The Second Commandment: The Protestant War on Will-Worship

Jonathan Willis

(For the first, introductory post in the series, click here)

Of all of the Ten Commandments, it is probably the second which has received the most attention from historians.  The Protestant renumbering of the commandments took the prohibition ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image … thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, or worship them’ out of the Catholic First Commandment, and made it into a separate precept.  This gave a lot more emphasis to Protestant hostility to the making and worshipping of idolatrous images, but it did not create it: it merely gave it added prominence and urgency.

JacketIt is one of the arguments of the book, and of this blog post, that historians have done two contradictory things: they have given too much importance to the Second Commandment, and they have also viewed it too narrowly.  They have emphasised it to the extent that they have ignored some of the (frankly) more significant changes taking place at the other end of the Decalogue (for which see the last post in the series, on the Tenth Commandment).  And they have also failed to recognise that the Second Commandment was but one element of a much grander description of how to worship God (and how not to worship him), which encompassed the whole of the first table. Continue reading

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The First Commandment: Faith and Atheism in Early Modern England

Jonathan Willis

(For the first, introductory post in the series, click here)

The First Commandment in the renumbered Protestant Decalogue was deceptively simple:

I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.  Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

adam_s_creation_sistine_chapel_ceiling__by_michelangelo_jbu33cut-0What this commandment required, however, was nothing short of true faith.  The first component of faith was knowledge.  The future bishop of Llandaff, Exeter and Worcester, Gervase Babington, wrote in his very Fruitful Exposition of the Commaundements in 1583 that the knowledge of God was declared by the magnificence of his creation (the heavens and earth, and all the creatures therein); by his word (in the form of the scriptures); by the holy spirit which brought the knowledge of salvation; and by the conscience of man, which comforted him when he acted in a way of which God approved, and accused him and made him afraid when he committed evil deeds. Continue reading

Reforming the Decalogue: A Blog Series Preface

Jonathan Willis

JacketRegular readers of this blog may or may not be aware that I’ve spent the last seven years or so researching and writing a book on the Ten Commandments and the English Reformation, initially with the help of a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship, and latterly as a lecturer and then senior lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Birmingham.  The fruits of these labours are due to be published in mid-October (2017) by Cambridge University Press, as part of their Cambridge Studies in Early Modern History series, under the title The Reformation of the Decalogue: Religious Identity and the Ten Commandments in England, c.1485-1625.  What better way to mark this new arrival into the world of published work, than with a series of blog posts, exploring some of the more interesting and/or unexpected aspects of the Ten Commandments as they came to prominence over the course of the English reformation…

Before I start a series of posts which will focus on each commandment in turn, however, I want to do two things in this preface.  Firstly, I want to ask why are the commandments worthy of attention, and secondly, I want to give a bit of essential context for understanding the Protestant Decalogue. Continue reading