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Britain’s 17th Century Struggle for Religious Liberty Resonates Today


Two religious leaders at the epicenter of the British Civil War—one fiercely clericalist and the other fiercely anti-clericalist—stood for greater religious tolerance than many historians give credit, according to an expert in 17th century British history.

John Morrill, Ph.D., professor of British and Irish History at the University of Cambridge, compared the intersecting lives of Richard Baxter and Oliver Cromwell in “The Dilemmas of Religious Liberty in the English Revolution,” the St. Robert Southwell, S.J., Lecture at Fordham.

Cromwell, first and only Lord Protector of the British commonwealth, was a political leader who helped defeat the Royalists, leading to the execution of King Charles I and the establishment of more parliamentary power.

Richard Baxter was a Puritan church leader and theologian known as spiritual leader of “mere catholics” within English Puritanism.

Both men, said Morrill, sought to do away with the existing church order and had a strong dislike, even fear, of the authority of the Pope. However, they remained somewhat estranged over the depth and breadth of Christian liberties in England.

Cromwell’s antipathy for Catholicism was most clearly evidenced in the conquest of Ireland that he initiated in 1649. Troops under Cromwell’s command massacred thousands of civilians in Drogheda and Wexford after the towns were militarily secure. In the wake of the conquest, the public practice of Catholicism was banned and Catholic priests were captured and often killed.

Tens of thousands of Irish people were sold into slavery and all Catholic-owned land was confiscated and given to Scottish or English settlers.

Although Cromwell was hostile to Catholic clergy in Ireland, he was more tolerant at home, Morrill said.

“If it is an old Catholic saying, ‘Hate the sin, love the sinner,’ we can say that it is an old Cromwellian saying, ‘Condemn Catholicism, condone Catholics,’” said Morrill, author of Oliver Cromwell (Oxford, 2007). “Not one person died for religion in Protectoral Britain. . . not one Catholic priest was put on trial; Cromwell caused not one Catholic chapel demolished or vandalized.”

Instead, Cromwell sought, through instruments of government, to “win them over” rather than force their hand. He often ensured that laws against them were not enforced, said Morrill. And although he often had hard words and certain punishments for all kinds of heretics and blasphemers, he tried to persuade the guilty to recant or be silent, rather than execute them.

One such case involved a Quaker evangelist, James Nayler, who was brought before Parliament in 1656 for imitating Jesus Christ’s Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem. Nayler rode his horse into Bristol surrounded by followers who sang ‘Holy, holy holy,’ and strewed their clothes in his path.

Parliament narrowly voted against execution and opted instead to flog Nayler and brand his tongue with a hot iron. Cromwell worked behind the scenes to attempt to get the sentence mitigated or suspended, Morrill said.

“He thought it futile and counterproductive to make windows in men’s souls,” Morrill said.

Baxter, however, was much less indulgent of those worshipping outside of the official church. Baxter sought to centralize and enrich the church, while Cromwell had decentralized it.

“Baxter was clear that while tolerance was needed within the church, there was to be no toleration beyond it,” said Morrill. “Ultimately, [Baxter believed] the right to determine truth lay with a clerical caste, not with individual conscience.”

Baxter’s bottom line, Morrill said, was a national church staffed by ministers who followed the scriptures. All subjects were to attend church, and if they separated themselves from the church they forfeited their rights as citizens.

“These were [both]not men who were pioneers of the secularized liberty of religion that we owe to the Enlightenment,” Morrill said. “This is a 17th century story of the ways liberty could be understood and contained.”

The two men’s struggles with the limits of religious liberty are applicable to the 21st century struggle with fundamentalist religions. Like Cromwell and Baxter, “we are faced with defining the limits of the tolerable, by the challenge to core Western values of those with contempt for those values,” he said.

Robert Southwell, S.J., namesake of the lecture series, was a victim of religious persecution in Reformation England, said Morrill, yet lived as an “apostolate of letters” in which he challenged those of his day with the idea of religious pluralism.  In their own ways, Morrill concluded, both Cromwell and Baxter followed in his footsteps.


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