The Primitive Church Revived

The Apostolic Age in the Propaganda of William III

In: Church History and Religious Culture
William H.F. Mitchell London School of Economics International History department London, UK

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Recent scholarship has highlighted the religious dimensions of political argument in William III’s England. This article adds to this trend through a political analysis of pieces on the Apostolic Age that were written, re-printed, or cited, in the reign of William III. The Age was manipulated to legitimise the Williamite settlement in two ways. First, the early Christians’ ecclesiastical structures and practices were compared favourably to the contemporary Church of England, and unfavourably with Roman Catholic regimes. This contrast bolstered the bipolar confessional divide that underpinned William III’s claim to the English throne. Second, the supposed pan-national spiritual sympathy of the early Christians was regarded as a template for contemporary European Protestants, who were worthy of the protection that formed the bedrock of William III’s foreign policy.

1 Introduction

To many in the 1690s, the Apostolic Age was the most pristine period of the primitive Church, generally understood as the ante-Nicaean period.1 Various factions sought to vindicate their beliefs through finding precedent either in or close to the Apostolic Age. Whereas the first Quaker, William Penn, claimed the earliest Christians rejected a professional Church hierarchy,2 David Clarkson, a Restoration-era clergyman and controversialist, stressed that the first-century Christians had bishops.3 High Churchman Francis Atterbury argued that the Christian primitive spiritual community was self-governing.4 William Wake, at the time a chaplain to William and Mary, responded that the first eight hundred years after Christ’s death showed a long-lasting vein of Erastianism.5 John Patrick, a Protestant polemicist, was one of many Church of England writers to claim that primitive Christians were against transubstantiation.6 The wide-ranging use of the period is indicative of its potency, and it is no surprise that William III’s Court—which, to borrow Tony Claydon’s metaphor, took a “blunderbuss” approach to its propaganda arguments—appropriated it.7

In seeking to place the Apostolic Age in Williamite argument, there are two historiographical hurdles: one in the field of Anglican studies, the other in political history. First, historians of religion have generally downplayed invocations of the primitive Church in the thought of pro-Williamite clergymen. Indeed, the later seventeenth-century invocation of the primitive Church is generally understood as part of one of two projects. The first project was the apology for the Church of England as an institution: Jean-Louis Quantin has shown that the primitive Church was central to the Church of England’s confessional identity as catholic and authentic.8 Quantin built on a long line of scholarship exploring the ways in which English clergymen argued that supposed aspects of the primitive Church—its liturgy, ecclesiology, and theology—compared favourably with the Church of England.9 The second project was the apology for ‘High Church’ agendas like anti-Erastianism, liturgical traditionalism, and anti-tolerationism, examined at length in Geordan Hammond’s study of John Wesley.10 Among other ‘High Church’ beliefs, the authority of the early Fathers was invoked to demonstrate the Church had corporate knowledge that overcame individual reason.11 The idea of the primitive Church is far less well associated with the project of legitimising William III’s regime. Major studies of the primitive Church downplay the genre’s resonance with latitudinarians,12 and accounts of latitudinarian thought rarely delve deeply into their subjects’ accounts of the primitive Church.13 Given that latitudinarianism was so prominent in the justifications of William III’s reign, this lack of emphasis means that studies of primitive Christianity are rarely a part of our understanding of justifications of William III’s reign.

The second challenge is the tendency in political history to separate religious and political ideas from parliamentary and pamphlet discourse.14 Scholarship on the history of ideas,15 on parliamentary groupings,16 as well as the wider English political nation,17 has built a compelling case for the ironclad connection of religious and political positioning in William III’s reign. This article works with Robert G. Ingram’s argument that eighteenth-century controversies tilted self-consciously on Reformation/religious questions, rather than Enlightened ones.18 Particularly, it is influenced by Tony Claydon’s works that stress the religiosity of William III’s public propaganda,19 as well as his recent work on the religious dimensions of time, which includes a discussion of the primitive Church as the starting point of history to William III’s contemporaries.20

This article contributes to this scholarly trend by integrating the primitive Church genre into the study of William III’s propaganda. It draws on two source bases: all publications on the primitive Church published or re-published circa 1688–1702, and sermons preached at Court. Since this piece is concerned principally with how authors sought to communicate to the English political nation, the scope is limited to English publications. The first source base is useful because it conveys a comprehensive range of eclectic issues for which the primitive Church was used, providing useful context for its manipulation by the Court sermons, which provide direction to the use of the primitive Church genre. The sermons were given by churchmen patronised directly by the Crown (nearly all Court preachers were chaplains to the Crown) and were printed and distributed by royal command.

Taken together, the two source bases show how the primitive Church, particularly the Apostolic Age, was appropriated to defend William and Mary’s regime and its reorientation of England’s foreign policy to commit to the European alliances against Louis XIV. Two major themes connected the Apostolic Age to Williamite polemic. Both have a latitudinarian character but, as will be explored, were complicated by infusions of what scholars traditionally understand as “high church.” The first theme was the claim that William III’s invasion was justified by his sponsorship of the return to original Christianity, and that his fight against Roman Catholicism paralleled his attempt to restore the purity of the Apostolic Age. This mission meant that God favoured England and its wars against anti-Christian/heretical powers like France. The second theme was that European Protestants, as heirs to a common Apostolic Age heritage, were worthy of sympathy and support. The extent of persecution over the centuries, including the thousands of “martyrs” killed by pagans and Catholics, provided a link between the “pure” apostolic times of Christ and late seventeenth-century Europe. William III’s efforts to help these other Protestants therefore legitimated his reign and his campaign against Louis XIV. In these two ways, the Apostolic Age had propaganda value to the regime.

These two morals drawn from many primitive Christian pamphlets justified William III’s campaign against Louis XIV. There is still a raging debate as to the extent to which William III’s actual foreign policy in the Nine Years’ War was pan-Protestant (particularly in light of England’s alliance with the Catholic Holy Roman Empire) but this article is less concerned with the thinking of Williamite high policy, and more with how it was communicated. This article’s conclusion, therefore, is not that the primitive Church genre demonstrates the religiosity of William III’s motivation in fighting against Louis XIV, nor that the genre itself was ‘political.’ Instead, I will show that latitudinarian and High Church understandings of the primitive Church were combined and politicised for William’s ends. Those being asked to pay the enormous sums for conflict with Louis XIV were partly persuaded by the promise that their country was acting in sync with an idealised ancient Christian past, whether in the latitudinarian understanding of a common spiritual community that defied national divisions, or in the episcopalian emphasis that the Church of England was the most legitimate expression of the true Church and therefore gained God’s favour.

2 Reclaiming Original Christianity from “Roman Usurpation”

As Quantin has argued, the use of the primitive Church as an apology for the Church of England had become a cliché by the 1690s.21 Many of William III’s clergymen were conscious that their use of the Apostolic Age was part of an older, Reformation-era discourse that sought to defend the Church of England from the Catholic charge that reformed confessions were innovative breakaways from authentic Christian teachings. Some writers explicitly noted the inter-relationships between their use of the primitive Church and the Reformation-era use, not least William III’s chief propagandist, Gilbert Burnet,22 and the Archbishop of York, John Sharp, who argued that the original point of the Reformations of Europe was to fit “the Pattern of the Primitive Churches of Christ.”23 The Church of England broke from Rome precisely because of its rejection of innovations, and its attempted return to the purest, apostolic age Church. William Wake “consider’d that the Church of England, beyond most Churches in the World, has a peculiar Veneration for […] the Primitive Church.”24 Thomas Comber, who by the 1690s had burnished his credentials as an anti-Dissenting High Churchman due to his Restoration-era polemical25 and devotional26 works, sermonised on the perfection of the English Church because it held the balance between having “not omitted any one Ordinance that is of Divine Institution, nor yet added any Invention of her own.”27 The episcopal, moral, and doctrinal links were complimentary and inextricable: whichever element was emphasised (with “High Churchmen” often highlighting episcopal links, and latitudinarians focusing on morality and doctrine), many agreed all three were needed to accurately reflect the early Church. Thomas Sprat, who is generally identified as a High Churchman following his deference to James II in 1688,28 sermonised to the Queen that his contemporary Church was rooted in the “Primitive Soundness of its Faith, and Sacraments” as well as “the Apostolical Antiquity its Government.”29 One could not occur without the other: through episcopal passage, primitive purity enlivened English religious and political culture. Sprat’s argument was similar to that given by his supposed ecclesiological opposite, Gilbert Burnet, who “Demonstrated that all the Essentials of Ordination, according to the Practice of the Primitive and Greek Churches, are still retained in our Church.”30 Burnet contrasted the liturgical and doctrinal “innovations” of the Roman Church with the Church of England’s return to primitive purity.31

Although it is true that English churchmen had used the primitive Christian genre since the Reformation as a justification for the break from Rome, this Reformation-era discourse gained new urgency in the topsy-turvy world of the post-Revolutionary years. The Archbishop of Canterbury at the time of the Revolution, William Sancroft, led hundreds of clergymen into schism when a Church that previously prided itself on the defence of hereditary monarchy now found itself propagandising on the legitimacy of a new regime. With both internal and external critics, the new clergymen who took the non-jurors’ offices, or the old clergymen who adapted to the new regime, invoked a range of religious and political arguments in justifying the new status quo. One such argument came from the claim that the crowning of William III—done by the Bishop of London, Henry Compton, following Sancroft’s refusal—ushered in a return to the principles and practices of the primitive Christians. Hereditary legitimacy could be replaced by doctrinal legitimacy, rooted in the practice of the earliest Christians. This theme peppered the sermons delivered by the elite clergy at the Court of William and Mary. In the immediate aftermath of the Glorious Revolution, Gilbert Burnet preached that the Church’s validation of William and Mary’s invasion had “reduced Christianity to its Primitive Purity and Simplicity,” in that the Church’s new, unequivocally Protestant co-monarchs would now commit to eradicating “the unreformed Practices” and “Sins” of the old regime.32 Burnet concluded by thanking God for belonging to “that holy Religion which the Son of God brought to the World,” in contrast to the corruptions of Catholicism.33 If lacking direct hereditary legitimacy, Burnet conferred new confessional legitimacy on the new co-monarchs, with God sanctifying the revolution through his interventions in the natural world to guarantee the success of his chosen people to return the English people to the original practices and doctrines of the primitive Church. Here again the two supposed wings of the Church of England, the latitudinarians and the High Churchmen, converged in a common interest in using primitive Christian practices in defending the Williamite regime. As William and Mary instituted a series of fasts and thanksgivings, alongside celebrations of the traditional Christian calendar, Thomas Sprat noted that “our Publick devotions” were public practises of “our pure and undefiled Religion […] exactly following the Blessed Pattern of the first, and purest Ages.”34 By engaging in these extensive ceremonies, contemporary English people were partaking in an authentic tradition of worship validated by, and continued by, the earliest disciples of Christ. The new regime gained legitimacy by patronising these ceremonies.

The extent to which God had granted England his favour against other states, paralleling the support he gave to the early Christian communities, served as proof that the English cohered so closely to the “Primitive Ages.” Richard Meggott—a Court favourite, being invited four times to preach—sermonised that God’s punishing of David for counting his people revealed God’s interventionist nature with those who formed a covenant with him.35 William Sherlock, associated with the High Church cause following his controversial pamphlet published during the convocation controversy,36 sermonised on how the promises of God to Jews were even more ironclad in God’s promises to Christians, because Christians were “the true spiritual Seed of Abraham.”37 Since Christianity’s beginning, Christians had been persecuted, yet Christianity had survived and spread. The later Jacobite rebel, Francis Atterbury, sermonised as a student to the Queen, arguing that God’s miraculous interventions to guide the primitive Christians was evidence of his divine support, particularly as the primitive Christians were far from likely to have survived if left to purely secular forces.38 Sherlock argued that Protestants were protected by God, because they “profess the Pure and Uncorrupt Faith and Worship of Christ,” being shielded from extinction despite Ludovician persecution.39 Edward Pelling agreed. Pelling is another clergymen considered a High Churchman, owing to a Restoration-era piece that argued that primitive Church precedent showed that all Englishmen should conform to all the practices of the Church of England.40 He preached in 1690 that English history was replete with instances of God’s direct interventions against domestic plots and foreign invasions: indeed, no country had been “more Miraculously Defended, and Preserved, in any Countreys since the Primitive Ages.”41 This claim that the English had entered a covenant with God owing to its adherence to its primitive ways was also vigorously asserted by Gilbert Burnet.42 The pure Church revived by William and Mary was well-positioned to draw on God’s patronage in the war against the Ludovician terror. In this way, the cohesion with the primitive Christian teachings was more important than a strictly hereditary claim to the throne: William III’s practicing of Christ’s teachings at Court would provide divine salvation when facing a foe as powerful as Louis XIV.

In building a wedge between Catholic countries and Protestant ones, John Patrick dedicated two hundred pages to exposing sixteen apparent differences between the Roman Catholic church and the ancient Church in the practice of the Eucharist.43 In so doing, Patrick’s agenda tied with Edward Gee’s in his piece arguing that the veneration of saints was another Catholic innovation. Gee, who wrote a number of anti-Catholic tracts during James II’s reign, detailed how Catholic scholars revised the original teachings of Christ, which were so similar to contemporary Protestant ideas.44 Gee and Patrick therefore worked in the spirit of Gilbert Burnet, who regularly argued that primitive Christians had their traditions usurped by the Church of Rome. Burnet asserted that the early Catholic church falsified the teachings of Christ to enhance its own power, internalising and reproducing pagan rites and rituals.45 In contrasting the Catholic belief in transubstantiation with the true, pan-European Protestant assertion that transubstantiation is inconsistent with biblical teaching, Burnet invoked a common, pristine, primitive Christian heritage that any non-Catholic was part of.46 In returning to Christ’s apparently authentic conception of morality and Christian fellowship, the pan-European Reformation was an attempt to rediscover, and re-live, true Christian morality, away from the falsities of Rome.

As well as drawing on secular historical texts, Henry Maurice argued that the Bible itself could be used to show that the earliest Christians (including Christ) shared his contemporary Protestant outlook. Although Maurice published Restoration-era works that placed him firmly in the High Church column,47 he was one of the earliest clergymen to print a piece in favour of recognising William and Mary’s sovereignty.48 Maurice had argued that Jesus’ attacks on the Sadducees’ authority was akin to attacking the papacy, through Jesus’ call to “Scripture and Reason”: Jesus’ enemies “would take Refuge in their Authority” rather than argue against his rational exposition of the way to understand the world and life.49 Maurice argued that papal infallibility was particularly alien to true Christianity, given that it appears nowhere in Scripture, and that the doctrine was obviously formed to gather more authority, usurped over the original primitive Christian constitution.50 In a more explicit comparison between the contemporary papacy and Judah’s anti-Christian clerical establishment, one pamphlet called the “Discovery of the Artifices Used by Roman Catholic Priests” as “The Pharisee Unmask’d.”51

The Pharisee/Sadducee motif was taken by a number of royal preachers, appropriating Christ’s denunciations of his contemporary “corrupted” sects to argue against the Catholic Church. Anthony Horneck made the comparison between “Pharisiasm, and Popery52 explicit in both their focus on “bare Outward Task and Performance, without any regard to the Inward Frame,” and their pursuit of “Profit and Interest.”53 This motif was a more obvious way of drawing a dichotomy between the corrupted practices that Jesus resisted in his time and that contemporary Christians continued to resist under William III. Thomas Sprat preached that Jesus “so earnestly endeavoured to free the World from a Pharisaical Religion,” defined as ceremony without intellectual substance.54 The wrestling between the craven, manipulated, ceremonially-oriented Christianity, and the pure Christianity as preached by Jesus and practiced by the early Christians, had occurred in Europe since the Reformation, and God’s direct interventions had ensured that he continued to protect those who practiced what was originally intended, against those who sought to undermine divinely-revealed truth.55

In producing works that stressed the dichotomy between the truer primitive Church and the corrupted Catholic Church, English writers emphasised their connection with the former. In so doing, they were engaging in a Reformation-era cliché that gained new urgency following the crisis of legitimacy that came with the new regime. The Court preachers granted William legitimacy through his sponsorship of the restoration of the Church to its purest form. Using the genre in this way conferred legitimacy on a state that, at war with Europe’s hegemon, needed it dearly.

3 Persecution, Pan-Protestantism, and a Shared Primitive Past

The previous section showed how the linking of the Church of England with the primitive Christians was used to paper over the lack of hereditary divine right and stress the legitimacy of William III’s reign. However, the primitive Christian genre also provided a more specific, and perhaps more emotional, justification of William III’s regime: the links between Protestants solidified by shared experiences. As Englishmen and their Continental Protestant brethren were dying in Europe, the connection between the Apostolic Age martyrs and persecuted Protestants was made explicit. The cross-border spiritual sympathy of ancient Christians, that were separated by different jurisdictions but united by reference to common scriptural authority, had resonance for contemporaries facing a Europe with Protestants divided into different states. Peter King, ostensibly hoping to moderate between the High Church and Low Church claims to the primitive Church,56 ended up creating an intellectual and political world for primitive Christians that mirrored the author’s contemporary Europe. King asked his readers to imagine a world “in a state of Paganism and Darkness,” with peoples’ “Understandings clouded with Ignorance and Error, alienated from God,” and thus “adoring as God whatever their corrupted Reason and silly Fancies proposed to them as Objects of Adoration and Homage.”57 Although discussing a world “before the Preaching of the Gospel,” the description of a world posing a threat to the true Church was eerily similar to the writer’s contemporary Europe. After all, the contemporary Catholic Church regularly took it upon itself to corrupt all truths, including the history of primitive Christianity, by poisoning the Gospel with talk of spirits and saints. Thomas Comber argued that historical recordings of the purest Christian age had been written mostly “by fraudulent Hands,” bent on establishing “a new Authority […] to furnish and support it with Wealth and Power […] to corrupt all genuine Ecclesiastical History.”58 The book opening was typical of pan-Protestant treatment of papal councils, in describing council attendees in the fifth century as “being generally the Popes Creatures,” assembled as if the “whole Christian World were managed solely by the Bishop of Rome.”59 Comber went on to ridicule the efforts of Roman authorities to establish ecclesiastical authority over the primitive Christians and their latitudinarian ways, noting how, in 498, the Roman clergy split between two papal candidates, which resulted in arbitration from “an Heretical Gothish King.” Whereas papal authorities call the episode “a Schism of the universal Church,” Comber argued that “it was no more than a Schism of that particular Church of Rome, and had no influence, that we hear of, upon” any of the other basically independent churches.60

Writers made an appeal to William III’s rhetorical argument for Protestant union by stressing the amount of human persecution that took place from the pagans to the papacy. Pieces on martyrdom proliferated in the 1690s, underplaying nationality at the expense of pious Protestantism. In the context of some clergymen and politicians arguing that dissenters were to be feared as much as Catholics—an argument that had been given by some clergymen discussed in this piece in the Restoration era, and satirised by Daniel Defoe61—the focus on confessional alignment highlighted the shared agenda held by different nationals in fighting Catholic tyranny. Martyrologies did not distinguish between Anglican and other non-Catholic Christians in their account of the history of rebellion against Catholics. This can be explained because Catholicism was essentially un-Christian in the eyes of true Protestants. Indeed, Marvell argued that he preferred “open Judaism, or plain Turkery, or honest Paganism,” because of the sincerity of their rejection of true Christian values.62

The transnational historical narrative of Protestants across Europe being linked by their exposure to persecution was rooted in the shared example of the original persecuted Christians: the Apostolic Age Christians who suffered in the Roman Empire. Writers established a common historical experience. As the pagans (particularly Nero) persecuted the early Christians, so too did Louis XIV and other Catholics persecute contemporary Protestants. William Cave’s Apostolici was an idiosyncratic piece for this genre. The third, posthumous edition of Apostolici was published by the pro-Williamite Richard Chiswell, and although Cave was by no means a “Williamite,” his descriptions complemented the broader pan-Protestant agenda of other works published by Chiswell.63 In describing in detail the lives of the early Christian fathers, Cave presented his subjects as timelessly containing the precepts of his contemporary Protestantism, besieged by Catholic threats throughout Europe. Cave argued that it was the duty of readers to study early Christianity, as it “acquaints us with the most remarkable occurrences of the Divine Providence,” showing how to live “a life of true philosophy and vertue”: “the History of the Church” is “our biggest interest.”64 Cave’s description was remarkably similar to his contemporary Europe, describing how the true believers were surrounded by enemies, who produced superstitious rituals and exacted vengeance on those who refused to follow. The similarity between the two worlds came from Cave’s presentation of history as a timeless contest between good and evil. Cave described the period immediately following the death of Christ as a period influenced by “the Devil, who […] became more sensible every day, that his Kingdom shaked; and therefore sought, though in vain, by all ways to support and prop it up.”65 The priding of the period as one to study, being positioned as so similar to contemporary Europe, and governed by the same fundamental truths (the conflict between good and evil), meant that Englishmen were intended to learn the lesson of the primitive Christians, siding with the good to triumph over evil. To propagandists this meant siding with the king in the moral war against Louis XIV.

The Roman-Ludovician persecution comparison was often made explicit. Burnet drew direct parallels with pagan persecutors and his contemporary Catholic ones, in a 1687 translation of Lactantius’s A Relation of the Death of the Primitive Persecutors. In his lengthy introduction, Burnet justified the need for the translation given “the present scene of affairs,” pointing out the contemporary resonances of the pagans who lived for “Brutalities of sensual Pleasure,” enforcing “vast Armies” and “costly Buildings”; “the Melancholy State of things” in 1687 made him meditate on the roots of oppression in both the present and the primitive past.66 In European exile, Burnet had witnessed first-hand the horrors of contemporary Catholic persecution of Protestants and, in his preface, he argued that persecution was tied to the essence of Catholicism, given the faith’s stress on infallibility and the wilful obedience of members of the Church to follow the commands of corrupt courtiers.67 As Burnet surveyed a Europe increasingly intolerant of Protestants, he argued that never before had there been greater profit in drawing parallels with the equally inhospitable environment faced by the Protestants’ spiritual ancestors, the primitive Christians. In arguing how the Catholic Church had infected Christianity with intolerance, Burnet contrasted primitive Christianity with primitive Islam, arguing that the two had undergone a reverse: Islam had started out as a warlike, tribal religion, but contemporarily, to Burnet, Islam was the centre of toleration. Contrastingly, Christ’s preaching of love and understanding had mutated over the centuries to produce war and death: “if there were no other Evidences but this single one, it is enough to demonstrate, how much that Body has departed from its first Institution.”68 The political implication was clear: the Catholic harasser of Protestant liberties par excellence, Louis XIV, had to be resisted, through military means if necessary. Otherwise the Ludovician tyranny would not rest until all of Europe were under the thumb of Catholic-motivated persecution.

A more direct parallel was drawn between primitive persecutors and writers’ contemporaries with one pamphlet calling Louis XIV “Nero Gallicanus.” The comparison with Nero was especially damning, being depicted on stage as tyrannical, mad, and pompous. Nathaniel Lee’s Tragedy of Nero, first performed in 1675, was printed throughout the 1690s.69 Nero was also depicted as a tyrant in an educational dialogue.70 In calling Louis the French Nero, one anonymous polemicist hoped to prove “the necessity of reducing that Most CHRISTIAN KING to a more CHRISTIAN TEMPER.”71 In presenting Louis XIV in this light, the author stripped Louis of his Christianity, arguing the French king “has so little Christian kindness for his own subjects”; his pursuit of universal slavery was “Leprosie,” the disease cured by Christ.72 The evocative language, and the moral excommunication of the French king, reveals the pamphleteer’s more popular, less academic, language, showing that some propagandists sought a deeper-based support for William III against Louis.

Gilbert Burnet drew an encouraging comparison between the persecutions of the primitive Christians and those of his present, arguing that the extent of the early martyrs’ sufferings was a consequence of the deepness of the covenant established between them and God: God “delivered many of them up to the Fury of the Jews, and to the Cruelties of Nero”:73 yet, following their repentance, God spared Jerusalem and later let his early followers live in peace. This persecution also had the effect of sharpening the early Christians’ purity, thus allowing the faith to spread quickly throughout the empire. Early persecution, like contemporary persecution, had purified and therefore fortified the faith of those closest to God.74 The drawing of the comparison made sense of the tough military fortunes of the early Williamite years, and showed that the primitive Christian genre could be used to explain a variety of circumstances under William, not least the apparent failure of a decisive breakthrough after the Battle of the Boyne.

This common ancestry was a template for the most militant, cross-national idea of Christianity, according to William Wake, who asked “was there ever a Race of Men that despised” death, disgrace, and torment, “more than the Primitive Martyrs?”75 Wake preached with hyperbole in rallying his audience to the standard of primitive Christianity. He noted how their example “chills our Blood,” their lives being “more like Romance than History,” and their sacrifices were rooted in their fear of God outweighing the fear of the loss of their bodies.76 Richard Lucas—one of the most junior preachers at William and Mary’s Court—similarly put “the Race of the Primitive Christians” on a pedestal, with their “Sufferings and Blood” being used to establish the Kingdom of Jesus.77 He noted that they “sought no Country but a Heavenly one,” travelling like “Pilgrims upon Earth,” and shunned earthly things.78

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, arguably the most popular piece of history printed in the period, provided a narrative that connected the early Christian martyrs suffering under the pagans to the Protestants of the present. The full title on the 1702 edition promised to give “A Faithful Relation of the Sufferings and Martyrdoms” connecting “the Ten Heathen Persecutions,” to those of the Reformation-era persecutions of Europe.79 Just by providing the contents of the reports of Protestant persecution, sympathy between the English readership and their Protestant brethren was meant to be produced. The editors of the volumes stated in their preface that the work was intended for this purpose, saying it was “so worthy the acceptance of the Protestant World.”80 The book was meant to be read “as Publick as possible, and fitted even to the meanest Capacity.”81 This intention demonstrated the deep-rootedness of the propaganda effort that sought to use martyrdom to emphasise the confessional union between contemporary Protestants throughout Europe.

In spite of the exhaustiveness of the Book of Martyrs, other pieces on martyrdom entered into the English market. One pamphlet went over one hundred and fifty pages detailing the martyrdom of Isaac le Fevre, who Louis XIV had enslaved.82 Also, works on the martyrdoms of groups abounded. Some tried to copy the Book of Martyrs and intended to supplement Foxe’s standard work in a way that was even more exhaustive, and inclusive of all Protestants: Samuel Clarke’s General Martyrologie presented the persecution of “Christians” in this pan-European light. Beginning with the persecutions of early Christianity, the seven-hundred-page history detailed Protestant rebellion throughout Europe.83 The popularity of works detailing martyrdom, and their stress on the faith of those who died, as opposed to their nationality, built a transnational consciousness that tried to impress on readers that the deaths of a Protestant in ancient Rome, sixteenth-century France, and seventeenth-century Hungary, were all equally tragic. The moral of these martyrdoms was that Protestants had to group together to prevent malign Catholic influences from being able to inflict such horrible murders on them in the future, which involved supporting William and Mary’s Protestant alliances.

4 Conclusion

This article has tried to show how pieces on the primitive Church had resonances beyond Anglican apology. Particularly, I have tried to show some of the genre’s political resonances, particularly its legitimisation of William III’s reign and foreign policy. Used for this purpose, the Primitive Christian genre was used defensively and offensively. Defensively, the Church of England’s authority was used to argue that William III’s regime was legitimate because it cohered so closely to Christ’s teachings. As the post-schism Church of England ultimately legitimated William’s reign by crowning him and Queen Mary, both Church and Crown’s legitimacy was built on the claim that the new Court, patronising a pure, Primitive Christian-influenced Church, was moving England back into a true spiritual communion that was timelessly relevant to the primitive Church fathers.

Offensively, the imagined history of the primitive Christian world provided fertile grounds for the promotion of pan-European Protestant sympathy. By establishing the distinction between “true” primitive Christianity and the supposed usurpations of the Church of Rome, national boundaries were underplayed against the Christian consciousness that was encouraged by the writers. By repeating and highlighting stories of persecutions between the Protestant Churches and the Catholic “Other,” motivated by the barbarity and falsity that the primitive Churches (and then the Reformed Europeans) turned against, writers presented contemporary Englishmen on a historical arc that pitted them against the Ludovician, Catholic evil. In so doing, the primitive Christian stories kept English foreign policy within the Reformation paradigm, placing English action as part of the ongoing Protestant struggles against foreign, Catholic, oppression.

Both latitudinarians and “High Churchmen” were welcome in this effort, with the former stressing William III’s attempt to de-Romanise the Church and sympathise with non-Anglican Protestants abroad, and the latter stressing the revival of primitive-inspired feasts, purges, and thanksgivings. Around 48 clergymen preached at Court during Queen Mary’s life, and even a cursory glance at the list of preachers demonstrates the holisticness of the project to legitimate the new regime: the archetypal latitudinarian (Gilbert Burnet), and one of the most eloquent pan-Protestants (William Wake) shared a platform with committed “High Churchmen” (like Edward Stillingfleet) and even a later Jacobite exile (Francis Atterbury). Although intra-Anglican differences are complex—particularly as many “latitudinarians” wrote deeply anti-Dissenting works in the Restoration84—ecclesiological differences were real and pressing in the post-Revolutionary Anglican Church, and the Court’s coordination of the clergymen of all these different persuasions demonstrates the eclectic variety of the propaganda front used to legitimise the new regime.

The unique pressures of the 1690s reshaped the English state dramatically: fiscal, military, and institutional changes were introduced in a small timeframe to fight the Nine Years’ War effectively.85 It is therefore no surprise that the regime invested in a propaganda system to persuade the English political nation that these changes were legitimate and good. The primitive Christian genre was just one aspect of a kaleidoscope of salient issues used by the Williamite state to appeal to different constituencies: I am not here arguing that the primitive Church theme was the most important of these different arguments. However, the evidence presented here suggests that the Williamite state considered the primitive Church genre emotionally salient enough to be as worthy of manipulation as the other themes—the defence of the ancient constitution;86 the Ludovician terror—that have been well-studied by historians.


I would like to thank Paul Stock, who was invaluable in giving advice on earlier drafts of this article. Also, I am very grateful to the two anonymous reviewers. Their detailed comments were very useful.


John C. English, “The Duration of the Primitive Church: An Issue for Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Anglicans,” Anglican and Episcopal History 3, no. 1 (2004), 35–52, there 42.


William Penn, Primitive Christianity Revived In the Faith and Practice Of the People Called Quakers (London: T. Sowle, 1696). “For as the Holy Testimonies of the Servants of God of Old, were from the Operation of his Blessed Spirit, so must those of his Servants be in every Age,” 100–101.


David Clarkson, Primitive Episcopacy, Evincing from Scripture and Ancient Records, That a Bishop in the Apostles Times, and for the Space of the First Three Centuries of the Gospel-Church, Was No More than A Pastor to One Single Church or Congregation (London: Nath. Ponder, 1688).


Francis Atterbury, A Letter To A Convocation-Man Concerning the Rights, Powers, and Priviledges of That Body (London: E. Whitlock, 1697), “This Power [to convene] having been actually claim’d and exercis’d, by the Apostles and their Successors, without regard, nay, in opposition to the Heathen Temporal Authority, is therefore, we say, not necessarily in its own Nature dependent on such Authority,” 18–21.


William Wake, The Authority of Christian Princes Over Their Ecclesiastical Synods Asserted: With Particular Respect to the Convocations Of the Clergy of the Realm and Church of England (London: R. Sare, 1697).


John Patrick, Transubstantation No Doctrine of The Primitive Fathers: Being a Defence Of the Dublin Letter Herein, Against the Papist Misrepresented and Represented, Part 2. Cap. 3 (London: Benjamin Tooke, 1687).


Tony Claydon, “Protestantism, Universal Monarchy and Christendom in William’s War Propaganda, 1689–1697,” in Redefining William III: The Impact of the King-Stadholder in International Context (Aldershot, 2007), 125–142.


Jean-Louis Quantin, The Church of England and Christian Antiquity: The Construction of a Confessional Identity in the 17th Century (Oxford, 2009), 13.


For a general overview, Eamon Duffy, “Primitive Christianity Revived: Religious Renewal in Augustan England,” Studies in Church History 14, no. 1 (1977), 287–300, and also David Manning, “ ‘That Is Best, Which Was First’: Christian Primitivism and the Reformation Church of England, 1548–1722,” Reformation & Renaissance Review 13, no. 2 (2011), 153–193. For how Church of England clergymen prioritised the ‘testimony’ of early Church fathers in their identity, John Spurr, “ ‘A Special Kindness for Dead Bishops’: The Church, History, and Testimony in Seventeenth-Century Protestantism,” Huntington Library Quarterly 68, no. 1–2 (2005), 313–334, there 319–320; for how Reformation-era sermons polemicised the primitive Church against Catholic detractors, Katrin Ettenhuber, “The Preacher and Patristics,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Early Modern Sermon (Oxford, 2011), 34–53; in Anglican ideas of architecture, Peter Doll, “The Architectural Expression of Primitive Christianity: William Beveridge and the Temple of Solomon,” Reformation & Renaissance Review 13, no. 2 (2011), 275–306.


Geordan Hammond, John Wesley in America: Restoring Primitive Christianity (Oxford, 2014), 13–41.


The standard text is J.A.I. Champion, The Pillars of Priestcraft Shaken: The Church of England and Its Enemies, 1660–1730 (Cambridge, 1992). See also, Robert D. Cornwall, “The Search for the Primitive Church: The Use of the Early Church Fathers in the High Church Anglican Tradition, 1680–1745,” Anglican and Episcopal History 59, no. 3 (1990), 303–329, and Sarah Apetrei, “ ‘The Life of Angels’: Celibacy and Asceticism in Anglicanism, 1660–c. 1700,” Reformation & Renaissance Review 13, no. 2 (2011), 247–274. Further explored in Quantin, Christian Antiquity (see above, n. 8), 3–8.


Quantin, Christian Antiquity (see above, n. 8), 3: “Veneration for the Fathers thus appeared to eighteenth-century critics as a relic of popery”; Katrin Ettenhuber, Preacher and Patristics (see above, n. 8), 51: “After 1688, the champions of patristic doctrine were relegated even further to the margins of the religious spectrum.” I am grateful to an anonymous Church History and Religious Culture reviewer for directing me to this passage.


John Spurr, “ ‘Latitudinarianism’ and the Restoration Church,” The Historical Journal 31, no. 1 (1988), 61–82. Spurr makes no mention of the primitive Church in his landmark article, nor does John Marshall in John Marshall, “The Ecclesiology of the Latitude-Men 1660–1689: Stillingfleet, Tillotson and ‘Hobbism’,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 36, no. 3 (1988), 61–82. Claydon makes a brief mention in Tony Claydon, “Latitudinarianism and Apocalyptic History in the Worldview of Gilbert Burnet, 1643–1715,” The Historical Journal 51, no. 3 (2008), 577–597, there 587.


The problem is eloquently put in Eloise Davies, “English Politics and the Blasphemy Act of 1698,” English Historical Review 135, no. 575 (2020), 804–835, there 811. The Enlightenment thesis established by Roy Porter, Enlightenment. Britain and the Creation of the Modern World (London, 2000), explicitly made the case for the gradual shrinking of the religious sphere over political life. The case is implicitly put in Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Berger (Cambridge, Mass., 1991), with the “rational-critical sphere” notably devoid of religious elements.


John Marshall, John Locke, Toleration and Early Enlightenment Culture. Religious Intolerance and Arguments for Religious Toleration in Early Modern and ‘Early Enlightenment’ Europe (Cambridge, 2006) and Jonathan Israel, Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man 1670–1752 (Oxford, 2006) are two examples of attempts in intellectual history to connect political and religious ideas.


David Hayton, “Moral Reform and Country Politics in the Late Seventeenth-Century House of Commons,” Past and Present 128 (1990), 48–91. Brent S. Sirota, “The Trinitarian Crisis in Church and State: Religious Controversy and the Making of the Postrevolutionary Church of England,” Journal of British Studies 52 (2013), 36–54.


Works such as Craig Rose, England in the 1690s: Revolution, Religion and War (Oxford, 1999), Craig Rose, “Providence, Protestant Union and Godly Reformation in the 1690s: The Alexander Prize Essay, Proxime Accessit,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 3 (1993), 151–169, Brent S. Sirota, “The Occasional Conformity Controversy, Moderation, and the Anglican Critique of Modernity, 1700–1714,” The Historical Journal 57, no. 1 (2014), 81–105, and Martin Grieg, “Heresy Hunt: Gilbert Burnet and the Convocation Controversy of 1701,” The Historical Journal 37, no. 3 (1994), 569–592.


Robert G. Ingram, Reformation without End: Religion, Politics and the Past in Post-Revolutionary England (Manchester, 2018).


Tony Claydon, William III and the Godly Revolution (Cambridge, 1996).


Tony Claydon, The Revolution in Time: Chronology, Modernity, and 1688–1689 in England (Oxford, 2020), particularly 100–160.


Quantin, Christian Antiquity (see above, n. 8), 292.


Gilbert Burnet, A Sermon Preached before the King and Queen, at White-Hall, On the 19th Day of October, 1690. Being the Day of Thanksgiving, For His Majesties Preservation and Success in Ireland (London: Richard Chiswell, 1690), 26–27.


John Sharp, A Sermon Preach’d before the King & Queen, At White-Hall, The 12th of November, 1693. Being the Day Appointed for a Publick Thanksgiving To Almighty God, for the Gracious Preservation of His Majesty, And His Safe Return (London: Walter Kettilby, 1693), 24.


Wake, Authority of Christian Princes (see above, n. 5), iv.


Thomas Comber, The Rights of Tythes Asserted & Proved, From Divine Institution, Primitive Practice, Voluntary Donations, and Positive Laws (London: E. Croft, 1677).


Thomas Comber, A Companion To The Temple: Or, a Help to Devotion In the Daily Use of the Common Prayer: In Two Parts (London: Henry Brome, 1679).


Thomas Comber, The Reasons Of Praying for the Peace of Our Jerusalem: In A Sermon Preached before the Queen On The Fast-Day, Being Wednesday, August 29th (London: Robert Clavel, 1694), 15.


“Sprat, Thomas.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.)


Thomas Sprat, A Sermon Preached before the King and Queen, At Whitehall, On Good-Friday, April. 6. 1694 (London: Edward Jones, 1694), 30.


Gilbert Burnet, A Vindication of the Ordinations of the Church of England, 2nd ed. (London: Ric. Chiswell, 1688), title page.


Ibid., i–xxviii.


Gilbert Burnet, A Sermon Preached In the Chappel of St. James’s Before His Highness the Prince of Orange, the 23d of December, 1688, 2nd ed. (London: Richard Chiswell, 1688), 5.


Ibid., 25.


Thomas Sprat, A Sermon Preached before the King and Queen, At Whitehal, On Good-Friday, 1690 (London: Edward Jones, 1690), 2.


Richard Meggott, A Sermon Preached before the Queen, At White-Hall, On the Fast, July 19. 1691 (London: Tho. Bennet, 1691), 9.


William Sherlock, A Letter To a Member of the Convocation (Edinburgh: Heir of Andrew Anderson, 1689).


William Sherlock, A Sermon Preached at White-Hall, Before the Queen, On the 17th of June, 1691, Being The Fast-Day (London: W. Rogers, 1691), 8. Owing to damage on the source, the pagination is my own.


Francis Atterbury, The Christian Religion Increas’d by Miracle. A Sermon Before the Queen At White-Hall, October 21. 1694 (London: Thomas Bennet, 1694), 1, 10.


Sherlock, A Sermon Preached (see above, n. 37), 10.


Edward Pelling, The Good Old Way Or, A Discourse Offer’d to All True-Hearted Protestants Concerning the Ancient Way of the Church, And the Conformity of the Church of England Thereunto: As to Its Government, Manner of Worship, Rites and Customes (London: Jonathan Edwin, 1680).


Edward Pelling, A Sermon Preached before the King & Queen At Whitehall, Decemb. 8th. 1689 (London: Walter Kettilby, 1690), 29–30.


Claydon, Worldview of Gilbert Burnet (see above, n. 13), there 585.


John Patrick, A Full View of the Doctrines and Practices of the Ancient Church Relating to the Eucharist. Wholly Different from Those of The Present Roman Church, And Inconsistent with the Belief of Transubstantiation (London: Richard Chiswell, 1688), Contents page.


Edward Gee, The Primitive Fathers No Papists: In Answer to the Vindication of the Nubes Testium (London: Richard Chiswel, 1688), 64.


Burnet, Vindication (see above, n. 30), xx.


Ibid., 14.


Henry Maurice, A Vindication Of The Primitive Church, And Diocesan Episcopacy: In Answer to Mr. Baxter’s Church History of Bishops, And Their Councils Abridged: As Also to Some Part of His Treatise of Episcopacy (London: Moses Pitt, 1682).


Henry Maurice, The Lawfulness Of Taking the New Oaths Asserted (London: J. Mills, 1689).


Henry Maurice, Doubts Concerning the Roman Infallibility (London: James Adamson, 1688), 20–21.


Ibid., 38.


The Pharisee Unmask’d: In A New Discovery of the Artifices Used by Roman Catholic Priests To Convert Prisoners Both at, and before the Time of Execution (London: Henry Hills, 1687).


Anthony Horneck, The Nature of True Christian Righteousness, In a Sermon Preached before the King and Queen, at Whitehal, The 17th of November (London: E. Jones, 1689), 5–6.


Ibid., 11–12.


Sprat, A Sermon Preached (see above, n. 29), 6–7.


Ibid., 21.


Peter King, An Enquiry Into The Constitution, Discipline, Unity & Worship, Of The Primitive Church, That Flourished within the First Three Hundred Years after Christ (London: Jonathan Robinson, 1691).


Ibid., 9.


Thomas Comber, The Church History Clear’d from the Roman Forgeries And Corruptions Found in the Councils and Baronius: From the Year 400, till the End of the Fifth General Council, An. Dom. 553 (London: Samuel Roycroft, 1695), Preface.


Ibid., 1.


Ibid., 186.


Daniel Defoe, The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters: Or Proposals for the Establishment of the Church (London, 1702).


Andrew Marvell, An Account of the Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Government in England (Amsterdam, 1677), 5.


Richard Chiswell published many works that furthered William III’s agenda, including a number of royal sermons.


William Cave, Apostolici: Or, The History of the Lives, Acts, and Death, and Martyrdoms Of Those Who Were Contemporary with, or Immediately Succeeded the Apostles, 3rd ed. (London: Richard Chiswell, 1687), Preface.


Ibid., ix.


L.C.F. Lactantius, A Relation of the Death of the Primitive Persecutors, trans. Gilbert Burnet (Amsterdam: J.S., 1687), 7–9.


Ibid., 38.


Ibid., 24–25.


Nathaniel Lee, The Tragedy of Nero: Emperour of Rome (London: R. Bentley, 1696), 26.


Fourcroy, A New and Easie Method to Understand the Roman History (London: R. Baldwin, 1697), 142–143.


Nero Gallicanus, or, The True Pourtraicture of Lewis XIV (London: R. Taylor, 1690), Front page.


Ibid., 4.


Gilbert Burnet, A Sermon Preached before the Queen, At White-Hall, On the 16th Day of July, 1690. Being the Monthly-Fast (London: Richard Chiswell, 1690), 21.


Ibid., 21, 28–30.


William Wake, A Sermon Preach’d before the Queen At Whitehall: May Xth M. DC. XC. I. (London: Richard Sare, 1691), 36.




Richard Lucas, The Christian Race: A Sermon Preach’d before the Queen At Kensington, On Sunday the 31st of July, 1692 (London: Samuel Smith, 1692), 3.


Ibid., 22–23.


The Book of Martyrs, with an Account of the Acts and Monuments of Church and State, from The Time of Our Blessed Saviour, to the Year 1701, 2 vols. (London: D. Browne, 1702), vol. 1 title page.


Ibid., Preface.




An Historical Account of the Sufferings and Death of the Faithfull Confessor and Martyr, M. Isaac Le Fevre, and Advocate of Parliament (London: T.W., 1704).


Samuel Clarke, A General Martyrologie, Containing a Collection of All the Great Persecutions Which Have Befallen the Church of Christ. From the CREATION, to Our Present Times; Wherein Is given an Exact Account of the Protestants Sufferings in Queen Maries Reign, 3rd ed. (London: William Birch, 1677).


For a good introduction to the conceptual complications of the terms, see Marshall, “ ‘The Ecclesiology of the Latitude-Men’,” (see above, n. 13).


John Brewer, The Sinews of Power: War, Money, and the English State, 1688–1783 (London, 1989).


J.G.A. Pocock, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (Cambridge, 1957).

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