« loyalty to place in the age of jet-set academia | Main | sites for youth discussion and debate »

May 2, 2006

"debating, counselling, prophesying, voting"

John Saltmarsh, a chaplain in the parliamentary army during the English Civil War (1642-6), wrote that "the interest of the people in Christ's kingdom is not only an interest of ... submission, but of consultation, of debating, counselling, prophesying, voting." We don't often think of these words together. However, consultation should precede voting, and prophesying can be a political act, as in the Civil Rights movement.

One of Salmarsh's colleagues, another chaplain named William Dell, asserted that anyone might preach in his own way, since "unity is Christian, uniformity antichristian." He welcomed diverse voices and opinions because "the variety of forms in the world is the beauty of the world." John Robinson, the Pilgrims' pastor while they were in Leiden (1609-20), said that everyone should be encouraged to speak publicly after a sermon. At the Bell Alley Baptist Church in London in the mid-1600s, public debates were held as part of religious observances. Around the same time, George Fox, the first Quaker, used to travel from church to church provoking public arguments. Once, he recalled,

I began to speak to [the minister after a sermon] and he began to oppose me. I told him his glass [half-hour] was gone, his time was out; the place was as free for me as for him; and he accused me that I had broken the law in speaking to him in his time in the morning, and I told him he had broken the law in speaking in my time.

Modern American evangelical Christianity can be traced back to men like Saltmarsh and Dell and to the general atmosphere in the 1640s and 1650s. Radical protestants disagreed about many matters of theology (as do modern evangelicals), but they fought for the right to dispute in public. That is a valuable heritage for Americans who favor civil liberties and public deliberation. It is also, perhaps, an argument against mega-churches and TV ministries, which are very much one-way performances.

There was another face of 17th-century protestant politics. It was Oliver Cromwell's Puritan Parliament that, in 1656, criminalized "disturbances" in churches, reinstating a law that had been passed under the Catholic Queen Mary in the 16th century, but now to suppress Quakers instead of Calvinists. Today, the pious are still influenced by Puritanism, but it is worth remembering that some protestant fundamentalists have found in free debate the essence of their faith.

[Quotations from Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside-Down, 1972]

May 2, 2006 7:38 AM | category: none


Don't forget the radical politics of many of the radical protestants--see Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker's The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, which updates Hill and others!

May 2, 2006 2:45 PM | Comments (2) | posted by The Constructivist

I'd like to read that book. What interested me most in Christopher Hill was not the radicalism of his heroes, but specifically their identification of religious faith with vigorous, pluralist debate.

May 3, 2006 3:55 PM | Comments (2) | posted by Peter Levine

Site Meter