Skip to content

Response to Review no. 1074

I am very grateful to Elliott Vernon for his careful review of English Presbyterianism, 1590-1640 and for his attention to the finer details of nonconformity. English Presbyterianism reassesses presbyterianism. But it is also about how the unresolved controversies of the Tudor Reformation related to the religious conflict preceding the English Civil War. Conformist developments within the Church of England make more sense in light of the persistence of presbyterianism: in particular as a response to the presbyterians’ sustained attack upon episcopacy, which was not only ecclesiastical but also legal and social in nature. The survival of presbyterianism also sheds light on the birth of congregational independency and its radical claims to ecclesiastical liberty and popular sovereignty several decades before such claims were supposed to have emerged. This should not only be relevant to historians of early Stuart nonconformity, but to those interested in the evolution of early modern religious and political thought and culture.

In response to Vernon’s point that presbyterianism and congregationalism were not fixed polities, my central claim is that presbyterianism was indeed flexible and adapted over time in both theory and practice. Historians of congregationalism have endlessly assimilated presbyterianism with congregational polity. Yet presbyterians in the early 17th century could either accommodate the royal supremacy or stress congregational liberty depending on their circumstance. There was also flexibility in presbyterian practice and even in the social breadth of popular participation in the reformed government. It should come as no surprise that there were various manifestations of presbyterianism, as of any polity, under the revolutionary circumstances of the mid-17th century and in the search for a new religious settlement.

Nor indeed was congregational polity static. The argument that Jacob developed a distinct independent congregational ideology is a case in point. To claim that his early exposition of independency must be taken into account when understanding later developments is neither to suggest that his polity was the sole source of inspiration for congregationalism, nor is it to dismiss the importance of other congregational thinkers. However, Jacob receives special treatment in my study because his ecclesiology and erection of a congregational church in England were unparalleled by any of his contemporaries. The Presbyterians’ clandestine manuscript exchanges with Jacob provide unprecedented insight into the novelty of his independent ideology. These sources shed new light on Jacob’s justification for his congregational experiment which has hitherto remained shrouded in mystery.

The book further highlights the evolution and ambiguity in nonconformist ecclesiology, taking special note of the development of Robert Parker’s thought and his mixed legacy. Nonetheless, my foremost concern remains to prove the existence of presbyterianism in the first place and the emergence of a distinct independent ideology within congregational thought before the outbreak of the English Civil War. An exhaustive account of underground networks and ecclesiastical variation is unnecessary for establishing the central claims of this book that presbyterianism persisted and remained at the heart of the Church of England’s unresolved Elizabethan problems.