Oliver Cromwell Criticism

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Maurice Ashley (essay date 1957)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Cromwell's Religion," in The Greatness of Oliver Cromwell, Hodder and Stoughton, 1657, pp. 39-56.

[In the following excerpt, Ashley characterizes Cromwell as a man who felt moved by Providence to reestablish the correct balance between Church and State in England.]

Puritanism reached its zenith in the middle of the seventeenth century, and when the dissenters were expelled from the Church of England in the reign of King Charles II, non-conformity became part of the British way of life, indelible and unforgettable. Because Oliver Cromwell was so eminent a figure and a champion of the Puritan cause, it is easy to imagine that he was the creator rather than the creation of that extraordinary force in British history. But when Cromwell died in 1658, the Puritan movement was already over a hundred years old—for the Reformation itself had been the mother of dissent.

At first the Puritans were little concerned either with theology or politics.1 The early English Protestants in the reign of King Henry VIII, while they insisted upon the value of the Bible, translated into English, as the ultimate moral authority, and upheld the doctrine of a Christian's justification by his faith rather than his behaviour, were loyal to the Crown and repudiated any revolutionary ideas. However, after Roman Catholicism had been restored for a time in the reign of Queen Mary I, a transformation came over English religious opinion. For when Queen Elizabeth I succeeded her sister upon the throne and decided again to renounce the authority of the Pope, she was obliged to rely upon the services of a number of English churchmen, who had taken refuge overseas during the reign of Queen Mary, had sat at the feet of the continental Protestant reformers, and imbibed radical notions about the relations of Church and State. Some of the returned exiles then fancied introducing into England the Presbyterian scheme of Church government that was being practised in Geneva under the direction of the French theologian John Calvin; but the majority aimed simply at continuing, if at a faster speed, the purification of the Church which had been begun under the first Tudors. Most of these Protestant enthusiasts sought to refashion the English Church after the model framed in the reign of King Edward VI rather than to translate the discipline of the Swiss Church to a less rarefied climate. All of them were determined to destroy every remnant of 'foul idolatry', to ban all vestments—even the humble surplice—images, symbols, or 'popish' ceremonies, and to place upon the Holy Communion no miraculous interpretation. They wanted, as they put it, not merely to unhorse the Pope, but also to take away his stirrups so that he should never be in the saddle again. Secondly, they lifted the reading of the Bible, now translated into English by Protestant zealots (indeed, William Tyndale, the first English translator, has also been described as the first English Puritan), to the forefront of their religious exercises. Lastly they regarding preaching as the linch-pin of the public services. For them the Bible came before the Prayer Book and the preacher before any public act of worship. Exhortation in the pulpit and prayer in the home: such was the handy and unadorned machinery of their eager faith.

The Calvinist doctrine of predestination was accepted by nearly all English Christian leaders, thinkers, and teachers in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. It was not in any way a specifically Puritan doctrine. The belief that God chooses of His own inscrutable volition to 'save' some and to condemn others to perdition, that men are 'justified' by their faith and only show forth their salvation by their lives, was no party creed. Articles drawn up at Lambeth in 1595 (four years before Cromwell was born), under the presidency of the Archbishop of Canterbury, asserted that God had from everlasting predestined some people to life and had reprobated others to death, and that it was not in the...

(The entire section is 44,333 words.)