A History of Religion in the 17th Century

By Tim Lambert

In the early 17th century king and parliament clashed over the issue of religion. In the 17th century, religion was far more important than it is today. It was a vital part of everyday life. Furthermore, there was no tolerance in matters of religion. By law, everybody was supposed to belong to the Church of England (though in practice there were many Roman Catholics, especially in the Northwest).

King Charles I

In 1633 William Laud was made Archbishop of Canterbury. He was strongly opposed to the Puritans and King Charles I supported him wholeheartedly. Laud was determined to suppress the Puritans and he sent commissioners into almost every parish to make sure the local churches came into line.

Furthermore, the Puritans had their preachers called lecturers. These men were independent of the Church of England. Laud tried to put a stop to these preachers – with some success.

Most of all Laud emphasized the ceremony and decoration in churches. These measures were strongly opposed by the Puritans. They feared it was the ‘thin edge of the wedge’ and Catholicism would eventually be restored in England.

In 1642 there was a civil war between the king and parliament. The war ended in 1646 and Charles I was executed in 1649.

In the 16th century, everybody was supposed to belong to the Church of England. However, in the 17th century, independent churches were formed. The first Baptist Church in England began meeting in 1612.

Later in the 17th century George Fox (1624-1691) founded the Quakers. Fox believed that everybody had an inner light and during the 1660s and the 1670s he traveled across England. However, the Quakers were persecuted and Fox himself was often imprisoned.

From the end of the 16th century, there were also Congregationalists or Independents. They believed that every congregation had a right to run its affairs without any outside interference.

Charles II (1660-1685) was not particularly religious but as far as he had any religion he secretly leaned towards Roman Catholicism.

Meanwhile, parliament was determined to crack down on the many independent churches that had sprung up during the interregnum (the period between 1649 and 1660 when England was without a king) and make Anglicanism the state religion again.

They passed a series of acts called the Clarendon code, a series of laws to persecute non-conformists (Protestants who did not belong to the Church of England). The Corporation Act of 1661 said that all officials in towns must be members of the Church of England.

The Act of Uniformity 1662 said that all clergy must use the Book of Common Prayer. About 2,000 clergy who disagreed resigned. Furthermore, the Conventicle Act of 1664 forbade unauthorized religious meetings of more than 5 people unless they were all of the same household.

Finally, the Five Mile Act of 1665 forbade non-Anglican ministers to come within 5 miles of incorporated towns. (Towns with a mayor and corporation). However, these measures did not stop the non-conformists from meeting or preaching.

When Charles II died in 1685 he was followed by James II, who was openly Catholic. James II promptly alienated the people by appointing Catholics to powerful and important positions. In 1687 he went further and issued a Declaration of Indulgence suspending all laws against Catholics and Protestant non-Anglicans.

Worse in June 1688, James had a son. The people of England were willing to tolerate James as long as he did not have a Catholic heir. However, his son would certainly be brought up a Catholic and would, of course, succeed his father.

James II was deposed in 1688. Afterward, the Bill of Rights (1689) said that no Catholic could become king or queen. No king could marry a Catholic.

Parliament also passed the Toleration Act in 1689. Non-conformists were allowed their places of worship and their teachers and preachers. However, they could not hold government positions or attend university.