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Religion Library: Anglican/Episcopalian

Early Developments

Written by: Russell P. Dawn

From the time Queen Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558 until over a century later, the English Church was pushed and pulled by marginal factions and central authorities alike, all seeking to craft the Church according their vision of right worship and belief. At issue were matters of Church polity, of how worship services were conducted, and of how and to whom God's grace was made available in the Church. The Church would swing from one side to the other, fall into the chaos of war, and eventually emerge somewhere in the middle.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) and for most of the reign of her successor King James I (1603-1626), Protestant beliefs of the Reformed or Calvinist branch predominated in the English Church hierarchy. Doctrinally, this meant that God's grace was found primarily in Bible-based preaching and God's secret, eternal election of certain individuals to eternal life, the rest having been reprobated (predestined to eternal damnation). The true Church was the invisible Church of the elect, and the visible Church was important primarily for the sake of the edification of the elect. Another important component of Elizabethan Calvinism was that the pope was viewed in apocalyptic terms as the Antichrist foretold in the Bible. The Antichrist was seen as a figure associated with the end times, one who would oppose the true Gospel of Jesus Christ, bring general apostasy (rejection of the faith), and have his seat in God's temple (the Church). The pope was believed to fit these characteristics.

The existence of a Calvinist doctrinal hegemony does not mean the Elizabethan and Jacobean Church enjoyed peace and harmony. For instance, there were during this period many Protestants who desired further reform of the Church along the lines of the Reformed churches on the European continent. A number of clergymen were offended by the national requirement to wear what they viewed as "popish" vestments (clerical attire). There was also, particularly during Elizabeth's reign, a popular movement for an egalitarian Church polity based on presbyters rather than bishops and priests. Some groups chose to separate, illegally, from the national Church.

Although Puritanism has been equated with the Presbyterian and/or Separatist movements, it is actually more difficult to pin down than that. It was not a sect, or even a group of sects, but a mindset, an intense belief in the importance of purifying the Church. Some Puritans belonged to sects, some pushed for a presbyterian polity, but some were loyal, conforming members of the national Church of England. Consequently, scholars now tend to think of Puritans broadly as the "hotter sort" of Protestants.


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