IN 1572, John Field insisted that Parliament reform a Church whose ministers were “unsavoury salt, blind guides, sleepy watchmen”, and whose rituals were similarly empty of godliness. “They toss the Psalms in most places like tennis balls,” he complained. Though Field had been ordained in the Church of England, his zeal for what he believed was true, Reformed worship led to a tense relationship with his ecclesiastical superiors.
At times imprisoned and often silenced, Field never let go of his vision of purity. But he also never left the Church of England. What he wanted was a properly Reformed community, not his own exclusive splinter group. Later generations would find this tension unbearable, setting up Separatist churches. Some emigrated — among them the “pilgrim fathers” who set sail on the Mayflower in 1620.
Tomkins’s vivid, fast-paced prose tells the story of the men and women who struggled against what they saw as the popish pollution still infecting the English Church. What they wanted was purity, but when this seemed impossible they began instead to demand freedom: the freedom to worship God correctly.
At the heart of Tomkins’s book (Features, 17 January) is the thought that the arguments these puritans developed against the imposition of idolatry and superstition upon themselves would soon become broader arguments for the possibility of dissent, for liberty and religious choice. Modern Congregationalist and Baptist Churches arose from the movement. What began as a tiny seed among house-groups in London grew to the “very plenteous harvest” predicted by John Robinson, one of the early Separatists.
The story is told with verve and panache, and Tomkins has an excellent eye for the telling quote that captures the spirit of the protagonists. One early Separatists, for example, told the Scottish Reformer John Knox that he and his English friends “utterly refuse to hear . . . all those that do maintain this mingle-mangle ministry”. And Tomkins deftly reveals the new difficulties that this community found even in more tolerant Holland: here, one migrant lamented, they were met by “the grim and grisly face of poverty”. Even the godly have to deal with the stark realities of everyday life.
Despite the title, Tomkins’s claims about freedom and about the theology of the movement are lightly sketched. But it would have been helpful to hear more about what freedom meant to the Separatists and how their sense of God’s sovereignty and election shaped their understanding of human liberty.
Some Separatists denied predestination, and yet many others (like John Robinson) put it as the centre of their faith, justifying toleration on the grounds that only God’s grace could save sinful people. Freedom was not invented by the Separatists. But their lively debates about its meaning helped to shape how we understand it today.
Dr Sarah Mortimer is Associate Professor of Early Modern History in the University of Oxford.
The Journey to the Mayflower: God’s outlaws and the invention of freedom
Hodder & Stoughton £20
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Listen to an interview with Stephen Tomkins on the Church Times Podcast