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The Putney Debates Exhibition


Freedom of Religious Worship - written by William Whyte, St Johns college, Oxford


In the run up to the Civil War, the role of religion in national life was hotly contested. For most people, England was a Protestant place. But what Protestantism meant in practice was far from clear. For Charles I and for Archbishop Laud, the ideal was a centralized, hierarchical Church: led by its bishops, who were the King’s servants. Church buildings should be stately and gracious and worship should be orderly and measured. For their opponents – the people we know as Puritans – all this smacked of corruption. Their ideal was simplicity and authenticity. Church buildings were unimportant; ritual and religious images were dangerous – even idolatrous; bishops had no place in a believers’ church.

 The struggle between these different religious ideals was political as well as theological. It was political because the Church was political: its bishops were appointed by the king and sat in parliament; the Church was responsible to the State. It was political because people understood politics in religious terms. At the Putney Debates themselves, the problems faced by the New Model Army were attributed to God’s anger. And it was political because the religious reforms envisaged by both Charles and his Puritan opponents had a political dimension. For Charles and for Laud, the orderly, hierarchical Church was intended to underpin an orderly, hierarchical society. For the Puritans, by contrast, the simple, honest, authentic Church was intended to transform the country into a nation of Bible-reading Christians; people who would abandon ‘Pagan’ festivals like Christmas, ‘Pagan’ activities like sport, and ‘Pagan’ habits like drinking too much.

 Whilst Charles and many of his Puritan opponents wanted to enforce their vision of religion on all people, at the Putney Debates another vision of religious life was proclaimed. Almost all those present were Puritans – but they were what were known as ‘Independents’. They believed in freedom of conscience and in freedom of worship. No one, they affirmed, should be compelled to attend church or forced to conform to another person’s beliefs.

 This was not the first time that such a principle was articulated. Nor did everyone accept its implications. But some these ideas were carried out under Cromwell and still others were embodied in the Toleration Act of 1689. Religion remained hotly contested, but increasingly – in England at any rate – people no longer died to preserve their freedom of conscience.







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