Sadly, men like Donne, Herbert and Andrewes were not typical of the church at the time, which was rife with patronage, corruption and abuse. This did not go unnoticed by Puritans such as John Milton, who longed for a more godly church and railed against “swan-eating, canary-sucking bishops”. Nor did they escape the gaze of William Laud (1573-1645), Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of Charles I. While Laud shared the Puritans’ disgust at these abuses, his vision of the church could not have been less like theirs. He dreamed of a holy church, a glorious church, a powerful church, and he set about to fashion it that way.
One element in this was ferocious persecution of the Puritans. Stephen Neill documents the punishment of Alexander Leighton, a Doctor of Divinity sixty years of age, who was not only fined $10,000 and sentenced to life imprisonment for his writings, but “for further punishment and example to others, to be brought to the pillory at Westminster and there whipped, and after his whipping to be set upon the pillory for some convenient space, and have one of his ears cut off, and his nose slit, and be branded on the face with a double S.S. for a sower of sedition … and at some other convenient time afterwards, shall be carried into the pillory at Cheapside upon a market day, and there be likewise whipped, and then be set upon a pillory and have his other ear cut off.” With this just ninety years after the burning of Ridley, Latimer , Hooper and Cranmer, one can only realize how little had been learned from history.
Laud further alienated the people by setting about the reclamation of church lands taken away during the reign of Henry VIII and now in the hands of laymen and the establishment of the Book of Common Prayer and episcopal government in the Church of Scotland. One curious aspect of this was the production of the Scottish Prayer Book in 1637—a book which was clearly a reversion to some of the practices of 1549. Reaction to it was so averse that it hardly saw use. In later years, however, it would become the basis of the official service book of the Episcopal Church of Scotland and form the basis of the Prayer Book of the Episcopal Church in the United States. In addition, Laud commanded that all churches in England should no longer place their communion tables the nave or chancel but place permanently them against the east wall, surrounded by a rail.
The repressive measures of Laud and Charles I led not to obedience on the part of the people but to revolution. Both men were toppled from power in 1641 and later tried and executed for treason. For the next nearly twenty years, during the Commonwealth period under Oliver Cromwell, the Prayer Book was banned, bishops were banished from their sees and the Church of England was presbyterian in its government.
Oliver Cromwell’s power was always fragile, however, and it was not long after his death that the monarchy was re-established under Charles II in 1660. The future of the church was negotiated at the Savoy Conference of the following year. To its discredit the church listened to the Puritans as little as it had at Hampton Court. The result was an Act of Uniformity in which the Church of England which looked substantially as it had before the Commonwealth period—only this time more than two thousand Puritan clergy were deprived of their parishes. This victory of the “high church” party not only deprived the church of some of its most gifted and committed clergy. It also meant the effective beginning of that tragedy of division in the church which we call denominationalism. One of those excluded from the Church of England was Richard Baxter (1615-1691), whose Saints’ Everlasting Rest and The Reformed Pastor are still in print and stand as classic works of Christian devotion.
The close of the seventeenth century saw yet another division in the church, and this time it was not Puritans, but “high churchmen” who were the victims. The issue was the deposition of James II, the Roman Catholic successor of Charles II, and the enthronement of William and Mary. A number of bishops and clergy refused to see them as rightfully occupying the throne and would not swear allegiance to them. These “non-jurors” (more than four hundred in all) were removed from their church benefices, but continued as a church of their own for more than a hundred years.