The Nonjurors

Chapter I --The Nonjurors

THE political connections of church affairs in England during the eighteenth century were so far noticed in a preceding chapter that the subject does not need to be treated in this relation. We add only a word respecting the ecclesiastical headship of the sovereign. Before the middle of the century it had come to mean little else than his having a principal voice in the dispensing of church dignities. This prerogative was not exercised at all times with equal directness William III;, after the death of Queen Mary, devolved the management of patronage upon the archbishops of Canterbury and York, and four bishops associated with them. George III. was disposed to take the matter into his own hands. Under some of the intermediate sovereigns, the ministers of State had much to do with the dispensing of patronage.

A long-enduring memorial of the political agitations which accompanied and followed the Revolution of 1688 appeared in a party of Jacobites, that commands interest on account of the unique characters which it embraced, if not on account of its principles. This party, known as the Nonjurors, consisted of men refusing to take the oath of allegiance to the new dynasty which was required of those holding clerical, academic, or other offices. While the majority of the clergy, who had been preaching non-resistance under the restored Stuarts, quieted their scruples at taking the oath by the plea that their submission, according to the example of the early Christians, was due to the government actually in power, a minority argued that mere power ought not to take precedence of justice, and that hereditary right must determine the question of allegiance. The one party claimed adherence to the sovereign de facto, and the other to the sovereign de jure.

The original Nonjurors numbered six bishops, -- not, including three who died before the day appointed for taking the oath, -- and four hundred clergy, to whom a small fraction of the laity adhered. Their numbers, however, soon decreased. As some of the deposed prelates were fully persuaded that their own party was the only true Church in England, they proceeded to ordain bishops that the succession might be kept up, and so prepared for a perpetuation of the schism. The last in the line of the nonjuring bishops died in 1805. Aside from their position on the dynastic question, the Non-jurors were distinguished by their High Church or Anglo-Catholic principles. As we shall observe when we come to consider the Tractarian movement, recent Anglo-Catholics have recognized the kinship of this party with themselves.

Among the Nonjurors, Bishop Ken was eminent for his amiable character. Though he refused the oath himself, he passed no harsh judgment upon those who did not, and he kept aloof from Jacobite scheming. The same may be said of Robert Nelson, who is further known for his zeal in practical Christian work, and for devotional treatises that gained in their day a very wide circulation. A high rank in their party, as respects ability, was claimed by Charles Leslie and Jeremy Collier. In learning, Henry Dodwell, at one time professor of Ancient History at Oxford, stood among the foremost; but his faculties were poorly balanced, and he ran into the most extravagant fancies. George Hickes was noted for his intemperate zeal in the nonjuring cause, as also for his antiquarian labors. In the first days of the new dynasty, William Sherlock was regarded by the Nonjurors as a principal light in their midst; but he soon was convinced of the propriety of taking the oath. His former friends imputed his change of view to the devil and Mrs. Sherlock.

The most unique and the most important, in point of religious influence, among the Nonjurors was William Law. As he was not born till 1686, he belonged to the second generation of the party. The first prominent manifestation of his Jacobite bias was at Cambridge, where he was educated, and took pupils after being elected Fellow. According to his friend Byrom, in 1713, he put forward a question which showed his estimate of the plea that allegiance is due to the sovereign de facto. The question was this: "whether, when the children of Israel had made the golden calf the object of their worship, they ought to keep to their God de facto, or return to their God de jure." As Queen Anne was a near descendant of the martyred Charles I., Law did not dispute her title; but on the accession of George I. he refused to take the oath of allegiance and abjuration. This of course cut off the prospect of position in the Church. A few years later he entered upon his career of authorship. In 1727 he became an inmate of the household of the grandfather of the historian Gibbon. For about twelve years he was connected with this family, being engaged a part of the time as tutor of Gibbon's father. His later years were spent in his native town, King's Cliffe, where he lived in the employ of two wealthy and pious ladies, serving as their spiritual guide and helping them in the charitable distribution of their ample income.

As a writer William Law is entitled to a place of no mean distinction. He possessed in a peculiar degree the faculty of expression, the faculty of putting his thoughts in the form and order most available for effect. Clearness, strength, and concentration upon a definite result are characteristics of nearly everything that came from his pen. F. D. Maurice speaks of him as "the most continuous writer in our language, each of his sentences and paragraphs leading on naturally, and, as it were, necessarily to that which follows."

The writings of Law reveal a strong and original bias. He stood apart from his age and in contradiction to its most marked characteristics. At a time when the prevailing conceptions of Christianity followed in the wake of Tillotson and Locke, when reasonable conduct was thought to be the whole of religion, when earnestness was at a discount, and enthusiasm was scouted as noxious and pestilential, he looked upon religion as an all-transforming agency, linked it with the supernatural, denounced the adequacy of reason apart from divine illumination, and claimed a place for enthusiasm in piety. In fine, the mysticism into which he finally launched was only an exaggeration of the protest which from the first he was inclined to make against the cool moralizing and superficial religion of the times.

The works of Law fall into three classes, the controversial, the practical or devotional, and the mystical. To the first belong his "Letters to the Bishop of Banger," his "Remarks on the Fable of the Bees" (an able reply to Mandeville), his "Case of Reason," against Tindal, and his" Confutation of Warburton's projected Defence." These productions contain not a little of pungent argumentation. They exhibit also the art of the skillful controversialist in their freedom from scurrilous personalities, and in the indulgence, at most, of a cutting temperateness. The mysticism of Law upon which he embarked between 1731 and 1737 appears in such writings as the "Grounds and Reasons of Christian Regeneration," the "Spirit of Lore," the "Spirit of Prayer," the " Appeal to All that Doubt." The inspiration for these works was drawn from an ample acquaintance with mystical divinity. Law says of himself: "I thank God I have been a diligent reader of these mystical divines, from the apostolical Dionysius the Areopagite down to the great Fénelon, Archbishop of Cambray, the illuminated Guion, and M. Bertot." He delighted especially in mystics of the more hardy and masculine type. He was fond of Eckhart, Tauler, Suso, Ruysbroek, and Henry Harphius; but his favorite above all others was Jacob Boehme, some of whose works he translated. Doubtless one reason of his preference for the "blessed Jacob " was the illiteracy of the man. The fact that so unlearned a man could write such rich productions was to the English mystic a most acceptable proof of the pet theory of his later years respecting the worthlessness of human learning in matters of religion. That nature is a divine theophany, that God is love, that the atonement is moral transformation by the in-dwelling Christ, that religion is intimate union with God, -- these are the cardinal ideas in Law's mystical treatises.

While the writings just described contain passages of great beauty and spiritual depth, in real influence they can bear no comparison with the practical treatises. Law's "Christian Perfection" and " Serious Call to a Devout and Help Life" (1726-1729) took a strong hold of the more earnest minds of the age, and were prominent among the antecedents of the great revival of the eighteenth century. The latter in particular is a masterpiece of practical divinity. Its leading thought is that genuine religion cannot be made a side issue, but must rather be the vitalizing principle of the life, and rule its every part. No less a man than Samuel Johnson confessed his profound obligations to the "Serious Call." "When at Oxford," he says, "I took it up expecting to find it a dull book and perhaps to laugh at it. But I found Law quite an over-match for me; and this was the first occasion of my thinking in earnest of religion after I became capable of religious inquiry." By the same robust writer the "Serious Call" was further described as "the finest piece of hortatory theology in any language." John Wesley also owed to it a decided religious quickening. During the latter part of his stay at Oxford, as he himself has acknowledged, Law was a "kind of oracle" to him. 1 Journal, Sept., 1760. He was at great pains to consult him, and even followed him to the extent of taking a step or two across the threshold of mysticism. Law as a mystic, however, soon became the subject of his criticism rather than of his admiration, but he continued to esteem him as an expounder of practical religion. In 1738 he acknowledged his influence on this wise: "For two years I have been preaching after the model of your two practical treatises." In the same letter, it is true, he complained of the treatises in question as more clearly showing the law than the grace of God, as pointing out the ideal rather than the means of attaining it. But this criticism, urged with some asperity, sprang from the first impulses of a new-born zeal, from the consciousness of an experience far greater than that to which he had been led by his former guide. Notwithstanding the adverse comments of the moment, he returned to a lively appreciation of Law's productions, and cordially recommended them to his people. He used the "Serious Call" as a text-book at the Kingswood school, and late in life he wrote concerning it: "It is a treatise which will hardly be excelled, if it be equalled, in the English tongue, either for beauty of expression or for justness and depth of thought." Whatever his obligations to this source may have been, it is quite certain that one cannot read the "Serious Call" the practical teaching of Wesley, without being struck with the numerous points of close resemblance between the two. Law, no doubt, was never an advocate of Methodism, after the Wesleyan type. He never subscribed to Wesley's technical representations about the realization of the new birth, assurance of salvation, and Christian perfection. Nevertheless there are adequate reasons for associating him with Methodism as an advocate of a piety dominating the whole life and resting upon a lively faith in the presence and immediate agency of the Holy Spirit.

William Law was pre-eminently a writer. He was not qualified for the practical work of religious leadership. His disposition tended to isolation. Wesley's capacity for close contact with men and affairs was foreign to him. But he ought to be remembered as an important contributor to the revival of the eighteenth century, and as a man whose personal piety was nurtured by an unquenchable ardor of purpose. He struggled faithfully toward his ideal and died in bright anticipation of its realization. "I feel," he exclaimed upon his dying bed, "a sacred fire kindled in my soul, which will destroy everything contrary to itself, and burn as a flame of divine love to all eternity." 1 See the interesting biography of Law by J.H. Overton.

Before taking leave of the Nonjurors, we should notice the fact that, while the more zealous of their number looked upon their immediate neighbors as belonging to the wicked Babylon, the Eastern Church seemed to them entirely worthy of fellowship, and negotiations were entered upon (1716-1720) to test the feasibility of union or mutual recognition. The project proved to be as utopian as that entertained at the same time by a high representative of the Established Church respecting a union with the French Church.

1 The possibility of this latter scheme being broached was due to the disgust of many French theologians at the bull Unigenitus. As they were chafing under the imposition of this unholy document, Archbishop Wake received intimation that eminent doctors of the Sorbonne were willing to discuss a plan of union. A friendly correspondence ensued. "Separation from Rome was what the English archbishop chiefly pressed; 'a reformation in other matters would follow as a matter of course.'" (Abbey and Overton, History of the English Church in the Eighteenth Century.)