On the Spiritual Thinning of the English

The nature and magnitude of this problem [of the population decline of England during the "Gin" age] are little understood even today because, during this dark period of her history [1660-1760], the power of England remained unimpaired and the shell of political institutions continued to function. The high degree of corruption even within this functioning shell is a matter of common knowledge, and we shall not repeat what the reader can find in any treatise on English history. For a moment, however, we have to reflect on one segment of English society, the functioning of which was of the greatest importance for the preservation of the intellectual and spiritual substance of the nation, that is the Church of England.

The functioning of the church had been impaired . . . by a series of incisive operations that removed the most vital members from the ranks of its clergy. The first of these operations was perpetrated by means of the so-called Clarendon Code. The Act of Uniformity of 1662 provided that all clergymen, college fellows, and schoolmasters had to accept the new anti-Puritan revisions to the Book of Common Prayer, that they had to conform to the liturgy as it was now established, and that they had to repudiate the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643 by which the signatories had agreed on religious reform according to the word of God and the example of the best reformed churches.

The result of the act was that two thousand clergymen refused acceptance, which meant that one-fifth of the clergy of the Church of England lost their positions. The Nonconformist private religious meetings that sprang up as a consequence were suppressed by the Conventicle Act of 1664, which provided severe punishments for dissenting religious meetings at which more than five persons attended. And last, the Five Mile Act of 1665 forbade the expelled clergymen to come within five miles of any incorporated town or of any place where they had been ministers.

For our problem this last act is the most interesting because of the occasion of its passage as well as because of its consequences. The occasion was the Great Plague of 1665, which reduced the population of London by 20 percent. Along with the more affluent part of the population a good number of clergymen fled London and deserted their flocks. In the care of the sick, in burials, and in services their places were taken by volunteering Nonconformists. This outrage, which illuminated somewhat too glaringly where and where not the common man in distress might find bodily and spiritual help, was answered by the Five Mile Act.

While the act was difficult to enforce in every instance, its general purpose was achieved: the Nonconformist clergy were effectively removed from leadership in English society by the simple device of removing them physically from town society, where their influence could have been of social relevance. In particular they were removed from the universities since universities happened to be located in towns.

The physical elimination of Puritan culture from English society, which lasted for a generation until the Toleration Act of 1689, dealt it a blow from which it never recovered. It is hardly necessary to elaborate the parallel with more recent technical improvements in the political art of destroying the substance of a people by removing its intellectual and spiritual leadership.

The second operation of the Church of England came with the Glorious Revolution. The Oath of Allegiance of 1689 was refused by more than four hundred clergymen who had their doubts about the legality of the transaction between the Convention Parliament and the new king; in 1690 they were deprived of their livings. This blow against the so-called nonjurors would not be so interesting if it had done no more than remove the Jacobite faction from the church. As a matter of fact, however, a goodly number of political Jacobites remained in the church and took the oath. The removal of the nonjurors was important because among them were the principal representatives of the patristic, sacramental and old Catholic conception of the church. While the first operation had removed the reforming left wing, the second operation removed the reforming right wing.

As a consequence of this double amputation the church was deprived of practically all its living forces. What remained were its worst elements, the mediocrities, the rakes, and the opportunists. The process of castration was completed in 1717 when, on occasion of the Bangorian controversy, the convocation of the Church of England was prorogued by royal writ. No royal license to transact business was issued again before 1861, and not even a consultative assembly was granted before the middle of the nineteenth century. The church had ceased to have independent public visibility and had been reduced to the position of being a department of state.

If we add to these measures the Corporation Act of 1661, the Test Act of 1673 (nullified in practice after 1689, but repealed only in 1828), the Test Act against Scotland of 1681, which caused some eighty bishops to resign, and the Papists' Disabling Act of 1678, which barred Catholics from Parliament (repealed in 1829) we get the impression of a totalitarian revolution. . . . with destructive effects on the substance of the nation similar to the destructions worked by later revolutions of this type. If the English nation could work her way out of this morass, though not unscathed, and regain firm ground after the middle of the eighteenth century, this was mainly the result of two lucky circumstances.

The first of these circumstances . . . is the fact that the national crisis occurred at a time when enlightenment and progress had not yet corroded the mass of the common people, so that the populist revival of the nation, when it came, through John and Charles Wesley, could still be a revival of Christian fellowship—however spiritually and civilizationally thinned out it may have been.

The second of these circumstances is the fact that between 1689 and 1721 the English constitution was created as an autonomous political form, independent of dynastic vicissitudes. The new constitutional system, secured by the Bill of Rights, the Habeas Corpus Act (1679), the Trials for Treason Act (1696), the Act of Settlement (1701), and the establishment of cabinet government and the party system with the accession of Walpole to the premiership in 1721, kept the channels open for the influx of new forces that grew in importance after the middle of the century.

CW Vol 24 (HPI-VI)
Chapter 4, The English Quest for the Concrete
§ 1, The Model Polity, pp 153-156.