On the 335th anniversary of the Glorious Revolution -- the historical significance of the English Civil War (Part Two)
By Mark Wegierski
In the state and society which has been created by the American Revolution and its ongoing aftermath, an extreme narrowing of historical perspective has been continually occurring. As far as even the most historically conscious Americans are concerned, their social and political universe, and all the terms of their politics, begin in the 1770s. However, most Americans' span of meaningful historical memory, and nearly all their political referents, in fact go only as far back as the latest revolutionary upheaval in their society, which is the 1960s. Everything before that is virtually treated as elemental darkness, defended only by so-called reactionaries, "the left-over progressives of the preceding generation". It could be argued that the real outcome of the American Revolution, despite the apparent and totemic fixity of its constitutional arrangements, was the creation of a state and society characterized by the condition of almost permanent revolution and flux across its more than two centuries of history. There seems to be no period in American history that could be characterized as stable, instead, one irruption after another -- political, social, economic, and technological -- has engulfed the society. The monumental American Civil War/War Between the States of 1861-1865 affords a paradigmatic example of the fundamental intolerance in America of anything which deviates from its founding principles of pristine philosophical liberalism and economic capitalism, the former providing the ideological rationale, the latter probably the real reason for the decisive prosecution of the war.
Although the Founding Fathers would have liked to believe so, America was, despite its proclamation as a Novus Ordo Seclorum, not entirely without a historical tradition. The locus of that tradition was the new English state, particularly as it emerged after the short but extremely critical period of Cromwell's ascendancy. The historical outcome of the English Civil War can thus be seen as a fundamental pivot or branch-point for the emergence of America in the New World. The idea that Cromwell's Puritans are in some sense the essential progenitors of America could serve an explanatory function to many phenomena occurring throughout American history, as well as today, from major trends such as "political correctness" and televangelism, to ephemera such as Jonestown and David Koresh.
The Puritan ascendancy itself was a culmination of a long series of social and civil conflicts in the British Isles, which had begun with Henry VIII's break with Rome, the sacking of the monasteries, and the coming of the Protestant Reformation to England. There had emerged by the time of the outbreak of the English Civil War a number of fundamental divisions in the societies of the British Isles, which can be characterized as follows.
Religious Divisions: The extremes of opposition were the Roman Catholics versus Calvinist groups such as the Puritans. The Roman Catholics were pejoratively called "Papists", and the often highly exaggerated fear of, and contempt for, "Popery", or "the Romish Church", typified by the bogeyman of "the Spanish Inquisition" and "the Jesuits", became an increasingly strong element in the new English society. Some of the initial impetus for these sentiments had been given by the Roman Catholic Queen Mary's short reign as "Bloody Mary", and the threat from Spain under Philip II (the Spanish Armada) during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The Anglo-Catholic or High Anglican (High Church) tradition lay between these two extremes, but tended towards Catholic ritual, while recognizing the distinctiveness of the Church of England, and considering the Pope as merely the Bishop of Rome, with no special authority in England. By contrast, the radical Protestants saw the Papacy as the embodiment of Antichrist. The Anglicans, in fact, did not at this time characterize themselves as "Protestant", but rather as a third group between Roman Catholics and the radical Protestants themselves. The offices of Bishop and Archbishop, as well as the notion of the Apostolic Succession (i.e., that the ultimate legitimacy of the Church lay in the transfer across millennia, beginning with the Apostles, of the priestly authority) were recognized in Anglicanism as in Roman Catholicism. The Low Anglican tradition (Low Church or Broad Church), which emerged in greater strength later, identified itself with more Protestant, anti-Catholic and anti-aristocratic English tendencies. The equivalent of the Anglicans in Scotland was the Scottish Episcopal Church, which claimed to be the real Church of Scotland -- not the Calvinist Presbyterian Church which eclipsed it while using the same name. There was also a substantial English Presbyterian group. They formed one of the larger factions in the Puritan-dominated Parliament, before Cromwell's full ascendancy.
"Puritans", from the Latin puritani, meaning "the pure ones", is a general term for various Calvinist, radical Protestant groups of the period. The Puritans were known for their moral earnestness, their disdain for worldly pleasures, and their ascetic industriousness. The constant reading of the Bible to the members of the congregation, and the exhortation to every person in the congregation to read and study the Bible on their own to confirm their faith -- without the mediation of an organized priesthood -- was one of their most pronounced religious characteristics. Puritanism stressed the sincere profession of one's faith, reinforced through constant reading of the Bible, and condemned Catholic and Anglican ritual, churchly splendor, and a hierarchical priesthood set apart from the congregation. The obsessive reading of the Bible, particularly certain parts of the Old Testament, and the Book of Revelation, reinforced their sense of their own righteousness, and encouraged the emergence of all manner of then-radical ideas about the nature of social relations, as well as of various apocalyptic fervors, which sought to impose the Kingdom of God on Earth, by force if necessary. The Puritans were also obsessively concerned with every minute aspect of a person's daily behavior, and were able to apperceive "paganism" virtually everywhere in society, and to construe almost any monarch as an "Oriental despot". James I, for example, was characterized as a "British Nebuchadnezzar", a Babylonian tyrant. A later manifestation of this attitude was the common Protestant suspicion that George III, who dealt rather severely with Roman Catholics, had in fact secretly converted to Rome.
Another good example is the American Revolutionary ditty, referring to Quebec: "if Gallic Papists have the right, to worship their own way/then what hope for the freedoms, of poor Americay." By a curious twist of reasoning, extending tolerance to Catholics was seen as advancing oppression in England (or America). Roman Catholicism was also generally seen as decadent and lackadaisical in its moral approach. The first major known and popular work of semipornography in England was Confessions of a Nun. The prurient uncovering of supposed Catholic moral turpitude was a constantly reappearing theme in Protestant polemics and criticism. As late as the end of the nineteenth century, Protestants in America were referring pejoratively to "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion". Puritanism was also intensely masculine-centered, rejecting the special place of the Virgin Mary in Catholicism, and also radically monotheistic, considering the Catholic "veneration of the saints" as gross idolatry. The profound difference in the two religious styles is typified in the contrast between the Protestant Barnkirche (literally, "barn-church") and the sumptuous Baroque cathedral. The more radical Puritans were opposed to all graven images, which tended to lead to mass outbreaks of iconoclasm (the defacing or smashing of statuary in Catholic or Anglican churches). The English countryside contains many picturesque ruins of such churches (viscerally considered "heathen temples") sacked by Cromwell's soldiery.
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.