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his heartless policy. The sufferings inflicted in the cause of episcopacy naturally engendered an unconquerable aversion to it. The people loathed it as a disguised and virulent form of Popery, and at length wrested from the reluctant hand of Charles the recognition of their beloved and more simple polity. Unhappily, however, the Presbyterians of Scotland had not learned wisdom from their sufferings. Their passions were inflamed without their views being rectified; and they came forth from the school of adversity as narrow-minded and intolerant as any of the bishops. Hence arose a great difficulty in the negociations of the Parliament with their brethren in Scotland.” The latter insisted on the ecclesiastical government of England being conformed to their own platform, and required the enforcement of penal laws against all Dissenters. The General Assembly, in a communication to the English Parliament, after referring to the request of the Scotch commissioners, in the late treaty for peace, “That in all His Majesty's dominions there might be one confession of faith, one directory of worship, one public catechism, and one form of church government;” and that, “the names of heresies and sects, puritans, conformists, separatists, anabaptists, &c., which do rend asunder the bowels both of kirk and kingdom,” might be suppressed, proceeded to declare that they are encouraged to renew the proposition made by the forenamed commissioners, for beginning the work of reformation at the uniformity of kirk government. “For what hope,” say they, “can there be of unity in religion, of one confession of faith, one form of worship, and one catechism, till there be first one form of ecclesiastical government : yea, what hope can the Kingdom and Kirk of Scotland have of a firm and durable peace, till the prelacy, which hath been the main cause of their miseries and troubles, first and last, be plucked up, root and branch, as a plant which God hath not planted, and from which no better fruit can be expected, than such sour grapes as this day set on edge the kingdom of England? The prelatical hierarchy being put out of the way, the work will be easy, without forcing any conscience, to settle in England the government of the reformed kirks of assemblies.” In conformity with an agreement made between the Parliament and the Scotch Presbyterians, the memorable Westminster Assembly was convened in the summer of 1643. In this the Presbyterians were predominant, alike in numbers and in parliamentary and popular influence, and the intolerance of their proceedings was such, as to convince all true lovers of freedom that their ascendency, in place of the episcopal hierarchy, would be not an emancipation, but a change of yokes and taskmasters. “They aimed,” says Dr. Price, “at power rather than at liberty; and in resisting the encroachments of the hierarchy, sought to establish that of the kirk. Could they have effected their object, an ironhearted uniformity would have been imposed on the nation. The rites of religion would have been enforced with minute scrupulosity; but its generous impulses and voluntary movements would have been wholly crushed. Baxter was not insensible to this defect, and he has portrayed it with a fidelity which gives the greater weight to his approving testimony. Happily for the interests of religion, there was another party in the assembly, the members of which added to the personal virtues and ministerial diligence of the presbyterians more expansive views and a more liberal creed. They were known by the name of Independents, and had for some time a very arduous and perplexing duty to perform. Their numbers were at first so limited, as to present but little ground to hope that they would be able successfully to resist the scheme of the presbyterians; but what they wanted in numerical strength was supplied by the consummate skill and ability of their leaders.” It was during the session of the Westminster Assembly, thus composed, whose proceedings were characterized by + History of Protestant Nonconformity, p. 254.
“extremes of folly and wisdom, of enlightened discussion and of narrow-minded bigotry,” that the success of the royal arms compelled the parliamentary leaders to seek the support of the Scotch, who regarded the civil war as a religious struggle. The result of the negotiation between the parliamentary leaders and the Scottish presbyterians was the instrument, commonly known as the Solemn League and Covenant, a master-piece of spiritual despotism, which, after having been subscribed by the Parliament and the Westminster Assembly, was ordered to be enforced upon the whole community, lay and clerical, civil and military, and the names of all recusants to be returned to the government. To complete the intolerance of the presbyterian party, dominant alike in the assembly and the parliament, the new directory, as it was called, was issued under the sanction of both those bodies. The object of this despotic measure was, to suppress the Book of Common Prayer, and to enforce that perfect uniformity of religious observance and worship, at which the presbyterians both in England and Scotland had so long been aiming. The temper in which the directory was enforced may be judged of by the orders issued in August, 1645." In dismissing this humiliating portion of our history, I anticipate the course of events to indicate that point at which, when any despotic power arrives, it “o'erleaps itself,” and hastens to its downfall. I refer to the parliamentary ordinance passed on the 2nd of May, 1648, through the influence of the presbyterians, against blasphemy and heresy. It enacted, that all persons who, “by preaching, teaching, printing, or writing,” denied the existence or attributes of God, the deity of the Son or Holy Spirit, the existence of two natures in Christ, the efficacy of his atonement, the canonical authority of the books of the Old and New Testament, the resurrection of the body, or the certainty of a future judgment, should, upon conviction, if the error were not abjured, “suffer the pains of death, as in the case of felony, without benefit of the clergy.” * See Dr. Price's Hist. of Prot. Nonconformity, vol. ii. p. 338, et al.
Such were the position and temper of the presbyterians of Great Britain, at a crisis in the history of the Church, when a right appreciation of the principles of religious freedom, and a pervading spirit of Christian candour and love, would have secured to this empire the lasting and blessed heritage of liberty of conscience and perfect ecclesiastical equality. Universal history, perhaps, does not record a more lamentable loss of a more precious opportunity.
It is easy to imagine what kind of reception would be given, by a class whose ambitious bigotry sought to bend the souls of all their fellow-subjects to a uniform compliance with their creed and ritual, to such novel doctrines as those of Milton on the subject of marriage and divorce. His treatise kindled a perfect fury of opposition among the clergy and leaders of the presbyterian party. Forgetful of the services for which they were indebted to Milton, in their struggle against episcopal oppression, they assailed him with rabid animosity from the pulpit and the press; and, as if to challenge the severest inflictions of that power under which they had themselves been made to smart, they even caused him to be summoned before the House of Lords. From this tribunal he retired unharmed, leaving to his opponents the shame of defeat in addition to the guilt of persecution.
Confident in the justice of the views laid down in the dissertation last noticed, Milton resolved again to enter into the marriage state, and is even said to have made proposals to a young lady, the daughter of a Dr. Davis. His addresses do not appear to have been favourably received at first, and before they could be prosecuted to a successful issue, they were interrupted by an unexpected occurrence. The royal cause had met with its fatal disaster on Naseby field, and the known adherents of Charles were consequently placed in a precarious and alarming position. Among these were the family of Milton's wife, who now, says Dr. Symmons, became “sensible of the folly of their conduct, and solicitous to propitiate the resentment of an
injured husband, whose assistance might now probably be immediately requisite for their protection or subsistence. The plan for the accomplishment of their purposes was conceived and executed with successful ingenuity. Combining with his friends, who concurred in the wish for a reconciliation between the pair who had been united at the altar, they watched our author's visits, and, as he was in the house of a relation, they stationed his wife in an inner apartment, with instructions to appear at the proper time, and to supplicate for his pardon upon her knees. Faithful to the lesson of her friends, she sustained her part with skill, and probably with feeling. The scene was surprising, and the resistance of Milton, which seemed firm only for a moment, fell before its weighty effect. Yielding to the entreaties of beauty, and perhaps also to the recurrence of love, what he appeared to concede only to the solicitations of his friends, and dismissing every irritating recollection from his bosom, he re-admitted the wife who had deserted and insulted him into the full possession of his affections. Not satisfied with this signal triumph over his resentment, he extended his placability to those who were the abettors, if not the instigators, of her offence; and, receiving her parents and family under his roof, he protected and maintained them in this hour of their danger and distress. If his interest with the victorious party was unable to obtain complete immunity for his royalist connexions, it availed to save them from ruin, and to preserve the bulk of a property from which he was destined to receive not even the stipulated fortune of his wife. Conduct of so high a character, the offspring of a large and feeling heart, is above the ornament of any laboured panegyric. Let the facts, in the intercourse of Milton with the Powells, be placed distinctly and at once in our view, and nothing but atrocious prejudice can withhold us from admiring the magnanimity of the former, and from despising, while we pity, the meanness of the latter.” * Symmons's Life of Milton, pp. 176, 178.