death of the original Apostles. Pagan philosophies and traditions crept into the visible Church of God. During the “Dark Ages,” the religious hierarchy became a veritable cesspool of iniquities, whoredoms and abominations of every description.
We have seen how Martin Luther rebelled against this corrupt hierarchy, but still retained most of its doctrines and traditions. In fact, he rebelled against all authority and presumptuously added a word to the Bible. In his guilt-ridden desire to do away with obedience to God’s law, Luther translated Romans 1:17: “The just shall live by faith alone.” This attitude led Luther to condone the bigamy of the Landgrave of Hesse, and the slaughter of hundreds of peasants in the infamous Peasants’ War.
In the last issue of the Tomorrow’s World magazine, we discussed the harsh teachings and actions of John Calvin, based on his theory of predestination. Recall his statement: “For all men are not created on an equal footing, but for some eternal life is preordained, for others eternal damnation…” (Bettenson, Henry. Documents of the Christian Church. New York: Oxford University Press, 1947. p. 302).
The shocking result of Calvin’s harsh system can only be understood by reading the account of how he burned at the stake a religious opponent, Michael Servetus.
Now we will discuss the amazing truth about the Reformation in England.
As in the previous phases of this movement, let us ask ourselves: Was this a return to the faith and practice of Jesus Christ and His Apostles? Was this, indeed, a return to “the BIBLE, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible”?
The third key reformatory movement that needs to be considered as distinct in itself is the one that took place in England. It was a reformation by force even more than that under John Calvin.
The so-called “reformation” in England was due almost entirely to the actions of one man, Henry VIII. Since, under his influence, the English revolt produced no outstanding religious leaders and very few distinctive doctrines, a detailed analysis of its progress is not necessary for an understanding of its unique place in the Reformation as a whole. Yet, an understanding of its principal origins and results is important to aid our comprehension of its later influence on the English-speaking peoples of the world.
When Henry VIII ascended the throne of England in 1509, it was already an established royal policy for the kings to control most ecclesiastical appointments, and to fill many of the chief political posts with highly educated churchmen. Naturally, this led to many abuses, and often encouraged greed, dishonesty and worldly shrewdness in the higher clergy.
This situation also tended to subvert the religious allegiance normally felt by the Roman clergy toward Rome. It was replaced, through political office and interest, by a feeling of national loyalty. This was further strengthened by a growing national antagonism to all foreign encroachments, papal or otherwise (Walker, Reginald F. An Outline of the Catholic Church. Dublin: M. H. Gill and Son, Ltd., 1950. p. 401).
Under such circumstances, it was not at all difficult for Henry VIII, a young, handsome, brilliant and vain monarch, to sway and intimidate the English Catholic clergy according to his whims.
Henry had inherited an ample treasury from his father, Henry VII, and enjoyed immense popularity with his subjects. But because of a political alliance with the Spanish, he had been pledged by his father to marry Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. Actually, she had first been his older brother’s wife, though it was said that the marriage was never consummated before Arthur’s early death.
Catherine was about six years older than Henry. Although this had seemed to make little difference at first, some fifteen years later the passionate, self-willed monarch found himself married to an overweight, prematurely aging woman of forty. It is known that, at this time, Henry satisfied his passions with a series of mistresses for many years, and this might have continued indefinitely but for two circumstances.
First, it appears that Henry became especially enamored of Anne Boleyn, and that she insisted on becoming his wife. Secondly, only one of the six children Catherine had borne him survived infancy—a girl, Mary. A woman had never ruled England before, and Henry may have feared that the absence of a male heir to the throne would lead to civil war. He wanted to wed another woman, and have a male heir (Hausser, Ludwig. The Period of the Reformation. London: J. S. Virtue and Co., Limited, 1885. pp. 170–171).
About the year 1526, Henry applied to Rome for a declaration annulling his marriage to Catherine. He based his appeal on the fact that she had first been his deceased brother’s wife, and that a papal dispensation had been granted to allow him to marry her, as this relationship normally constituted an impediment to marriage according to Catholic law.
Henry now wished to have this dispensation, and consequently his marriage, declared invalid. He tried to gain the support of Thomas Wolsey—whom he had made Lord Chancellor, and Pope Leo X had made a cardinal.
Up to this point, Wolsey had been Henry’s right-hand man. But he was also the pope’s representative, and was trying to protect himself by steering a middle course in the matter. Consequently, the matter was delayed—the pope and Wolsey hoping that Henry might change his mind.
This proceeding soon exhausted the king’s patience, and he was advised by Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell to put his case before the universities of Europe. This Henry did, using bribery abroad and threats at home to gain a partial endorsement from some of the Protestant scholars and theologians for his divorce (Fisher, George P. The Reformation, New York: Scribner, Armstrong and Co., 1873. p. 319).
In the meantime, Henry dismissed Cardinal Wolsey on trumped-up charges, and the disgraced cardinal fell ill and died on his way to be tried for treason. His death would not be the first in this matter. As events would demonstrate, Henry was willing to kill those who opposed his unbridled lust for women and power.
Henry now bullied the English Parliament into passing measures stating that he was “the Protector and Supreme Head of the Church and Clergy of England” after which was added, after a long debate, “as far as is permitted by the law of Christ.” He then caused Parliament to pass laws forbidding the introduction of papal bulls into England, and cutting off the papal revenues from England (Fisher, p. 320).
While his case was still pending at Rome, Henry rushed through a hasty divorce and secretly, though formally, married Anne Boleyn on January 25, 1533. It seems evident that he had already entered into illegal, adulterous relations with her because on September 7 of the same year she bore a daughter, Elizabeth, later to be queen (Walker, p. 403).
Soon after, Henry’s new favorite, Thomas Cranmer, was appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury. On May 23, he held an ecclesiastical court and formally adjudged Henry’s marriage to Catherine null and void.
The inevitable result of all these actions was soon forthcoming. On July 11, 1533, Pope Clement VII issued a bull excommunicating Henry. Henry replied in kind, and soon obtained from Parliament statutes forbidding all payments to the pope, directing that all bishops were now to be elected on the king’s nomination, and doing away with all other recognition of papal authority (Fisher, pp. 320–321).
In November of 1534, Parliament passed the famous Supremacy Act. In it, Henry and his successors were declared “the only supreme head in earth of the Church of England,” without any qualifying clauses, and with full power to redress “heresies” and “abuses” (Bettenson, p. 322).
The break with Rome was now complete. Although it was primarily a matter of Henry’s own self-will, it could not have been accomplished without the strong national feeling and dislike of papal authority already growing among the English people.
What made the breach with Rome irreparable was the policy Henry now proceeded upon, that of confiscating the monasteries and abbey lands, and distributing part of the plundered wealth among his courtiers and friends (Fisher, p. 321).
For his work, Henry had found a new agent in Thomas Cromwell (1485?–1540), a man of very humble origin, a soldier, merchant, and moneylender by turns, of whom Wolsey had made much use as a business and parliamentary agent. By 1531 Cromwell was of the privy council; in 1534 master of the rolls; and in 1536, layman that he was, vice-regent for the King in ecclesiastical affairs. Henry was hungry for ecclesiastical property, both to maintain his lavish court and to create and reward adherents—the Reformation everywhere was marked by these confiscations—and late in 1534 he commissioned Cromwell to have the monasteries visited and report on their condition. The alleged facts, the truth or falsity of which is still a disputed matter, were laid before Parliament, which in February, 1536, adjudged to the King, “his heirs and assigns forever, to do and use therewith his and their own wills,” all monastic establishments having an income of less than two hundred pounds annually. The number thus sequestered was three hundred and seventy-six (Walker, p. 404).
It is significant to note, as Walker states, that it was a common practice among the Protestant princes and nobles to confiscate the wealth of the Catholic Church whenever possible. It is evident that most of these influential “Protestants” were much more concerned with enriching themselves than with any theological changes that might be made. In fact, Henry’s break with Rome resulted in practically no change whatever in doctrine, except the rejection of papal authority and the substitution of the English monarch as “head” of the church.
The entire situation developed primarily because of Henry’s sexual passion and lust for power—not as a result of earnest men seeking to restore Scriptural truth.
During this time, a number of religious leaders had been influenced by the work of the Reformation on the continent. One of them, William Tyndale, translated the New Testament into English. However, he was unable to have it published in England. Instead, it was published on the continent in 1526, and many copies found their way to England, although church and civil authorities tried to suppress it.
This placing of the Bible in the hands of the people helped prepare the way for later doctrinal changes along Lutheran lines. But for the time being, the Roman Catholic dogma was to be enforced (Walker, pp. 404–405).
King Henry’s own religious attitude, except towards the papacy, was that of Catholic orthodoxy. At times, he would make limited doctrinal concessions to please the German Protestants when he needed their support. But in 1539, because of fears of France and Spain, Henry induced Parliament to pass the Six Articles Act. It maintained a strict doctrine of transubstantiation, vows of chastity, auricular confession, and other Catholic practices (Fisher, p. 324).
Meanwhile, however, he proceeded to complete the confiscation of all the monasteries in 1539, and strengthen his position as head of the church and state. His sharing of the seized wealth of the ecclesiastical properties built up the fortunes of the Protestant ruling class, whose personal interests now lay in continued separation from Rome.
The true fact is that they were Catholics in doctrine, but Protestant in their confirmation of Henry’s right to substitute himself for the pope as head of the church and to share with them the booty of the plundered monasteries.
As “supreme head” of the Church of England, Henry’s conduct toward his enemies and, strangely, even toward his wives, was as far removed from Christian principles as would seem possible.
In the summer of 1535, he cruelly executed two of England’s ablest scholars and theologians, Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More, because they refused to endorse his supremacy over the church and clergy of England. Many other notable persons paid with their lives for disagreeing with Henry’s views.
A helpful summary of Henry’s vicious conduct toward his wives, and nobles, is given by Alzog:
Henry was as atrociously cruel to his wives as he was to his ministers and other subjects of inferior degree. Catharine of Aragon survived her repudiation a little less than three years, dying a most exemplary death, January 8, 1536. She was hardly laid in her grave, when Anne Boleyn, who had taken her place in her husband’s affections, and was the cause of all her misfortunes, was tried on the charges of adultery, incest and high treason, declared guilty, and beheaded on the green within the Tower, May 19, 1536. Cranmer, who had formerly “in virtue of his apostolic authority” pronounced the marriage between Henry and Anne lawful and valid, was now called upon to reverse his former decision, and, “in the name of Christ and for the glory of God,” declared that the same marriage was and always had been null and void. On the day of Anne’s execution, as if to express his contempt for her memory, Henry dressed himself in a suit of white, and on the following morning was married to Jane Seymour, who died (October 24, 1537) in less than a fortnight after giving birth to a male child, subsequently known as Edward VI. Henry was next married to Anne of Cleves in the beginning of the year 1540. The marriage was a political one, brought about through the agency of Thomas Cromwell, who hoped to strengthen the Protestant cause in England, and prop up his own power through the influence of the new queen, who was known to be a thorough-going Lutheran. Deceived as to her beauty and personal attractions, Henry married her only because he could not well help himself, and, after living with her six months, procured a divorce mainly on these grounds (July 13). Within a month (August 8) he married Catherine Howard, who, being shortly after charged with having committed adultery, was pronounced guilty, and beheaded February 13,1541. Henry’s sixth and last wife, Catharine Parr, was on one occasion nearly losing her head for venturing to differ on theological questions with the Head of the Church of England; but quickly detecting her mistake, she escaped the royal vengeance by adroitly flattering his great wisdom and theological learning, expressing her most humble submission to his judgment, and professing that in differing from him she had only desired to draw him into a heated discussion, because when animated, he seemed to forget the pain of the malady from which he was suffering. By this clever expedient, Catharine kept her head on her shoulders, and had the good fortune to outlive the brutal monster, who died in 1547.
Henry reigned for thirty-eight years, and during that time he ordered the execution of two queens, two cardinals, two archbishops, eighteen bishops, thirteen abbots, five hundred priors and monks, thirty-eight doctors of divinity and laws, twelve dukes and earls, one hundred and sixty-four gentlemen, one hundred and twenty-four commoners, and one hundred and ten ladies (Alzog, John. Manual of Universal Church History. Dublin: M. H. Gill and Son, 1902. pp. 322–323).
At the death of Henry VIII, the great body of Englishmen stood with the late king in desiring no considerable change in doctrine or worship (Walker, p. 408). But despite this fact, England was to witness the introduction of many Lutheran teachings during the reign of Edward VI.
Upon his ascension, Edward was only nine years of age. The Duke of Somerset was immediately created Protector and headed the governmental council. He was a man of Protestant sympathies and was a friend of the dispossessed lower agricultural classes.
Under the influence of Somerset and Archbishop Cranmer, a number of changes in doctrine and worship were introduced.
It was at this time that the Six Articles were repealed and the real basic doctrines of the Church of England were framed. Cranmer was a thorough-going Protestant in his sympathies, and brought over a number of Lutheran theologians for advice and counsel.
Laws enforcing the celibacy of the priesthood were now repealed. Communion with both the bread and wine for the congregation was introduced, following Luther. The use of English in the church services was made mandatory, and help in formulating prayer books and liturgies was given by the continental reformers (Fisher, George P. History of the Christian Church. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1897. pp. 357–358).
During this period, the basis of English Protestantism was definitely established. But, as we have seen, it was the Protestantism of the German reformers that was brought in on a limited scale.
The plans for reformation came to an abrupt halt with the early death of Edward VI in 1553, and the accession of the Catholic Queen Mary. Because of the conniving of some of the Protestant noblemen, Mary even had the sympathies of most of her subjects when she came to the throne (Walker, p. 405).
Mary proceeded with caution at first upon the astute advice of her cousin, Emperor Charles V. Before long, Parliament reversed itself and declared the marriage of her mother to Henry valid. The whimsical attitude of the monarchs and political leaders of England toward the marriage state is appalling. Their actions are but a shameful parody of Christ’s words: “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Mark 10:9, KJV).
Also, these actions certainly indicate that the hearts of the British people were not strongly persuaded about their new Protestant “faith” at all. As one English scholar cynically comments: “With Parliament, Mary had no difficulty. As a contemporary ironically observed, they would have voted the establishment of the Mahometan religion with equal alacrity and zeal at the bidding of the Queen” (Babington, J. A. The Reformation. London: John Murray, 1901. p. 286).
With little opposition, Mary persuaded Parliament to repeal the ecclesiastical legislation passed under Edward’s reign, and public worship was restored to the forms of the last year of Henry VIII. But Cranmer was now imprisoned, and many of the more earnest Protestants fled to the continent.
At this time also, Mary contracted a marriage with the son of Emperor Charles V, Philip—who would soon become Philip II of Spain. Fear of Catholic and Spanish domination made this an exceedingly unpopular marriage with Mary’s subjects, and she lost much public support through this action (Fisher, History of the Christian Church, p. 359).
The English nobles now feared the loss of the church property they had seized, and a series of mutinous uprisings took place. During much of this time, it was difficult to tell whether their Protestant sympathies or their English nationalism provoked these incidents (Hausser, p. 569).
“Bloody” Mary now began the extermination of her enemies, and in February, 1554, fifty people were hanged. The entirely innocent Lady Jane Grey and her husband, Lord Guildford Dudley, were both executed for alleged conspiracy against the crown. Mary had never regarded her sister Elizabeth with much affection, so she was imprisoned in the Tower of London. But through all these years, Elizabeth prudently avoided anything that would arouse Mary’s suspicion of her, and so kept her life (Hausser, pp. 570–573).
Even at the beginning of this persecution, the English nobles and Parliament were still ready to give up their Protestantism and “to regulate the Church and her doctrine in accordance with the Pope’s pleasure if no one would interfere with the distribution of Church property…” (Hausser, p. 571). It should certainly be plain that these nobles were more concerned with their lust for wealth and power than they were in trying to find true religion.
Once Mary allowed the erstwhile Protestants to keep the seized church property, Parliament readily consented to render obedience to the pope and to renew the edicts against heretics. Now those who continued to oppose the Roman religion began to be persecuted in full force. In the three years before Mary’s death, about 270 Protestant “heretics” were burned at the stake, among whom were 55 women and four children (Hausser, p. 571).
Many of these common people were faithful to their Protestant convictions to the end. Their spiritual leader, Thomas Cranmer, who had been Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry VIII and Edward VI, was not quite as constant. He recanted his Protestant sympathies under Queen Mary, in hope of saving his life. But once it was determined that he should die anyway, his courage revived. He disavowed his former recantation, declared that he was a Protestant, and died with dignity. As Fisher states: “What course he would have pursued had he been permitted to live, it is impossible to tell…” (Babington, p. 328).
Under Mary, the government prosecuted the Protestants like criminals. This naturally developed a hatred of Rome among the English people. Not because of true religious feeling, but in a political sense, the idea now arose that “Protestantism and English nationality were identical” (Hausser, p. 573).
Thus, when we read of the staunch “Protestant” feelings among the English peoples, we need to realize why. It became a spirit of English nationalism in opposition to Rome. It is a national religion that has persisted in England to our day. And, as many have perceived, its course has always depended more on politics and power than on sincere religious motives.
The English people continued in a partial state of rebellion until their Catholic Queen Mary died in November 1558. The nation now welcomed her sister, Elizabeth, to the throne (Fisher, p. 362).
Elizabeth soon established herself, as Henry VIII had done, as head of the Church of England. But, since the title, “Supreme Head,” had seemed objectionable to Catholics, she was now styled “Supreme Governor” of the national church (Walker, p. 414).
Now, step by step, the Protestant principles formerly established under Edward VI were reintroduced. By the Act of Uniformity, 1559, the Prayer Book of Edward VI was restored for use in all the churches. All persons were required to attend the national church under penalty and fine, except for “lawful or reasonable excuse” (Moncrief, John W. A Short History of the Christian Church. New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1902. p. 339).
Babington comments upon the hypocritical changeableness of the “religious” situation in England during this time. “Thus within the space of a few years the English Parliament for the third time formally recanted its religious belief. It is vain to give any creditable reason for this amazing fact. To suppose that in making these changes the hereditary legislators and the representatives of the English people were swayed by spiritual zeal or religious conviction would be the height of absurdity” (Babington, p. 299).
Although Queen Elizabeth herself dominated in religious as well as civil affairs, Matthew Parker was now consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury. Under his direction, the 42 articles of faith originally formulated by Thomas Cranmer were reduced to 39. In 1571, Parliament adopted them as the basis of doctrine of the Church of England. They set forth “a type of doctrine midway between Lutheranism and Calvinism” (Kurtz, J. H. Church History. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1889. p. 315).
Actually, the religious basis of the Church of England was more of a mixture of Lutheranism, Calvinism and Catholicism. But the Thirty-Nine Articles were primarily based on Lutheran confessions of faith (Moncrief, p. 339). And, of course, Luther’s theory of justification by faith alone was held. Yet Calvin’s doctrines on the “Lord’s Supper” and on predestination were, in the main, accepted.
But many Roman Catholic rituals, customs and concepts were retained. “The Thirty-Nine Articles contain many Protestant dogmas, but they also retain much of the Roman cult” (Moncrief, p. 340).
Although there have been some alterations from time to time, the doctrines and form of religion established at this time under Queen Elizabeth remain essentially the same to this day in the Church of England (Wharey, James. Church History. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication. p. 240).
It is not our purpose in the present work to go into a detailed history of the various splits and divisions of the three main Protestant “trees.” As we have already seen, Luther’s doctrines spread over most of northern Germany, from there primarily to the Scandinavian countries, and then to the New World. Calvin’s theology eventually dominated in Switzerland, parts of France and Germany, the Netherlands and Scotland. Later, it, too, found its way—with adaptations—to America and particularly the New England states.
Anglicanism held sway in its pure form only in England itself. But throughout the British Commonwealth and in America it has since taken the name “Protestant Episcopal” and other forms, holding practically identical beliefs.
As a guiding principle, it is important to realize that every major Protestant body must rightfully recognize as its legitimate ancestor one of these key reform movements. And Lutheranism, Calvinism, and Anglicanism must acknowledge that they all came, in the first place, from the Church of Rome.
Referring again to England, we may safely state that the three main churches rising out of the “puritan” movement of the seventeenth century—the Presbyterian, the Congregational, and the Baptist—all owe to Calvin the major part of their doctrines, customs and concepts.
The later Methodist movement under John and Charles Wesley did not involve any change in the basic doctrines of the Church of England. It was only intended as a reformation within the Anglican Church, rejecting predestination and emphasizing personal holiness and a consciousness of a “witness of the Spirit” in the believer (Hurlbut, Jesse Lyman. The Story of the Christian Church. Philadelphia: The John C. Winston Co., 1933. p. 177).
To the end of his life, Wesley urged his followers to remain in the Church of England, declaring: “I live and die a member of the Church of England; and none who regard my judgment will ever separate from it” (Bettenson, p. 361).
So, it is clear that even the Church of England, sprung from Rome, herself is a parent of other religious bodies holding the same basic doctrines. The point we wish to emphasize is that all of the major splits and divisions within Protestant “Christendom” agreed upon most of their basic doctrines, traditions and religious concepts. The significance of this will be considered later.
Returning to the English revolt, we find that the uncontrolled lust of King Henry VIII for women and power resulted in a new religious body. The blunt truth is that the “reformation” in England was conceived in lust, and guided to success through political pressure and force of arms!
One eminent Protestant historian admits: “The remarkable feature of the English revolt is that it produced no outstanding religious leader—no Luther, Zwingli, Calvin or Knox. Nor did it, before the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign, manifest any considerable spiritual awakening among the people. Its impulses were political and social” (Walker, p. 415).
As we have seen, the English revolt was conceived in the lust and sin of Henry VIII. It was promoted among the people by a spirit of nationalism and antagonism toward Rome. It was helped to success by the greed of the English nobility for the wealth of the Catholic monasteries and lands. And it was placed on the throne by the royal realization of the unchecked power it conferred upon the English monarchs.
It is acknowledged that this movement produced no religious leader worthy of the name. There was practically no spiritual awakening among the people. Its motives were political and social.
Let us face honestly and squarely the questions: Was this a return to pure New Testament Christianity? Was it a Spirit-led restoration of the “faith once delivered”?
In the following installment, the real meaning of all that we have discussed, and the answers to these questions, will be made plain. We need to know where today’s Protestant “Christianity” really came from—and where it is headed! Don’t miss next issue’s installment in this important series!
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To read the next installment: "Part 8: The Shocking Violence of the Reformers"