On the 24th August 1662, the feast of St. Bartholomew, almost two thousand Church of England ministers resigned their livings and became nonconformists. The Presbyterians in the Church of England had been working during the Commonwealth period to change the National Church into a Presbyterian Establishment. With the return of Charles II to the throne in 1660 these hopes had been dashed. Despite their dissatisfaction with certain practices in the Church, notably, the use of the surplice and the sign of the cross in baptism, they had remained within the restored Anglican Church. However, the Laudian Anglicans, who had been carefully planning for the time when the monarchy was restored, conspired to see the passage of both the Act of Uniformity and a whole range of legislation that would be the means of persecuting the Presbyterians. The effect of these laws passed in the first half of the 1660s was that the Presbyterians would have to declare their unfeigned assent and consent to all and everything contain in the Book of Common Prayer. The ministers that had been ordained by Presbyteries during the Commonwealth and Protectorate period would have to seek Episcopal re-ordination before St. Bartholomew’s day, 1662. Submitting to this demand was in effect asking the Presbyterians to renounce the validity of the ministries that they had exercised since their ordination.
The ministers that left in August 1662 became non-conformists and were subjected to persecution by the state. The Act of Uniformity and the accompanying legislation contained a range of provisions, firstly, it rejected the Solemn League and Covenant, secondly, it made the use of the Book of Common Prayer compulsory, thirdly, it banned conventicles which were meetings of more than five people to stop dissenters from meeting, fourthly, it banned those who were ejected from coming with five miles of their former parishes. It also banned them from teaching in public schools and excluded non-conformists from holding positions in the military or civil service and from obtaining degrees at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge (indeed, the rise of universities like that in Manchester came from the subsequent non-conformist academies).
The men who left the Church of England included some of the finest ministers that England as ever seen. The list included: Joseph Alleine; Isaac Ambrose; William Bagshaw; Richard Baxter; Thomas Brooks; Cornelius Burges; Edmund Calamy; Joseph Caryl; Stephen Charnock; William Cooper; John Flavel; Richard Frankland; Philip Goodwin; Thomas Gouge; Philip Henry; Oliver Heywood; John Howe; James Janeway; Thomas Jollie; Thomas Manton; Matthew Mead; Henry Newcombe; Matthew Poole; Ralph Venning; Thomas Vincent; Thomas Watson. The loss that was suffered that day by the Church of England is something from which she has never recovered. At stake was the protection of true Christianity within England and the ministers who left did so in order to protect the truth.
The passage of this Act was directly counter to the declaration of Charles II at Breda when he was invited to return to the English throne. At Breda he had promised to provide liberty to those of tender consciences. Charles as a monarch had promised his cousin, the King of France, to convert to Catholicism and tried to place his brother, James (Duke of York) who was a firm Catholic on the throne after him. When James II came to the English throne, the nobles and people of the country rebelled and Parliament invited his son-in-law, the Protestant William III of Orange, to become King at the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It is important to also note that Charles II’s French cousin, Louis XIV (the ‘Sun King’) was responsible for the revocation of the Edict of Nantes which forced many of the Huguenots to flee France. This edict had been issued in 1598 and the change of heart by a Catholic monarch provoked real fear of another St Bartholomew’s day massacre by the French similar to that which took place in 1572 when thousands of French Protestants were murdered. It is little wonder that Protestants see the feast of St. Bartholomew’s as a black day as it witnessed both the mass murder of French Protestants and the silencing of English Presbyterianism in the Church of England.
In this rather unsatisfactory book, issued on the 300th Anniversary of the Great Ejection in 1962, we have a range of scholars writing about the events from differing perspectives. Some of the essays are interesting, there is a difference in the quality of the writing between the articles with some that are much more difficult to read and others are less theologically sound than others. Anne Whitman starts off by giving us a series of the events from an Anglican perspective. E. C. Ratcliff then follows with a summary of the Savoy Conference and the attitudes of the Cavalier Parliament. Geoffrey Nuttall explains the stance of the ejected ministers. Roger Thomas deals with some of the effects and immediate history around the ejection. Ernest Payne provides a wider historical perspective. At the end of the book we get two modernist articles by Oliver Tomkins – the Bishop of Bristol - and John Huxtable giving a favourable resume of the ecumenical movement – then at its height of popularity. They see in the establishment of bodies like the World Council of Churches a possible to move from ‘Uniformity to Unity’.
In this latter section, we are treated to a range of the ecumenical views. G. K. Chesterton’s remark, ‘I find it easy to love the Eskimos, because I have never seen an Eskimo, but I find it hard to love my neighbour who plays the piano over my head too late at night’ is quoted as an example of Christians who are vaguely in favour of the concept of unity with fellow Christians around the world but cannot meet fellow Christians in a chapel just down the street. Similarly, we are told that denominational barriers no longer represent the real divisions between Christians, with Conservative Evangelicals being found in all denominations, and that those in the Church of England have more in common with those in other Churches than they have with ‘Catholic’ fellow-Anglicans.
As I was reading this section I became aware that several close friends had made contributions on a new website designed to advance the cause of union among the smaller denominations in Scotland. While I enjoy their friendship and often agree with their observations I read the material on this site with dismay. I have been unable to sign up to the site because of the terms to which you have to give assent. You are required to be concerned about the number of competing Presbyterian denominations in Scotland and believe in unity on scriptural grounds. I do not believe that there are too many ‘competing’ Presbyterian denominations in Scotland, the divisions that have arisen have in most cases been the result of doctrinal error or failure to exercise biblical discipline. Those who have been forced to separate have often had to bear their witness for the truth at great cost.
The Bishop Tomkins in the next to the last chapter of this book refers to the need for the Church of England to unite with others. He wanted them to ignore the lack of uniformity on views about ‘Sabbath Keeping’ and other issues that divided them from other churches and pursue unity. Fifty years later the Church of England is full of women ministers and actively debating the place for ordaining homosexuals. I can think of no major movement for unity that has resulted in a more conservative and theologically orthodox church than its joining churches when you take a fifty year view on the union.
John Huxtable comments in his chapter, that ‘almost all Presbyterians in Scotland joined the newly constituted Church of Scotland in 1929.’ That comment ignores entirely the fact that the smaller churches in Scotland had nothing whatever to do with that union. I am ever thankful that the leaders of the Free Presbyterian Church were sufficiently theologically aware to avoid the trap of union movements with the Free Church in 1905 and 1918 and thereby preserve the witness and testimony of the true Church of Scotland from the Reformation. I am fearful that there is going to be an attempt to drive an agenda for unity between the Free Presbyterian Church and other denominations. I would be profoundly concerned at a movement that seeks for unity without requiring theological and practical unity. There are various Presbyterians that may subscribe in a limited fashion to our witness on Psalmody, or may assent in some fashion to the Westminster Confession, but who do not hold to the unity of the witness and testimony of Free Presbyterian Church (which is the same witness as the disruption Free Church and the Church of Scotland at the Reformation). I regularly attend meetings with other Christians in other denominations and look forward to the day when we unite around the great White Throne. However, the Great Ejection shows us the danger of trying to unite with those who do not hold to the same theological position as ourselves. One of the beauties of the Free Presbyterian Church is that you can go into a congregation in Assynt or Auckland and there is a unity of practice, and this unity must be protected. Just as the ministers of the Ejection would not renounce their former ministries, the Free Presbyterian Church must continue to guard its testimony on all manner of areas, from women having their heads covered in public worship, to attending cinemas, to the clear preaching of the Free Offer of the Gospel.
We should only seek after unity on the basis of uniformity. We should always openly allow approaches by any group or church to come and join the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland by the usual means, and if they are reticent to follow that course then we must ask ‘why not!’ What aspects of our witness and testimony do they wish to dispense with – as it will almost certainly be to the cost of true Presbyterianism in Scotland. The text given to Neil Cameron by three eminently godly Christians at the time of the attempted union with the Free Church in 1918 was, ‘Let them return to thee, but return not thou unto them.’ (Jeremiah 15:19)
Recommended further reading on the Great Ejection
Iain H. Murray, Issue 26 of the Banner of Truth Magazine. This was a commemoration issue of 1662.