When Civil War broke out in England in 1642 between the Parliament and King Charles I, Oliver Cromwell was the MP for Cambridge. Cambridge at the time was a hotspot for Puritanism in England. All the prominent thought leaders and theologians of Puritanism were clustered around the University and they liked to spend their evenings debating over a pint at the Old White Horse Inn that was located nearby.
Cromwell was actually a deeply spiritual man, he loved God and he had a sincere desire to see the Reformation really take root in England and lead people to have a genuine spiritual revival in their lives.
The Civil War broke out because of political tension but as Cromwell himself later pointed out it turned into a religious war largely because religion and politics were so intricately intertwined in 17th Century England.
After a year of fighting the Parliamentarians were winning and there was a chorus of different voices calling for all kinds of reform in England. Cromwell’s was one of the louder ones and he demanded serious religious changes which included the fairly radical move of completely dismantling the church of England in favour of a more congregationalist approach, allowing local congregations to be completely independent, and free to worship and believe whatever they wanted (as long as it was biblical of course).
By 1645 Cromwell wasn’t just a man with a loud voice in a sea of other voices. He had become a general, convincing Parliament to reorganize its army to have a more distinct religious flavor. The army would march to battle in the wake of a full-blown church service with hymns, prayer, and a fervent battlefield sermon to encourage them that their cause was of God.
Cromwell’s reorganization worked remarkably well because that year at the Battle of Naseby the Parliament defeated the King and his army in what would be a crushing blow. The King surrendered shortly after. Then came the conversation about what to do with the King. Cromwell and his faction of independents argued for executing the King and declaring England a Republic. After a period of going back and forth which included some time on the battlefield, the matter was decided. The King was tried by the Parliament, convicted and beheaded in public view outside Whitehall Palace in 1649.
The independents then declared England to be a Republic which they named the Commonwealth of England and Cromwell found himself in charge of the Council of State.
The day after the King was beheaded, the Puritan preacher John Owen was called to preach in Parliament. He delivered a rousing sermon that, among other things, assured the Parliament that their course of action was, in fact, a direct fulfillment of Bible Prophecy and was therefore sanctioned by God. Cromwell really liked the idea of the Parliament being God’s prophetically chosen instrument to execute justice on a Papist King and lead the country into a golden age of Spiritual Revival.
An English Republic, however, opened the door to totally unregulated religious freedom which in and of itself was not a bad thing but it did give way to a whole host of colorful radical religious groups from the Muggletonians to the Ranters to the Levelers and everything in between. Cromwell didn’t quite like the idea of such a broad democracy. Not only did it complicate things but it led to all kinds of slightly crazy fanatical beliefs. Like the Ranters’ belief that adultery was permissible and public nudity was part of spirituality. The diggers on the other end of the spectrum were communists and called for the confiscation of private property and the setting up of a communist state.
Cromwell and the Parliament wanted freedom but not that much freedom. They spent the next few years policing and suppressing every uprising that wasn’t in keeping with their own views.
But Cromwell was still a firm believer in religious freedom, ironic though that may seem, and so he petitioned Parliament to pass legislation to that effect. Unfortunately, the Parliament wasn’t willing to cooperate and so Cromwell dissolved the Parliament, declared himself Lord Protector and England a Protectorate and decided to rule the country on his own with the help of his generals.
He immediately began to enforce Puritan ideals on the nation. Theatres were shut down, Sunday laws were passed, taverns were shut down and the celebration of Christmas was banned. He then placed spies in every quarter to police and enforce all his regulations. The Protectorate folded in on itself when Cromwell died in 1658.
Oliver Cromwell’s story is one of the most curious and mind-boggling tales I have ever encountered. It is the story of a deeply pious, godly, Bible-believing man. A man who championed religious freedom and shunned the absolute controlling rule of a monarch. And yet ironically in pursuing his goals by means of the arm of the state, he became everything he had so fervently opposed and fought against.
When I think about the evolution of Oliver Cromwell it makes me reflect on this little statement from The Desire of Ages by Ellen White: “The exercise of force is contrary to the principles of God’s government; He desires only the service of love, and love cannot be commanded; it cannot be won by force or authority. Only by love is love awakened.”
Perhaps that is why legislative force can never achieve spiritual reformation because it is altogether contrary to the government of God.