I recently reconnected with some old friends – well, very old really, about three centuries in fact.
I have long been interested in those conservative European and North American believers who forsake Western denominations that they see as too liberal, and who place themselves under the authority of some African or Asian prelate. The best known examples are in the Episcopal/Anglican tradition, but we see similar patterns among European Lutherans. This trend goes back about twenty years, and it is usually believed to be a startling new manifestation of globalization. Actually, there is an ancient precedent for this. It involves a group called the Non-Jurors, who might well be the most important Anglo-American religious movement you have never heard of, unless you are a devoted specialist.
After the Reformation, Europe’s Protestant churches were firmly under state control. That was no problem, provided that church members acknowledged the Christian identity of the state and monarchy involved. But what happened when the state and the state church treated Christian faith as a political tool? The church looked more like an arm of the civil service than an authentic spiritual body.
In England, the crisis came in the 1680s. The legitimate king was James II, who was a Catholic, and one moreover with a unique talent for annoying people. In 1688, his Protestant subjects rose against him and expelled him. By every accepted theory of monarchy though, James still held the right to rule as God’s earthly agent, and that right was in turn inherited by his son, who should properly have been king James III. In 1689, though, the English elite decided to abandon strict legitimacy and divine right, when they offered the throne to the Dutch ruler William, who was married to James’s daughter Mary.
This might sound like a sensible solution, but it caused agony for many in the Church of England. High Church clergy had spent a century formulating and preaching a rigid political doctrine that said, simply, that the king (any king) was the Lord’s Anointed, and rebelling against him was akin to the sin of witchcraft. That king might be a monster and tyrant, but even so, Christians had no right of active resistance. At most, they could refuse to obey his tyrannical orders, and passively accept martyrdom.
High Churchmen were aghast at the outcome of the Glorious Revolution, and the new constitutional settlement. In their eyes, when the church’s new leaders consecrated the change, they had abandoned God’s truth in the name of political expediency. Worse, the new order was demanding that all clergy and office holders take oaths to the new king. Many clergy, including some of the church’s greatest spiritual and intellectual beacons, found that they simply could not accept. They refused to swear those oaths, and by dint of that, became non-swearers, “Non-Jurors.” They began a domestic schism from the established church, and ordained their own succession of bishops.
That is the political background, but the consequences were lasting. The Non-Juror movement continued into the early nineteenth century, and it developed a potent High Church ideology. I do not mean that in the Victorian or Oxford Movement sense of quasi-Catholic liturgy, “bells and smells.” (Although some Oxford Movement thinkers, notably Newman, did look back fondly on the Non-Juror inheritance). Rather, the Non-Jurors struggled to create a kind of Christian practice that was fully in tune with the Bible and the Fathers, with “Primitive Christianity,” and which did not just depend on the good will of a state or king. They agonized over issues of ecclesiology, and at the same time sought new ways of leading a pure Christian life. Taking sacramental life very seriously, they were devoted to the ideal of small-c catholic Christianity. At so many points, they have much in common with their very influential near-contemporaries, the German Pietists.
Some of the leading Non-Jurors were in their day legendary authors and spiritual leaders, who were widely regarded as saints. Although his work is little read now, William Law was once one of England’s most venerated religious writers and mystics, whose A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728) was vastly influential among early Methodists and evangelicals, as well as High Churchmen like Dr. Samuel Johnson. Time and again, we see the influence of Non-Juror activists and ideas on the Wesleys and the early Methodists, a point that Geordan Hammond has recently stressed in his book John Wesley in America: Restoring Primitive Christianity (OUP 2014). The movement produced scholars and historians, liturgists and devotional writers.
Even if you think you know nothing about the Non-Jurors, you have very likely encountered portions of their writings or hymns. It was for instance Thomas Ken who wrote the famous Doxology used in so many modern churches:
Praise God from whom all Blessings flow,
Praise him all Creatures here below,
Praise him above, ye Heavenly Host.
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
To over-simplify: if you were a committed Protestant believer in the English-speaking world in the eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries, with even the slightest connection to the Anglican tradition, the books and pamphlets you most cherished were extremely likely to have been penned by Non-Jurors like Robert Nelson, Thomas Ken, William Law, Jeremy Collier, and a dozen other best-sellers of their age. To take just one example, Nelson’s Companion for the Festivals and Fasts of the Church of England first appeared in 1704, and by 1826 it was in its 36th edition. Without the influence of such writers, the great revivals of those years would not have developed as they did. Nor would we know vaguely as much as we do about church history or liturgy.
So the Non-Jurors were critically important for Anglo-American religious history. But why do I suggest that they foreshadowed the modern Anglicans seceding from the Episcopal Church? Briefly, around 1720, these terminally English divines were seeking to affiliate with the great Orthodox churches of the East, in one of the great might-have-beens of modern Christian history.
More in my next post.