This article was found in the May 1952 issue of Progress, the monthly magazine of the Romford Congregational Church
Being the fourth imaginary letter sent by an imaginary
uncle to imaginary twins
Dear Jack and Betty,
It has taken three somewhat lengthy letters to reach that period of Elizabeth's reign where a small group of Protestants can be identified as the original Congregationalists. They were not, of course, so called. They were first called Separatists, then Brownists (after one of their leaders a man named Robert Brown), and later Independents. But these men and women are definitely our immediate Congregational forebears.
It is impossible to tell you in detail the full story of the years of persecution which followed. Against the Separatists were ranged the full powers of State and Church. The Queen was determined to stamp out what she described as heresy and sedition. The Separatists went in peril of their lives. They were forced to meet in secret, in private houses, open fields, gravel pits, and occasionally in ships. Many of their Ministers and Deacons were arrested; and imprisonment in those days often meant a slow, lingering death. Indeed many died in prison. Notwithstanding the persecution they were never stamped out. On the contrary, by their courage and faith they won many new adherents. They continued to maintain a firm and unwavering objection first to the Popish practices of the Church and secondly to the relationship of the Church to the State, particularly as regards the Queen's powers in spiritual matters. Read this bold and convincing statement by a Separatist when charged with treason to her majesty:-
"Neverthelesse, this is out of doute, that the Quenes highnes hath not authoritie to compell anie man to believe any thing contrary to God's word, neither may the subject give her grace obedience, in case he do his soule is lost for ever without repentaunce. Our bodeys, goodes and lives be at her commaundment, and she shall have them as of true subjects. But the soule of man for religion is bound to none but unto God and his holy word."
In this 20th century we have learned to be more tolerant of one another's spiritual beliefs, but in Tudor days toleration was looked upon as weakness. Uniformity was the aim of Church and State, and repressive measures were taken to enforce it. Here is a paragraph from Mackinnal's "The Story of the English Separatists." It shows the difference between the Puritans and Separatists of Tudor days, and I hope the part I have underlined will make you feel proud of our connection with these brave people:-
"The difference between Separatists and Catholics - Roman or Anglican - was theological and fundamental. The difference between Separatists and Puritans was political, one of method. The Puritans were for a national Reformation in order to achieve the salvation of individuals; the Separatists sought the individuals and believed that only through their fidelity and spiritual growth could the nation be reformed. In their endeavour they re-discovered and formulated the simple apostolic conception of the Church; from which, since the second century after Christ, Christendom had been departing farther and farther. Our recognition of the nobleness of the two Puritan ideas - the solidarity of the nation and the sanctity of ordination - should not blind us to the superior elevation and courage of the Separatists' faith. They may not have been practised statesmen, but they understood the nature and function of spiritual power. And the true political wisdom proved to be with them. The Reformation movement would have been effectually suppressed if the Puritan dream of a national church had been realised. Every religious revival since the close of the 16th century has ultimately tended to an enlarged freedom of action and an increased sense of responsibility, in the particular congregation. The principle is now almost universally recognised that, for the national well-being as well as for religious prosperity, there must be self-regulating Christian communities, interpreting for themselves the will of God, existing within the state but not using civil power."
Although driven underground, these small independent churches were never crushed completely. The history of persecutions the world over and through all the centuries proves that the free spirit of man can never be utterly destroyed. Next month I will try to tell you about some of the martyrs of this period.
May God bless you.