Thursday, May 2, 2013

Things Learned - Part One

Religious sectarianism - aka dissension or nonconformism - had been on the rise throughout the seventeenth century in London. One of the side effects of the Reformations (Protestant, Radical, and English), by the time Charles II assumed the throne in 1661, there were scores of groups to choose from if one were not satisfied with the Anglican Church. In his Heresiography, Ephraim Pagitt lists over fifty sects, while Thomas Edwards's Gangraena catalogs over one hundred and fifty. It is important not to take either of these works at face value for obvious reasons - it is likely that at least some of the sects described never existed - but the numbers are quite telling, regardless.

One of the questions I had - one which proved too involved to address adequately with the present project - was, "why so much dissent?" At the outset of the sixteenth century, England was more-or-less uniformly Roman Catholic, the exceptions being the Lollards and perhaps a few other very small movements. Henry VII's marital disputes led to the separation of England from the Roman see, a process which culminated in 1534 with the Acts of Supremacy and others. During this process, reformation ideas were being introduced into England from the continent. In the turmoil that was to be England's fate until the end of the following century, nonconformist religious groups would multiply.

A 1651 woodcut, allegedly detailing Ranter practices.

From the perspective of the Anglican faithful, dissent and its practitioners appeared unusual and difficult to understand. The woodcut above is a good example. The Ranters were a pantheistic dissenting sect that embraced a different set of moral strictures that diverged markedly from orthodox beliefs. The above woodcut is typical of the types of accusations leveled at nonconformists, claiming that they were sexually licentious, gluttonous, and, if the illustration in the upper left-hand corner of the piece can be believed, gross, or at least really weird.

 A woodcut showing the practices of the Adamites.

The above woodcut of the Adamites, a sect distinct from the Ranters, accuses them of similar practices (the fact that one of them is missing his head is no doubt a commentary on the perceived quality of the people who followed Adamite doctrine). These are the same types of accusations leveled against religious minority groups throughout history, and in that regard should not be surprising. For present purposes, it is enough to note that many of the faithful believed that dissenters followed unusual, non-Christian doctrine that caused them to behave in anti-social, and therefore potentially dangerous, ways. It was this attitude that made many willing to either participate in, or tacitly approve of, persecution of nonconformists throughout this period.

- Rod

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