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Church Against Church

When Parliament met in 1640, it read a petition signed by 15,000 Londoners to abolish the Church of England’s hierarchy, “Root and Branch.” Religious divisions were among the causes of civil war and even regicide. London was the epicenter of religious controversies, not only as the scene of petitions and protests, but as the hub of reports and proposals sent in from across the country, as well as from the religious exiles in Rotterdam, New England, and Bermuda. The press became a new kind of virtual public gathering place. The very idea that public opinion mattered came about through religious and political controversies.

The Ambiguous Confessor. Engraving, ca. 1650

Jasper Crosse. The dolefull lamentation of Cheap-side Crosse. London, 1641

Samuel Loveday. An answer to the Lamentation of Cheap-side Crosse. London, 1642

Edwards. Gangræna. London, 1646

Howgill. Some of the misteries of Gods kingdome declared. London, 1658

Penington. Some considerations propounded to the Jewes. London, 1660

Anna Trapnel. The cry of a stone. London, 1654

Parliament summoned a group of clerics to meet at Westminster Abbey in 1643 and charged them with reforming the state church. This visual commentary on their work is symmetrical, seemingly to reflect an even-handed view. But if the man on the right is destroying the church, is the man on the left repairing it or merely picking it apart more deliberately? Adding to the ambiguity, the verses can be read either across the confessional divides or down each side, to different effect.


It was at this time, in 1643, that Parliament authorized a new round of iconoclasm (the destruction of idols and images), and the Cheapside Cross was pulled down, as were other religious monuments throughout England. Written before the destruction of the cross, the two pamphlets paired above turn to satire to present their contrasting opinions on the act to London’s readers. They were printed for two different publishers and served different interests, but the same woodcut serves both cases, pro and con.


Thomas Edwards supported the Presbyterian reforms, which distributed power to individual congregations, among other things. He vilified those who would go further as spreading a gangrene through society. Edwards collected stories and reports from a network of informants. The reliability of Edwards’ reports is not necessarily clear, though, opening the question of how far one can trust the spin of a strong polemicist. As can be seen on this page, some of his most bitter venom was reserved for John Goodwin, pastor of St. Stephen’s Coleman Street and a leading religious Independent.


Other religious points of view came into play as well. The Quakers valued an inner light over Scriptural revelation, a silent contemplation over set prayers, and a conscientious refusal to take oaths or pay tithes. Quakers were the most heavily persecuted of the midcentury sects, and London’s prisons teemed with Quakers. Shown closed, a personal collection of ninety pamphlets witnesses the importance of print to the Quakers’ mission. Most of the key Quaker authors are included. William Antony probably compiled the collection. He signed many of the title pages, and his initials are stamped on the cover.


Protestant sectarians identified strongly with biblical Jews. For some, the conversion of the Jews would be another sign of the return of Christ to rule on earth. In December 1655, Oliver Cromwell opened conversations about readmitting Jews to England as a first step in this process. He also allowed Jews to worship privately in London’s Creechurch Lane. But few English were willing to tolerate the open expressions of Jewish religion in their midst. They were more comfortable, like the Quaker Isaac Penington, trying to persuade Jews to convert.


These rapid changes in religious and political policies were interpreted by some as signs of the millennium in which Christ would return to rule on earth. Anna Trapnel is one of the better known women visionaries who took on the role of an Old Testament prophet. A pamphlet publicizes the sensational eleven day prophetic trance that she fell into when she accompanied the radical Welsh cleric Vavasor Powell to his examination for treason at Whitehall Palace in 1653.



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