One of the great puzzles to foreign observers of the U.S. political and religious scene is how an overtly religious political movement can flourish in a country, which, more than any other Western nation, has maintained clear blue water between church and state and has an unequivocal, even dogmatic, attachment to the principle of religious liberty. The two tendencies seem incompatible—seem like they shouldn't both emerge from the same society. Part of the explanation is to be found by examining seventeenth-century England and the policies of the great Puritan general and statesman, Oliver Cromwell.
Part I of this article explored Cromwell's intervention in foreign nations' domestic affairs to preserve the liberties of Protestant minorities, and his role in allowing Jews to live in England after four centuries during which their presence had been illegal. However, as we will see, his commitment to religious liberty was combined with an inclination toward social repression. These two apparently contradictory impulses could flourish within the same man because they emerged from the same worldview; and that Cromwellian worldview was eventually transmitted to influential groups in North America, by whom it was preserved—and has been revived in some forms today.
So often history provides important insights into current issues. But there are important differences, too, between Cromwell and the leaders of the modern U.S. Religious Right; were they to embrace more fully their Cromwellian legacy, it might modify their aims and make them more libertarian.
Cromwell's support for the Vaudois, Huguenots, and Jews was not an isolated incident. It was no coincidence that the poet John Milton (himself an unusually radical proponent of religious liberty) addressed a sonnet to Cromwell after his final military victories in 1651, urging him to emancipate England's Christian minorities:
". . . new foes arise,
Threatening to bind our souls with secular chains.
Help us to save free conscience from the paw
Of hireling wolves, whose gospel is their maw." 1
Milton knew his man. Even on his deathbed Cromwell cried out in concern at what fate might now befall "the poor protestants of the Piedmont, in Poland and other places." 2 Significantly, however, his concern was not just for fellow believers. Throughout his preeminence in the English Republic and his reign as Lord Protector, Cromwell consistently championed the right of all minority religious groups—not just Protestants—to practice their faith as they saw fit.
This was extremely unusual. Across Christendom it was taken for granted that any nation must be confessionally unitary or fall into chaos. In England, Cromwell differed from many of his fellow Calvinists. Most were Presbyterians, who, though persecuted themselves by the established national church in the 1630s, were opposed to any kind of religious liberty. Cromwell was of the so-called "Independents," forerunners of the Congregationalists, but even they generally placed clear limits on toleration.
For example, almost no Protestant advocates of toleration, initially not even Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, favored extending toleration to Catholics. There was also extreme reluctance to allow liberty of worship to those who, although Protestant in sympathy, either were not orthodox in their Christianity, or were extreme in their social radicalism or apocalypticism: anti-Trinitarians, Quakers, "Fifth Monarchists," seventh-day Sabbatarians, "Ranters," and, at the start of the period, Baptists, although as the 1650s wore on, they were increasingly accepted into the ranks of "the godly" (as zealous Protestants called themselves).
Cromwell in theory probably espoused formal toleration only for Protestant sects, but he was adamantly opposed to any religious persecution. He thought it incompatible with Christ's example in the Gospels. He knew that today's subjects of persecution sometimes turn out to be tomorrow's Christian martyrs. Then, too, he was able to conceive that a firmly, honestly held doctrinal opinion might simply be wrong.
In 1650 Oliver Cromwell wrote to the leaders of the Church of Scotland—rigorously and intolerantly Presbyterian—in an effort to end war between England and Scotland, bidding them consider whether, even though they had "established themselves upon the Word of God," all that they said was "therefore infallibly agreeable to the Word of God. . . . I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken." 3 Although not broadminded enough to countenance the possibility that he might be mistaken, the whole tone of this letter, acknowledging that different people could read the same Scriptures sincerely, yet genuinely arrive at two quite different interpretations, is a million miles away from the typical medieval and early-modern attitudes toward truth and error. Even Cromwell's willingness to reason in a Christian spirit with his confessional enemies is in sharp contrast to the normal, fiercely polemical, tone of post-Reformation interconfessional "dialogue" (and arguably, too, of the strident declarations of today's so-called Religious Right).
So strong was Cromwell's horror of persecution that in practice he extended toleration, whenever he could, to all religious persuasions—against the opposition of many Puritan leaders, who had expected their victory in the civil wars to give them free rein. As Milton forecast in his famous poem "On the New Forcers of Conscience," they planned to use
". . . the civil sword
To force our consciences that Christ set free." 4
But they had not reckoned on Cromwell's opposition.
Using his powers as Lord Protector, he vetoed a parliamentary bill providing for compulsory attendance at an Anglican, Baptist, or Calvinist church on Sundays. As Lord Protector he had no power of pardon, but strove to mitigate the intolerance of his associates in government. When the anti-Trinitarian spokesman John Biddle (often known as "the father of English Unitarianism") was imprisoned in the remote Scilly Isles in 1655, he received a weekly stipend of 10 shillings (a sizable sum for the time) from Cromwell's own private funds, to ameliorate the conditions of his imprisonment. Cromwell also probably helped to protect the Quaker leader James Nayler, who in October 1656 re-created Christ's entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday by riding into Bristol (Britain's second-largest city) on a donkey, while his followers laid branches in his path and cried "Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabbaoth." It was probably a symbolic act, a piece of religious theater, rather than an actual claim to be Jesus Christ. But contemporaries missed any dramatic subtleties or ironies and perceived only blasphemy—"horrid blasphemy" as a parliamentary resolution characterized it, for the crime was felt to be so egregious that only Parliament could deal with it. Cromwell stayed out of the debates over how severely Nayler should be punished (in the end he was branded, flogged, and jailed), but the narrow defeat of a bill to execute the Quaker probably reflects Cromwell's influence, exercised behind the scenes.
Cromwell thought it politically impossible to extend formal liberty of worship to Roman Catholics, and he accepted a parliamentary act for the confiscation of Catholics' property. However, as he wrote to a French cardinal in December 1656, he had personally intervened to "pluck many [Catholics] out of the raging fire of persecution, which did tyrannise over their consciences and encroach by arbitrariness of power over their estates," and was determined gradually to do more to let them practice their faith5 It is notable that, though it was a capital offence simply to be a Roman Catholic priest in England, only one priest was executed during the Protectorate: John Southworth (declared a saint by the Vatican in 1970). This death toll is in sharp contrast to the reigns of both James I and Charles I—generally seen as sympathetic to the plight of England's Catholic minority. It was Cromwell, the zealous Puritan, who halted the hunt for Catholic priests. Southworth was hanged, drawn and quartered under the terms of a commuted sentence from a 1630 trial, rather than subject to new proceedings. Unable to commute the sentence, Cromwell did what he could: he provided surgeons to sew the disemboweled and quartered body back together, and he returned it for burial to Douai College, the seminary for English