Calvinisms

Blair Worden

  • International Calvinism 1541-1715 edited by Menna Prestwich
    Oxford, 403 pp, £35.00, October 1985, ISBN 0 19 821933 4
  • Wallington’s World: A Puritan Artisan in 17th-Century London by Paul Seaver
    Methuen, 258 pp, £28.00, September 1985, ISBN 0 416 40530 4

1985 saw the tercentenary of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the event which banished Protestantism from France after nearly a century of precarious legal protection. The anniversary, capably bruited by the Huguenot Society, was also seized upon for an enterprising non-denominational purpose. By extracting from a distinguished team, drawn from both sides of the Channel, the essays assembled in International Calvinism 1541-1715, Menna Prestwich has brought the findings of recent European scholarship – some of them reported at first, others at second hand – to an English audience hitherto under-acquainted with them. That was a clever move, for most of the book has little to do with 1685, a date by which the decisive contribution of Calvinism to the political and intellectual history of Europe (and, if it made one, to its social history) was past. The centre of the book’s gravity is the later 16th and earlier 17th centuries. Deciding that ‘it would not have been sensible or tactful to issue detailed directives’ to leading scholars in the field, Prestwich gives them a loose rein. The result is a collection of essays which are without exception helpful but which vary disconcertingly in scope, in time-span and in polish. Some are patiently introductory, others densely sophisticated. The editor’s introduction, although efficiently panoramic, scarcely draws together such threads as the book possesses.

A subject so large and so amorphous might have profited from a firmer policy. For what was ‘Calvinism’, and how do we chart its complex development from one generation and one country to the next? Harmless as shorthand, the term becomes distorting when used as something more, especially if we form the habit of labelling all non-Lutheran Protestantism Calvinist. Gillian Lewis, in a fine essay on Geneva, shows how short-lived were the claims of that declining and divided city to a theological and administrative sovereignty which in any case Calvin never wanted for it. Alastair Duke on the Netherlands, Henry Cohn on Germany, Robert Evans on Eastern Europe, Patrick Collinson on England are all as alive to the limits as to the extent of Calvin’s influence on churches which drew eclectically from a range of Protestant and Humanist thought both native and foreign, and which were more likely to think of themselves as ‘Reformed’ than as ‘Calvinist’. The latter term may fit church discipline better than doctrine, and make better sense when applied to the presbyterian system which Calvin offered Europe as an alternative to episcopacy. Yet Calvinist ecclesiology played only a restricted part in the most potently ‘international’ (or supranational) aspect of reformed Protestantism: the creation of networks of political cooperation and sympathy during the wars of religion which convulsed Europe both before and after 1600.

Prestwich’s collection proves to be about not international Calvinism but a series of national Calvinisms, their relationship to each other sometimes glimpsed but never grasped. The phrase ‘the Calvinist international’ occasionally appears, in gingerly quotation-marks, but the contacts formed across frontiers by universities and printing-houses and merchants are barely explored (although Collinson has useful material on international Protestant fund-raising before 1640). The diplomatic context of Protestant alliances is not established. If there was a Calvinist international, it was because there was a Catholic international, led by a Papacy which urged Catholic princes to unite in the suppression of heresy. In turn, zealous reformers informed Protestant princes that unless they made common military cause the light of the Gospel would be extinguished and the triumph of Antichrist assured. Their warnings became a central preoccupation of power politics in the later 16th century, in the generation of William the Silent and Coligny and Sir Philip Sidney – and of Sidney’s mentor Hubert Languet, a leading orchestrator of Protestant cooperation in Europe but an absentee from Prestwich’s book. In the early 17th century the same international concerns produced the Evangelical Union, the eirenicism of David Pareus, and the disastrous attempt, which provoked the Thirty Years War, to annex Bohemia for the reformed cause. In the next generation they produced the globe-trotting ecumenical initiatives of Dury and Comenius. Those themes, rich and richly documented, still lack major studies.

Admittedly, princely support for the Calvinist international was often a matter of words or gestures, which cost rulers nothing. Elizabeth I, in spite of ‘la mauvaise opinion’ which she held of Geneva after John Knox had written his First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women there, found it convenient to mouth pious concern for her distressed co-religionists abroad; she was less ready to give them armies or subsidies. Charles I, profoundly unsympathetic to international Protestant aspirations, happily ordered collections for Europe’s reformed refugees. The test for rulers came when religious sentiment conflicted with dynastic or mercantile priorities. Even Oliver Cromwell, so solicitous of Protestant sufferings in Ireland and Piedmont and Silesia, grasped that Protestant diplomatic initiatives might threaten England’s access to vital markets in the Baltic. Most Protestant princes wanted national churches, their boundaries identical with the state’s. The Calvinist international could be as subversive of that principle as the Catholic one.

As often happens to virtuous ideological crusades, the Calvinist international stubbed its toes on misunderstandings that have their comical aspect. The sympathisers with England’s zealous Protestants whom Evans intriguingly locates in 17th-century Hungary called themselves Puritans, evidently unaware that their English models repudiated the term. Elisabeth Labrousse, writing lucidly on the 17th-century Huguenots, shows how badly informed they were about English presbyterianism. The incomprehension was mutual, for Protestant Englishmen were persistently ill-attuned to the experiences of their Continental counterparts. As at the start of Elizabeth’s reign, so in the civil war of the 1640s, reformers eager to belong to a European movement were urged by their Continental friends to count their insular blessings. Charles I’s Roundhead opponents, thinking to have ended the isolation from the Continental churches which the king had imposed on them, and expecting international endorsement of their cause, found themselves scorned by Europe’s Protestants for their political disloyalty and their religious radicalism. A similarly frosty reception greeted Cromwell’s attempts of the 1650s to mobilise the evangelical cantons of Switzerland against the Popish threat.

By that time the Calvinist international was past its prime. In the Thirty Years War it had had to be rescued by a combination of Catholic France and Lutheran Sweden. The advances of Arminianism and of scepticism sapped the foundations of reformed theology, and brought to England and the Netherlands alike a political crisis in the earlier 17th century and an intellectual crisis in the 1650s. Yet the demise was not abrupt. The Continental diplomacy of the 1650s was deeply affected by the rival efforts of Cromwell and Pope Alexander VII to line up their co-religionist princes. Even after 1688, as Prestwich notes, John Locke regarded the war waged by England and the Netherlands against France as a struggle for the survival of Protestantism.

There is one other disappointment in Prestwich’s valuable collection: the brief and disembodied treatment of theology. We are told where Perry Miller went wrong, and what part predestination did not play in Calvin’s thought, but there is no imagination at work to re-create the relationship between Protestant lives and Protestant beliefs. W.A. Speck and L. Billington in an informative essay on Calvinism in North America, and Herbert Lüthy in a discursive piece on Protestantism and capitalism, note how the specialisations of the recent historiography of Protestantism have divorced theological from social enquiry. The failing is not remedied by the book. There are references to the success of Calvinist churches as social conciliation agencies, and fashionable (and fashionably imprecise) allusions to Calvinism as an instrument of ‘social control’. But Protestantism began with faith, without which life had no meaning and without which there was no salvation. The troubled journey of the soul to justification and sanctification followed paths defined by rigorous theological systems which the believer must comprehend. As the Puritan Lady Brilliana Harley explained to her son, ‘Luther had great fears until he had thoroughly learned the doctrine of justification by Christ alone, and so it will be with all of us: no peace shall we have in our own righteousness.’

Theology had its own dangers. By itself it became what the 17th-century London artisan and Puritan Nehemiah Wallington called it: the ‘brain knowledge’ of men with ‘little or nothing of the holiness of life’. ‘It is not an easy thing,’ reflected Wallington, ‘to be a Christian; it is not reading of Scripture, or boasting of faith or Christ, though these be good; they cannot prove one to be an absolute Christian; there must be a conformity of life.’ Wallington’s struggle to conform his life to his faith, and the voluminous manuscript reflections in which he examined God’s purpose on a sinful earth, form the subject of Paul Seaver’s vivid miniature study Wallington’s World. It is here, rather than on Prestwich’s broad canvas, that we approach the kernel of Protestant experience.

Wallington was a turner – a maker of wooden articles on lathes – who lived his long and in worldly terms not especially successful life in the small parish of St Leonard’s East-cheap by London Bridge. Even by Puritan standards he was an obsessive recorder. He wrote at least fifty volumes, about a third of them before 1640, the rest during the Puritan Revolution. The seven volumes that are known to survive – one of them identified by Gerald Aylmer in the library of Tatton Park since Seaver’s book went to press – take a form akin to diaries or memoirs, and cover more than three thousand pages. Selections of Wallington’s prose were published in the 19th century, but extracts cannot convey the relentlessness which is essential to its character. The autobiographical accounts of Puritans rarely answer to the omnivorously inquisitive hopes of a more secular age. Concrete details of life were not worth recording to Wallington unless God’s hand could be detected in them. Seaver ingeniously reconstructs what he can of Wallington’s neighbourly and business contacts, but the principal value of the manuscripts is an introspective one.

We have comparable documents by clerical or gentlemen Puritans – Ralph Josselin, Edmund Ludlow, the Harleys, the Barringtons – but nothing else on this scale from the godly of lower rank. Although a householder and a juryman, Wallington had the vote neither in Parliamentary nor in City elections. His writings seem almost to have been a substitute for human relationships, which he found painfully difficult. Despite his eccentricities, his prose is a pointer to the mental equipment of the throngs of Puritans who filled London’s godly congregations and joined its trainbands. It also illuminates the existence of a wider community, that network of the ‘people of God’ which in Wallington’s eyes stretched across England and reached – for he was a good international Calvinist – from the Presbyterians of Scotland to the Huguenots of La Rochelle and to the exiles of New England.

Wallington’s writings are about providence: about God’s ceaseless intervention in the world of his creation. Provindence operated at two levels: that of the individual soul, which God smote and humbled and refreshed as he moulded it to his purpose, and that of public events, where God scripted for his chosen of England a drama pointedly parallel to the tribulations and deliverances of the children of Israel. To all Puritans providence was a fundamental system of explanation, the guiding force of history. What caused the civil war? Historians spill ink and blood on that question, but to Wallington the answer was simple and uncontroversial: sin. In his inexplicable mercy God had repeatedly delivered a purblind nation from Popish slavery – at the Reformation, in 1588, in 1605. Yet England, with monstrous ingratitude, persisted in a sinfulness certain to provoke him to wrathful vengeance. Throughout his life Wallington was haunted by the sinfulness of his London neighbours, by their whoredoms, their adulteries, their fornications, their buggeries, their sabbath-breaking, their drunkenness, their cursing and swearing, their deceptions and oppressions, their schisms, their heresies, their long hair. When Cromwell’s Major-Generals resolved to ‘suppress mirth and jollities’ they spoke not for a mere military clique but for the Puritan generation to which Wallington belonged.

If sin was one determinant of political events, another was prayer, which Wallington thought ‘hath a casting vote in all the great affairs of the kingdom’. The ‘praying years’ of 1639-40 delivered the godly from Laudian persecution, and in 1653, according to the Presbyterian Wallington, prayer defeated the moves to abolish tithes in Barebone’s Parliament. Yet the divine wrath could not be placated by contemplation alone. God’s enemies must be ruthlessly purged. The executions of Strafford, of Laud, of Charles I were expiatory measures greeted by Wallington with relief and delight. In his prose lies telling evidence of the power of Puritan conviction to radicalise men of conservative political and social instincts. Wallington’s acquaintance with Prynne, Bastwick and Burton (of which Seaver might have made more) brought him before Star Chamber, a court whose abolition by the Long Parliament he thought ‘a very great mercy’. In 1640 his anger at the ‘filthy, execrable Book of Canons’ promulgated by the Laudian Church drew him into sympathy with political theories of contract and resistance which he learned from underground Puritan literature, and which arise startlingly from the ruminations of a dour and outwardly conventional shopkeeper and citizen. Bishops, he believed, were ‘the very limb of Antichrist’, and when their abolition seemed likely he rejoiced that ‘Babylon is fallen, is fallen.’ Religious imperatives created constitutional imperatives, and Wallington observed that the end of ship money and the passage of the Triennial Act brought ‘great joy to the Church of God’. The cosmic intentions of an Old Testament deity could not wait upon the niceties of the ancient constitution. Perhaps we should look again at the violent military imagery of Puritan sermons in the generation before the civil war, the subject of little-known essays by John Hale (in his Renaissance War Studies) and by John Knott (in his The Sword of the Spirit). Puritan preachers, whose apocalyptic injunctions pushed Parliament forward in 1640-2, may not have wanted civil war, but would anything less have satisfied their craving to re-live the Old Testament?

Wallington’s prose makes no pretence to anything so pagan as literary grace, although echoes of Biblical cadences help to keep one going. So does a fascination which can border on the morbid. For to persist with his always humourless, mostly melancholy writing is to confront in an unusually powerful form those qualities of Puritanism that at different moments can seem heroic, preposterous and terrifying. Our temptation is to soften the Puritan mentality and, as we suppose, to humanise it. Even Seaver, whose touch is usually so sure, makes as it seems to me a false concession to modern sentiment in remarking that Wallington’s providentialism gave ‘dignity’ to ‘the small triumphs and failures of an ordinary life’. What dignity had clay in the potter’s hand? It seems largely to have been the refusal of the Presbyterians to compromise in their assaults on human depravity and worthlessness that led Wallington to prefer them to the more indulgent Independents.

Possibly Wallington’s literary gifts were unequal to the communication of those more cheerful and creative features of Puritan (and Calvinist) faith which our time has emphasised. Yet we err if we neglect the darknesses of Puritanism, at least in its 17th-century form. The volume of despair engendered by Puritan teaching on predestination is incalculable. Wallington, who made many attempts on his own life, recorded the suicides of his neighbours, among them that of a parishioner who ‘did roar most hideously, crying that he was damned, and he had prayed often, and God would not hear it.’ In 1650 crowds of Londoners – far more of them than ever seem to have concerned themselves with, say, Leveller demands for franchise reform – attended high-powered clerical disputations about the certainty or uncertainty of salvation. Wallington came to be confident of his own salvation only late in life, and even then anguished doubt would return.

Social and economic explanations of Puritanism have collapsed, and we do not know how to replace them. In what sense can it have been in anyone’s interest to subscribe to Wallington’s spiritual anxieties, to sit, as he did, through 19 long sermons in a week, to endure endless fasts, to rise in the middle of the night for meditation and suffer agonies of self-reproach for dozing beyond the appointed hour? Puritanism roams the highway of our history, and before we could ‘explain’ it we would need to have the measure of the beast. Seaver’s book would be as good a starting-point as any.