Christopher Haigh, “The Church of England, the nonconformists and reason: Another Restoration controversy,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History (2017), pp. 1-26 [available here].
Christopher Haigh’s latest intervention in the discussion about the character of Restoration conformity and nonconformity sits alongside the article he published in the same journal last year, and raises the hopeful prospect that he may have much more to say about the character of theological debate after the English revolution.
This article documents the extended campaign by some clergy of the establishment, in the 1670s and 1680s, to associate nonconformity with irrationality and “enthusiasm.” Nonconformists responded to their critics in different ways, even as (predictably!) divisions opened up within the own ranks. Presbyterians sought to reassure their critics that at least some nonconformists shared their assumptions about reasonable religion, whereas many Congregationalists, led by Owen, went in the other direction and alleged that their critics were guilty of Socinianism. Haigh argues that these debates about reason and religion confirmed the distance between establishment and nonconformist clergy even as it opened up important differences between emerging parties of dissenters.
Haigh places these debates about the proper authority for religious knowledge alongside debates about justification that were also occurring in the aftermath of the Restoration. Clergy of the Church of England argued that just as Calvinist nonconformists had undermined the importance of good works in justification, so their doctrine of the Holy Spirit marked them out as “irrational enthusiasts … Nonconformists were too dangerous to be tolerated, much less readmitted to the Church on easy terms” (p. 3).
Haigh notes that the charge of enthusiasm was, at first, principally directed at Quakers, but that in “late 1668, or early in 1669,” some Church of England clergy began to make this claim of nonconformists in general (p. 5). Haigh notes that this campaign began at the same time as nonconformists were emerging out of the shadows of the “Clarendon Code” to again take their place in public life, which occurred alongside a debate about the grounds upon which nonconformists could be comprehended within (a la Baxter) or tolerated by (a la Owen) the church by law established, perhaps contributing to the campaign to renew the Conventicle Act in 1669. Haigh also notes that several of the individuals who joined the first wave of this debate had legal need to demonstrate their standing as faithful churchmen.
The response of the dissenters was mixed. Bunyan’s riposte, in A defence of the doctrine of justification by faith in Jesus Christ (1673), may have “smacked of enthusiasm” (p. 10). Other dissenters renewed their attacks on Quakers as a way of demonstrating their own reasonable faith. Owen’s Brief declaration and vindication (1669) and Truth and innocence vindicated (1669) attempted to show that Christians reasoned within the limits of divine revelation and with the assistance of the Holy Spirit.
Owen was further drawn into controversy when William Sherlock began to argue that his doctrine of union with Christ “entailed the detail of reason in religion” (p. 11). And then the ground shifted. “Conformists thought that the argument was about reason, but John Owen and his allies thought it was about the Holy Spirit” (p. 11). Owen advanced his arguments about authority in religion in The nature of apostasie (1676), Reason of faith (1677) and The doctrine of justification (1677). For, as Owen put it in The causes, waies and means of under- standing the mind of God (1678): “there is a special work of the holy spirit in the supernatural illumination of our minds, needful unto the end pro- posed, namely that we may aright and according to our duty understand the mind of God in the Scripture ourselves or interpret it unto others.” Baxter tried to pull competing parties together but perhaps without appreciating the depth of commitment on any of the several sides that were emerging within this debate – and almost certainly without understanding Owen.
Haigh’s excellent article neatly complements his earlier study, drawing on a formidable range of reading to highlight the content – and the changing method – of a key debate with wide-ranging implications for dissenters in this period.