Nostalgia: Divided Christian community

editorial image

It is one of the saddest historical ironies that the word “religion”, which at root means “binding”, has done as much as race or nationality to divide people into mutually hostile groups.

England had been a Protestant kingdom for nearly half a century by the time that Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, but her church settlement passed by Parliament at the beginning of her reign would take many more generations to reach most of the uneducated population. Compelling parishioners to attend Sunday and holy day services was much easier to enforce than to persuade them of their necessity and efficacy. As one Puritan preacher of the time complained, “three parts at least of the people are wedded to their old superstitions still”; and another wrote that the “ordinary folk” knew the rhymes of Robin Hood better than the Lord’s Prayer.

Even in an urban community as small and as tightly governed as Scarborough, it was not until as late as 1635, a century after Henry VIII had taken the first steps towards Reformation, that seating was provided in St Mary’s parish church, the only one in the town, and even for only 250 of the 450 families living there. In practice it was impossible, or thought undesirable, to find church pews for the whole community: the poorest and most ignorant should be excluded. Church pews were only for those who could afford to pay for them.

But it was also a matter of doctrine and ritual as well as social hierarchy. The trouble with the Church of England established first by statute in 1559 and inherited by Elizabeth’s successors was that it fell between the two extreme stools of the old Catholic faith and practice and the new Puritan Protestant Calvinism. Catholics could not tolerate it because it denied the authority of St Peter’s church in Rome, substituted lay monarch for Christ’s vicar on earth, and rejected fundamental beliefs such as a celibate priesthood, the miracle of the mass, the sacrament of confession, and the concept of purgatory.

Yet, at the opposite end of the western Christian spectrum, English Calvinists still found too much “Romanism” in Anglicanism. Its hierarchy of archbishops, bishops, deans, canons and archdeacons was scarcely any different from that of the Catholics and they preferred an elected local system of ministers, elders and deacons.

Even less radical Protestant reformers objected strongly to “popish” survivals such as expensive clerical clothing, making the sign of the cross, bowing at the name of Jesus, kneeling at communion and separating clergy and laity by altar rails.

However, early Puritanism in Yorkshire expressed itself in private morals rather than in public profession. Temperance, frugality, industriousness were characteristics of their daily lives. Puritans detested swearing, gambling, all forms of extravagance and ostentation from costly dress to costly funerals. Care for the sick, the orphaned and the impotent elderly they regarded as Christian obligations. Providing work for the unemployed was an act of charity. Idleness was a sinful waste of God’s time.

The Puritan mentality is well illustrated by entries in Lady Margaret Hoby’s diary, a record of her private thoughts and fears. Sooner or later she was convinced that God would punish those who had offended Him. For example, “Young Farley” had been killed by “his father’s man”, who had run a pike through his eye and into his brain so that “he never spoke again”. Farley’s offence, she explained, had been to bring a horse into the church of God and christen it with a human name. For this “horable Blasphimie”, God had struck him down “for example to others”.

For Lady Margaret, sickness or pain of any kind were certain indications of God’s displeasure: headaches, “feebliness of stomach”, toothache were all divine punishments meted out to her because she had sinned against Him. When they ended that meant that God had forgiven her.

Conversely, virtue and penitence would be rewarded on earth with God’s blessing. For instance, in January 1603, she wrote, “This day it was told Mr Hoby that a ship was wrecked up at Burniston upon his land; and thus at all times God bestowed benefits upon us. God make us thankful.” As lord of the manor Hoby had right to shipwrecked goods on his shore, but Margaret seems not to have considered the damage, pain and losses suffered by the ship’s owners and crew. Did she assume that they were being chastised for their sins?

God might grant her good “bodily health”, but her spiritual well-being was always endangered by the Devil. “Until this day I have continued in bodily health not withstanding Satan hath not ceased to cast his malice upon [me] but temptations hath exercised me.” Later she wrote that she had felt Satan’s “buffets”, without explaining what form they took.

However, Lady Margaret was an educated, intelligent and well-informed woman. She read her Bible every day, believing it to be the literal word of God, but she was also well versed in the theological and metaphysical literature of her time. For the vast majority of her contemporaries, it was hard to believe that the Bible contained a monopoly of the truth or that salvation could be won merely by honest prayer and reformation of manners and behaviour. It was equally hard to accept as she did that every event, good or bad, welcome or painful, could be explained by “God’s providence” alone. Four hundred years ago, everyone, high or low, rich and pauper, was at the mercy of a multitude of possible calamities: chronic, disabling illness, the death of a loved-one, the loss of animals, the failure of harvest and for most victims it was easier to believe that the causes were not divine providence, but the malign and revengeful force of the devil. And if the new, married priests no longer claimed to purge your sins or exorcise the evil spirits, there were always those who offered their supernatural assistance. In every community there was always at least one soothsayer, astrologer, palmist, “wise woman”, “cunning man” or magician who could reassure you about the future or explain the inexplicable. And it was only a short step from believing that behind every misfortune was the Devil, to believe that the Devil acted through the power of his agents, the black witches. [to be continued]