James VI & I: Life Story

Chapter 18 : The Puritans & the Hampton Court Conference

On James’ accession, there was the mainstream Anglican established Church – ruled by the Act of Uniformity of 1559, which mandated the use of the Book of Common Prayer 1552, with minor amendments, supported by the 1571 Subscription Act which required observance of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the English Church. Theologically, the Articles were a mixture of Catholic and Calvinist teaching, intended to allow the widest possible spectrum of people to accept the Church.

As with many compromise positions both sides felt aggrieved and throughout Elizabeth’s reign competing forces of Catholicism and Puritanism sought to capture the English Church.

A section of the Anglican clergy wanted it to be further purified of ‘Romish’ practices, such as Confirmation, wedding rings and ecclesiastical vestments. These were the moderate Puritans, not really comparable with the Presbyterians who had given James so much trouble in Scotland, as they did not support the radical sects who wanted to reform Church government root and branch.

During his progress from Edinburgh to London, a delegation of these puritans had presented James with a petition, known as the 'Millenary' petition because it had received over 1000 signatures (Text is available here). James had responded positively to the petition, he assured the clergy that he would promote the Word of God and not permit any other religion to flourish in his kingdom. Before long, James’ Council and the mainstream clergy had convinced him that the Puritans were the equivalent of the Scottish Presbyterians who had caused him so much trouble, and that their aim was to create an ecclesiastical order that was not subject to the King’s authority.

Given the position of the Puritans was doctrinally the same as the mainstream Church, James believed that he could affect reconciliation over the ‘indifferent’ matters. He therefore called a conference at Hampton Court to take place in January 1604 in which four leading ministers from the Puritan wing: Dr Reynolds of President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford; Laurence Chaderton, Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge; Thomas Sparks and John Knewstubs, were permitted to bring forward their arguments. These four were by no means radicals, and had close relationships with the Bishops, although the latter two had been involved in the Presbyterian movement.

The mainstream clergy were led by John Whitgift, Archbishop of Canterbury, and eight bishops. The conference made some concessions to the Puritans, mainly in areas where abuse was obvious: Church discipline was to be improved, with legal experts to support bishops in Church courts; better observation of the Sabbath was to be enforced; baptism was to be undertaken only by ministers, although it could be carried out in private homes if necessary; abolition of pluralism was stressed again, as was the need for well-educated ministers to teach their flocks. Unfortunately, the bonanza of the dispersal of Church lands during the mid-sixteenth century meant that there was little money to pay an educated clergy.

It was also agreed that a new translation of the Bible should be commissioned, which was published in 1611 and is known as the King James’ Authorised Version – cornerstone of the traditional Anglican Church.

The Conference was completed at the end of four days. Although it had achieved some of its aims, the principle one of reconciling the Puritan element with the Church was not fulfilled. All clergy had to comply with the Book of Common Prayer, and the rules on vestments by November 1604 or leave the Church. Nor had the views of the more radical Puritans been taken into account. Although there were no major disputes between James and the Puritans during the rest of his reign, trouble would flare up under his successor.

James VI & I

James VI & I

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