How the Earliest Puritans Created Grassroots Activism
House of Learning
(Season 4, Episode 12)
Produced by the Harold B. Lee Library
At Brigham Young University
Thursday, April 6, 2005
Thank you Brian very much. And thanks to you who have come. My students know that on occasion and most of them within the last week or so are asked to take their work, share it with each other, argue about it and see what works. Well, today is my test shot and I’m here to see if these ideas hold up by submitting them to your judgment. Well, let’s start with identifying with scenario.
When the tyranny and depression became unbearable a small group of devoted reformers gathered to ask what was to be done. And they chose one or two resolved and courageous young men to write a manifesto. A declaration of the ills they had suffered and the reforms that were needed. That manifesto shook the powers of England and convinced an anxious monarch and the monarch’s counsel that these zealots intended to erect a system of governing by the people. Who fits this description of whom am I speaking? Marx and Engles. Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. Maybe? But we can go earlier and Thomas Paine, John Lilburn. Before any of these, and in a direct way their practical ancestor was the radical reformer and Elizabethan puritan John Field.
This dedicated and tireless but almost unknown reformer wrote the first book to issue from a secret press in England. He stepped from prison to become the organizer and secretary of what appears to be the first concerted propaganda campaign by private individuals in England. He was the ring leader of a clam destined network which the government repeatedly tried to suppress, he helped to organize and record private country wide efforts to survey and document corruptions and the need for reform. He solicited the favor of the powerful but also of commoners. He organized petitions with parliament and appears to have helped to write legislations which friendly members of parliament could sponsor. And he went to his grave believing that the reform for which he labored would finally be put into effect not by the crown, church, or parliament, but by the people themselves.
Now, political activism isn’t a novelty for people like us. This week we have seen thousands upon thousands of high school students in the streets in America, many of them not even US citizens making their voice heard about the kind of immigration reforms that they think congress should or should not enact. I myself have marched myself have marched in a lot of lust causes. If Saint Jude ever retires I am probably next in line for his job. But I digress, for us political activism is benign, safe, expected. Grass roots political agitation is a remarkable anomaly in the sixteenth century. Its sudden emergence, fully developed requires an explanation.
Tutored England was not an age with rights to assemble and petition. Freedom of speech could not be guaranteed even in parliament and a private citizen who expressed criticism of the monarch could be summarily hauled to prison or worse. Legal and political theorists of the day do not write of political activism, they call it sedition. Even the most genial of them like Sir Francis Bacon. There are tutored theories of resistance, but they are theories of passive not active resistance. They envision the martyrdom, and not the success of resistors. The prevailing view is not that social change is desirable. From Ford Escue to Sir Edward Cook the prevailing view is that legal and social change is undesirable and maybe even impossible even for parliament, that’s the point of J.G.A. Pollock’s major work that most thinkers of the 16th and 17th centuries held that English law and social order rested on custom from time in memorial. The official ideologies or tutored England conserved the status quo.
John Field and the others in his movement expressed a shift in consciousness which changes everything, and it all begins with two emergent attitudes. First, a shift from descriptive to normative views of the social order, that is a shift away from the belief that whatever is, is right, toward a sense of an ideal which the political community ought to be like. Second, Field’s work evidence is a shift in authority, and the emergence of the assumption that a private person without position could envision and organize social change. Where did they get the idea that the social order could be otherwise? And where did they get the authority that the social order changed? Both of these new attitudes came from the experience of a vanacular Bible. A Bible in English first printed and available to the English from about 1527 on left an impact on its culture not only doctrinal but also social, cultural, and yes even political.
First, an English Bible provided a way of thinking otherwise and a vision of what social and ecclesiastical organization might be better. Second, scripture provided a source of authority, and over the course of the 16th century, that authority passed from the church to the monarch to the clergy and finally to the people. William Tyndale, to whom we probably owe the Bible in English not only gave his life for the translation, he foresaw the social as well as the individual impacts of moving a cultural authority like scripture out of the hands of its previous possessors and into the hands of very reader. That metaphor of possession and disappropriation is in fact explicit. In the first book he writes after publishing and English New Testament, “The obedience of a Christian man” in 1528. Insisting that the scripture is gods and there that believe and not the false prophets. By act of translation, Tyndale rests scripture from the control of the church.
The next to translate the bible was Miles Coverdale, who probably had worked with William Tyndale himself and who reiterates Tyndale’s pattern marking a transfer of authority. “Rome” he says, “has lost the right of scripture through suppressing it.” His act of translation reappropriates scripture, and so he offers it to bolster the authority of the king. What enables this symbolic transfer of authority is a sense of scripture that treats it not merely as a collection of dogmas, but as a power, an agent, a cause of every good. Committing such a potent force into the care of the king symbolically empowers the king. Iconigraphically this is represented on the title page, in other words, you know about the links between, uh biblical authority and the monarchy before you have even begun to read the book. The title page to Coverdale’s bible of 1535 shows the descent of truth and of authority from God, through the old covenant and the new covenant on the left and on the right hands. And culminate in the bestowal of a Bible on or is it the bestowal of a Bible by Henry the eighth in the bottom frame, and when the bible became licensed to circulate in England, the official ideologies of monarchical power and biblical authority became even more boldly intertwined. In the great bible, the first official English bible of 1539, Henry’s crown rests quite literally on the bible. That is the central panel and there, from there, now he dispenses both to the lords of the church on the one hand and the secular lords on the other, who fulfill their duty of disseminating the doctrines of scripture to the populous who are organized and gathered in the bottom frame and circling if you look carefully a very slender tree upon which rests the pedestal which supports Henry’s crown. The authority that Henry receives from the bible and the tenuousness of that authority are iconigraphically represented.
If scripture can authorize and empower the monarch, than why can’t it authorize the ministers of the word and give them authority even to advise monarchs. That is precisely what the most talented, the wittiest, the funniest, and perhaps one of the most dedicated preachers of the 16th century believed, that kings, emperors, magistrates are bound to obey God through scripture. And because of that, they are bound to not only to obey God’s book but also the minister of the same.
In his last sermon face to face with the young king Edward the 6th, Ladimer preached “In God’s behalf I speak, there is neither king nor emperor be they never in so great a state, but they are subject to God’s word.” The implications of that are preachers are a kind of magistrate with the spiritual sword, that they are authorized to speak not only to doctrine, but also to social issues. From the ministers, that sense of scriptural authority passes finally to every reader of scripture. Bible reading instigates a sense of empowerment in its readers. It disseminates authority. John Field provides us with a locus, because the transition between the authority of the ministry and the authority of every bible reader. As a minister of the word, he assumes authority to advise the realm and he also recognizes an authority in the people which he can marshal. The cause for which field worked over 400 years ago was the further reformation of the church, especially of the church in England. But look also at the practical tasks to which John Field devoted his life. He was gorilla pamphleteer, party secretary, grass roots organizer, political agitator, popular preacher, translator of texts from the continent which provided the intellectual and theological base for the movement, client and protégé of some of the most powerful families in the realm and members of the pretty council, friend and encourager of individual members of the laity, and of his suffering brethren the pastors and preachers who were silenced or imprisoned. During much of the time when he was performing this work, he was himself without a living in the church, without a license to preach. Is there any previous time in English history when a private individual without public office or authority undertakes such an extensive campaign for institutional change?
Now, arguments about origins are always suspect. To claim an origin requires that the historian take a complex network of relationships and influences and reduce it to a single event or a single person, but for the sake of clarity and for the sake of a useful history we select, examine, and sometimes honor particular momentous events and influential people. The methods and practices of modern political organization, the use of the press as an instrument of education, propaganda, and agitation, the creation of networks of active individuals, soliciting parliament, and writing legislation. Documenting and recording the successes and sufferings of a movement, appealing to the populous, envisioning and implementing experimental or provisional institutions like those one hopes to establish, writing and disseminating the principles for social change, all of these emerge in Elizabethan England. We think of these as the quintessential tools of secular modernism which regards institutions not as divinely ordained but as arbitrary human constructs and employs human agency to change them. But the tools of social change were forged in the workshop of religion and were borrowed and inherited from religious reformers. If we want to honor or celebrate of modern methods of nonviolent social change and if we want to give that complex event a local habitation and a name, that name would have to be John Field.
John Field didn’t have a secular bone in his body. That’s one reason that it is so delicious to think about how much even our most secular activists owe to him. That is only one of the ironies of a life that made him the incidental founder of political agitation. Field was probably born in London about 1545, he received his BA and MA degrees from Oxford in 1564 and 1567 and was ordained a priest by Bishop Edmin Grindall of London on the 25th of March in 1566. Field had been a student at Oxford in the 1560’s while Queen Elizabeth was pressuring the archbishop Matthew Parker to enforce conformity in the church. On the day after Field was ordained to the priesthood, over three dozen nonconforming London ministers were suspended. Field was probably among the new ministers who filled the vacancies, but in turn were quickly silenced for seditious preaching. After a brief return to Oxford, Field was preaching in London again. Beyond the jurisdiction of the bishop of London, in the parish of holy trinity minories, a seedbed of London puritans. By 1570 he was the curate of Sen Chos curate, another puritan sanctuary and was meeting regularly in conference with other London clergy intent on pursuing a further reformation. It’s probably there where he worked alongside another reformer who was also deeply engaged in printing, Robert Crowley, that field decided to employ the press as an agent of political change. But lets explain what drove him to that.
In 1571, the ecclesiastical commission had summoned several puritan leaders, among them Field, and demanded that they subscribe their complete acceptance of the thirty nine articles, the prayer book, and vestments, the garb worn by priests. Field and three others offered to subscribe with reservations, but the compromise was rejected. Suspended from preaching, Field survived by teaching children, while venting his frustration through continued organizing and agitation. The advocates for reform had been thrown on the defensive by Elizabeth who contravened them at every step. Her demand for conformity in clerical vestments for example, focused attention on single aspect of the puritan program and threatened to trivialize the movement for reforming the church as a whole. More over, she thwarted every attempt to reform even the outward and superficial aspects of worship, like vestments. During the parliament after parliament, 1566, 1571, 1572 she forestalled or vetoed a series of puritan initiatives. So in June 1572, just before the end of parliament, the doctrinal and ceremonial protest of the puritans exploded into political hostility with the publication of an admonition to the parliament which opened with the claim that we in England are so far off from having a church rightly reformed according to the prescript of God’s word that as yet we are not come to the outward face of the same. Puritans have written pamphlets before, and they had dealt with particulars of ceremony and dress. Here, Field and his friend Thomas Wilcox launched a full program of reform and sought to articulate its motives and legitimacy. Moreover, though ostensibly addressed to parliament, the admonition looked beyond monarch or parliament toward popular authority as it took its arguments to the streets.
Two sets of immediate frustration spurred the admonition, the personal plight of nonconformists removed from their livings and silenced and the political deadlock on reform measures in parliament, yet it opened a new stage of political agitation as it probed beyond immediate circumstances to the most dangerous issues submerged in the controversy. Repressive measures, they said, only proved the admonitions open contention against the bishops. That the first evidence of episcopacy’s failure of authority is their resort to force. First, by experience their rigor hath too plainly appeared ever since their wicked reign and especially for the space of these past 5 or 6 last past together. Of the enormities with which such rigor they maintain, these treatises do in part make mention justly craving redress thereof. But the matters do require a larger discourse. Almost immediately Phildon Wilcox directed their argument beyond immediate, political, or personal frustrations. The larger issue is legitimate authority. Which the authors assert can only be rightly derived from the Bible. True authority is opposed by usurped power which the authors claim is the unjust aim of the church governors. Two non conforming ministers, one of them stripped of office by the bishops, here retaliate with a call to parliament and populous to spoil the bishops of office and authority. Their call entails the demolition of the state church that Elizabeth built.
The books publication convulsed England as few documents have done. The admonition and the commotion it raised received comment in virtually letter extant from 1573 through 1576 exchanged between the English and the reformers abroad. In many of these letters, as in letters between Archbishop Parker and William Sessel Lord Burly, the great anxiety awakened by the puritan program was the threat of popularity or government by the populous.
Field doggedly continued grass roots organizing an agitation. He and Wilcox were arrested perhaps just days after publishing the admonition and they spend the next year and half in prison, half of that time in Newgate. Even in there his primary task was to give the new radical movement a stable and enduring foundation. From prison, he continued his correspondence with puritan ministers, urged unity, encouraged the establishment of congregational organization in local conferences and wrote a confession of faith modeled on the articles religion which they had refused to subscribe to completely. The movement gained support, especially among young ministers emerging from the university and among the members of their congregations. When Field and Wilcox moved from Newgate to house arrest at the arch deacons, the stream of visitors that led to them, led the bishop of London, Edwin Sands, to complain that the people flocked to them as if they were going on a pilgrimage. Within a year a royal proclamation ordered subjects to surrender all copies of the admonition, and the books written in its defense. But as the deadline for doing so past, the bishop of London lamented that no one had obeyed the order that not a single book had been surrendered and that the whole business was encouraging the populous to challenge established authority and feeding them with democratic notions.
Puritanism menaced the regime, not only because it defied the royal supremacy but also because it proposed ideas of government antithetical to the emerging absolutism, namely the idea that power is to be shared if not by all the people, than at least by the best among them. The idea of congregational government of selected elders, sounded to Elizabeth’s officers like a step beyond aristocracy to democracy or as they called it, popularity. In a realm where church and state were coextensive they could foresee only the spread of popular government into politics. The archbishop, Matthew Parker, and the bishop of London, Edmund Sands, instructed the members of the high commission that the followers of Field and Wilcox not only cut down the ecclesiastical state but also gave a great push at the civil polity. In short, in the platform set down by these new builders we evidently see a popular state to be sought. The same warning was offered to Burly and the pretty counsel with the added omen that Godly would supplant the nobles. “Surely if this fond faction be applauded to or born with, it will fall out to a popularity and as wise men think it will be the overthrow of all the nobility. They be not wiser and skillful men that see the likelihood.” Parkers warning continues, “before God I fear that her highness authority is not regarded that if they could they would change their government, yea yours and mine. In the opinion of Elizabeth’s officers, the civil polity of Burley has as much to fear from Field and Wilcox as the ecclesiastical of Parker.
Field’s activities have been closely studied only a couple of times. First by Richard Bancroft in the 1590’s. He was the head of a network of spies and ministers of, and minister inquisitors of the Church of England and is an exposé and suppression of the puritan movement eventually won him a bishopric and an archbishopric. Second, Field has been studied by Patrick Collinson now of Cambridge university in the 1960’s, but no one has been able to identify where Field went or what he was doing to 1574 to 1576 the two years after he was released from prison. We now know enough about Field’s life to infer that at this point he formed a remarkable agenda for social change. We are looking at a moment of origin for modern political organization and method. Field, we now know, met with John Fox, about whom we will learn more about a little bit later, and embarked on a long process of translating continental reformers into English. Recent work looking closely at these translations some of which like the translations of Luther’s commentary on Galatians have been the dominant text for 400 years. This particular addition, this particular translation has come out an average of once every ten years for the last 400 years in England or America. And yet looking closely at it reveals um, a translation that is doggedly, insidiously, carefully, puritan in how it translates, in what it leaves out and in how it casts the opinions of the protoreformer, Luther himself.
Putting Luther into reader’s hands completes a pattern of in Field’s life. And it implies a logic into Fields personal work. Here he translates Luther and inculcates patronage and support from both powerful aristocrats. The first of these two is dedicated to the countess of Warrick. And also, from the youngest laity. The second of these, the inscription on the title page dedicates it to a young, a teenager whom Field had tutored when he was out of work. He would soon translate Calvin, two collections of sermons, then Philip Durplesey Mornesey’s “The Treatise of the Church.” Then, Theordore Bastsa, and Capser Olavion who was one of the architects of the Heidelberg confession. Just as telling as the ideological promulgation of the doctrines of reform to the populous is the way Field uses these texts to create a network of support among people in power. He dedicates these translations to Francis and Elizabeth Cook Russel, the earl and countess of Bedford. Henry Hastings, the earl of Huntington and president of the counsel in the North, Robert Dudley, the earl of luster and a particular of Queen Elizabeth, his brother Ambro Study, the Earl of Warrick, and lady Catherine Berdy the dowercher duchess of Suffuc.
Meanwhile, as organizing secretary of the London conference, Field assembled correspondence and writings of Puritans and their sympathizers throughout England and abroad. He gathered and sent to press tracks papers and sermons by John Knox, William folk and Anthony Gilby, sometimes even without the knowledge or permission of the authors. He collected the writings of the brilliant, popular and fearless young creature Edward Dearing and despite strict censorship of the press, he also prepared to publish the records and the testimonials of the persecuted Elizabethan Puritans. These attest to the legitimacy of the Puritan demands and the severity of the suppression they suffered. The idea and the methods for a documentary history of the teachings and the sufferings of the faithful, Field took from John Fox’s book of the martyrs, the acts and monuments. Field had contributed material to the book of martyrs early in his career. The earliest letter in Field’s hand is one he wrote to Fox from Oxford in 1577. So as the suspension or imprisonment of preachers persisted, Field amassed the evidence that would link the puritans with previous martyrs and associate the bishops with papist bishops or with corrupt clergy. He gathered and registered a huge store of documents, comprising individual accounts of ministers examined by the high commission and the bishops, letters and records of the puritan conferences, treatises on church governments, surveys of corruption and ineptitude among the unreformed perished clergy, petitions to the queen Privy Council, parliament and so on.
Throughout the mid 1580’s as archbishop John Windrift tightened his enforcement of conformity, Field held his own, led the resistance and encouraged fellow puritans to stand firm. In March of 1585, the high commission again suspended his license to preach. He coordinated efforts to besiege the parliaments in 1584 and 1586 with petitions for the relief’s of suspended puritan ministers and for reform of the ministry. Petitions supported by puritan surveys which parish by parish listed unqualified or degenerate clergy such as what may be mine own ancestor. But he also joined in the secret effort to establish Presbyterian church government within the established church without waiting for parliament. Ministers were to be called by their congregations. They were to meet monthly in local classes of up to ten ministers to try each other in knowledge, preaching, and practice of the gospel. They were to send representatives from each local class to semi-annual prudential sinetts and they were to attend national conferences at parliament time. In 1593, five years after Field’s death a selection of these documents was printed in Scotland as a part of a register. But most were seized by Bancroft’s agents shortly after they were shipped to London.
Field proved able to disseminate his attitudes even more effectively than Bancroft could spy them out however. No writings of his prove his sincerity and his skill in propaganda than his volume of Godly prayers and meditations; a collection of exhortations to principles and rules for and examples of meditation and personal prayer. In the prayers, he does devotedly address himself and his readers to God, yet he also insinuates the puritan public agenda. The prayers are laced with political indoctrination, but in a form which bypasses argument since they give readers the very words and opinions which are to come sincerely from the heart. By suggesting prayers, Field teaches the Godly what their deepest yearnings should be. In prayers intended to be uttered by all estates from private families to the nobility, and from the universities to the parliament, suppliants express their submission to the word and its ministers and plead that the ministers of preaching may go unhindered. And evening prayer for a private family gives individual households daily occasion to rehearse the flaws in the states church policy. In two prayers intended to the queen, Field puts self deprecation in the monarch’s own mouth for all the kingdom to overhear.
Of course it is common to confess ones sins in prayer, but Field’s royal persona confesses with a gusto unusual even for a puritan collection. Where a simple householder prays, I acknowledge that my sins are great, the queen must thank God that he did advance me miserable worm, most sinful wretch and the worst of others to be above others and she must admit her subjection to the reproves of the advocates of Presbyterian discipline. “Oh, open my ears that I my hear the reprover gladly and let such as are thy faithful servants in the ministry break my head with that comfortable balm of admonition.”
Through his prayers, Field insinuates legislation into parliament; he humbles the queen and prescribes her duties. He teaches all the people who read his little manual that they pass judgment on rulers so long as they submit to God’s word and give their support to the ministers. Puritan initiatives in parliament continue to be quashed by the queen’s direct intervention. After Field’s death in 1588 the puritan movement, lacking a leader and an organizer of Field’s drive and talent, withered in over a decade. Within a year or two of Field, died several of the most powerful patrons’ whose support he had nurtured. Lester, Warick, Bedford, Wassinum, but the popular propaganda which field had initiated gained momentum.
When one of his colleagues voiced despair over the opposition of bishops and magistrates, Field snapped back with an answer that made clear that he had already decided the new kingdom of Christ would be reared by the populous. As the passage here reads, “Hush Mr. Edmond hold you peace. Seeing the encompass these things by suit nor dispute, it is the multitude and people that must bring the discipline to pass which we desire.”
The British library holds the papers of Edward Luncner, a member of parliament from the last half of Elizabeth’s reign through the reign of King James. His papers contain copies of the puritan’s petitions and drafts of bills from the 1580’s and those petitions and bills resume in almost identical form after James comes to the throne. The activism, motivated by John Field lived on after him and in fact increased in the decades leading up to the civil war.
Thirty years ago, the historian Michael Waltzer argued that the English puritans invented revolution. His book was called “The revolution of the saints.” And it overstates its case, but Watlzer was not the only scholar to see the puritans as protomarxist. The metaphor of Marxist dominates scholarly thinking about Puritanism from C.S. Lewis to Christopher Hill. Even Patrick Collinson called Field the Lennon of Elizabethan Puritanism. But we cannot credit the puritans with inventing revolution. First and most simply it was King Charles not the puritans or parliament who declared war in 1642, but second we can hardly claim that radical reformers in England invented something that they experienced, something they never did, something they never advocated, something they never envisioned. I claim only that they may have invented what they in fact were doing. If no one was doing all of it before and if others continued to do it after them. What they were doing is what we now call nonviolent agitation for social change. The philosopher Hurgon Hobermoss argues that the critical premise of modern society is the existence of a public sphere, where citizens express and publish views and influence others. He notes that these concepts of the public sphere and the public opinion arose for the first time in the 18th century and in a concrete historical situation. There is no indication that European society of the High Middle Ages possessed a public sphere as a unique realm distinct from the private sphere, but as we have demonstrated before the concepts arose the praxis developed. What was the praxis that John Field fortuitously performed?
Well, you may have heard as I have repeatedly, the polls showing the sad figures that barely half of American adults can identify any of the rights included in the first amendment and that less than 2% can get all five of the fundamental freedom. I’ll help you remain in that elite 2% by reviewing them now, because those five freedoms make a very accurate summary, not only of the premises upon which the public sphere is predicated, but also of the tacit values of John Fields political praxis: Freedom of religion, the disestablishment of state church and hierarchy, freedom of speech, free use of the press, freedom of assembly, and the right to petition the government.
History didn’t treat John Field well all the way around. He was a preacher who lambasted corrupt bishops and who even went after playwrights and actors. Field’s oldest son, Theofolus, became a corrupt lodian bishop. His youngest son, Nathan Field, took Shakespeare’s place with the king’s men and was a noted playwright and the leading actor of his day. But another part of Field’s legacy was in fact radical social change. And its possibility was seen by Elizabeth herself in 1590 as she wrote to James the 6th in Scotland who would succeed her. “Let me warn you that there is risen both in your realm and mine a sect of perilous consequence, such as would have no kings but a presbytery and take our place while they enjoy our privilege with a shade of God’s word which is none is judged to follow right without by their century they so deem. Yea, look we well unto them. When they have made in our people’s hearts a doubt of our religion and we error if they say so, but perilous issue this may make I rather think the mind to write.”
John Field and his successors show with a clarity seldom matched the power of the word. Thanks very much.