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From Religion to Rebellion

1. At the close of the Middle Ages we see appearance of many sects which represent an alternative to the Catholic church. These sects together can be called "Protestant". A protestant was a person who desired changes in religious practice and in the social system (we remember that religion was a totality of knowledge for the times). First, at the head of protestant movement were lone monks, such as John Ball in XIV century. The most famous phrase of this militant monk was: "When Adam dug the ground and Eve spun, where was the gentleman?" In other words, the image from the Bible is used as an argument for social equality. That's why he was executed by landlords in the course of peasants' rebellion in 1381.

John Ball on a horse, encouraging the rebels, 1381.

2. Gradually, the ideology of Protestantism is picked up by some representatives of bourgeoisie and aristocracy. They sponsor some, not too radical, representatives of Protestantism, such as John Wycliff (1330-1384). Wycliff became known when, in the course of dispute between the English king Edward III and the Pope, he upheld the authority of the king. In 1378 he translated the Bible from Latin to English, and thus made one of the main sources of knowledge available at his time closer to people. In the picture, Wycliff is reading his translation of the Bible to John of Gaunt, an English nobleman.

Wycliff’s defiance of the Pope signaled the ascent of the (worldly) power of kings over the power of the Church.

3. Under the guise of struggle against the abuses of the Catholic church, English noblemen and upper bourgeoisie expropriate Church lands, under the rule of Henry VIII (1491-1547). Thus, social-economic foundation of Protestantism turns out to be a struggle for redistribution of lands. 

4. One advisor to Henry VIII was Thomas Moore, author of "Utopia". Although Moore didn't accept Protestantism (for which reason he was beheaded by the king), he understood the revolutionary leanings of his time, which were the ground for Protestantism. He witnessed mass pauperization of peasants who were deprived of land by greedy landlords. This forced some to resort to banditry. Moore wrote: “no one on earth will stop people from stealing, if it’s their only way of getting food … Instead of inflicting them horrible punishments, it would be far more to the point to provide everyone with some means of livelihood, so that nobody’s under the frightful necessity of becoming first a thief and then a corpse.”

A portrait of Moore, by Hans Holbein, 1527

5. Moore understood the political system of his times in these terms: “When I consider any social system that prevails in the modern world, I can’t, so help me God, see it as anything but a conspiracy of the rich to advance their own interests under the pretext of organizing society.”

6. Searching for a solution to the problem, Moore looks to the New World which was "recently" discovered by Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512). He quotes an essay of Vespucci "The New World", 1505, to point that people there “have no private property, but everything is shared in common. They live together without a king, without a government, and everyone is his own master”. Moreover, says Moore, “the main purpose of their whole economy is to give each person as much time free from physical drudgery as the needs of the community will allow, so that he can cultivate his mind - which they regard as the secret of a happy life.”

7. Protestantism was a step towards scientific method. M.A. Barg, in his book "The English revolution in portraits of its leaders", writes: "Anglican church looks more like an auditorium than a holy place or the house of prayer". It is more like a place of instruction than a place for humming the prayers. Some protestants smashed the stained windows of the old churches for they felt that these oppress them. Protestants attempt to do away with old rituals, such as bowing when the name of Jesus is mentioned. Similar rituals can be observed today in Islam when the name of their prophet is mentioned.

8. Protestantism takes two principal forms on the English soil. As a religion of the upper classes, i.e. those responsible for expropriation of the Church lands, it is Anglican religion. As a religion of the middle classes, craftsmen and the peasants, it is Puritanism. Formally, Puritans are followers of Calvin, and they are called "Puritans" because they stand for purifying the religion from later additions. In other words, they see themselves as "primitive Christians".

9. Henry Buckle compares three theological works of the period. One was an essay by Joule, written in 1564, which consists of quotes of the Church Fathers and Church decrees. When he finds no contradiction between these and the Bible, he considers that as a positive proof of the truth of the statements. In 1594 an essay of Hooker was published. This writer quotes the Church Fathers to prove his own reasoning. In the middle of XVII century “Religion of Protestants”, written by a conservative, Chillingworthe, appears. An emphasis is made on the mind of a man understanding the will of God, rather than appealing to authority of Church dogma. 

10. The three works cited above all belong to the Anglican church. But the fighting ideology of the English revolution was Puritanism. One example of this we see in a prayer composed by Dr. Bastwick. He asks God to save him from sickness and from church priests, archbishops, etc. Such pamphlets were persecuted, their publishers and authors pilloried. However, the sympathies of people were completely on the side of the puritans. M.A. Barg writes: "The pamphlets of puritans, in part printed abroad, were imported into England and sold out". A pamphlet of Beily "The practice of piety" went through 36 editions between 1612 and 1636. A pamphlet of Dent entitled “The plaine mans path to Heaven” went through 24 editions between 1601 and 1640. In general, we should remark that every social revolution is preceded by such a "Puritan" movement, i.e. a protest of the people put in a form the masses can understand and can express themselves in.

11. New people, such as were the Puritans, are distinguished by their higher level of knowledge, which makes them attractive especially to young people. David Hume, in his "History of England" writes: “as the ecclesiastics had hitherto conducted a willing and a stupid audience, and were totally unacquainted with controversy, much more with every species of true literature; they were unable to defend themselves, against men, armed with authorities, quotations, and popular topics, and qualified to triumph in every altercation or debate.”

12. Let's note that it is these Puritans who have arrived in the New World in early 1600's, and constituted the nucleus of the later rebels against England that became the United States of America.

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