The Third Commandment: What’s in a Name?

Jonathan Willis

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

The Third Commandment of the Reformed Decalogue was ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain’.  It would therefore be easy to assume that the primary purpose of the commandment was to forbid blasphemy – employing God’s name in the uttering of profane curses or the swearing of false or deceitful oaths.  In fact, the third commandment was much more sweeping in its scope than this.  The Pembroke College graduate and Suffolk minister Robert Allen explained that the scope of the commandment was nothing less than ‘to shew what ought to be the ordinarie course of the of the whole life and conversation of the true worshipper of God, both in word and deed’.  Secondly, it was

To declare what is the chiefe end of life, and of all the thoughts, words, & works thereof; not only in the duties of God’s worship, both inward & outward, according to the first and second Commandment: but also in every other duty according to all the Commandments of the whole Law of God.[1]

The third commandment was therefore pretty totalising: it did not just apply to oaths and curses, but directed the whole ordinary life of the believer outside of the context of religious worship. Continue reading

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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

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

All ancient history now: England’s damaging Reformation

Laura Sangha

On Tuesday 16 January, in the year of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the Archbishops and Canterbury and York issued a joint statement on ‘the damage done five centuries ago to the unity of the Church’. It reads:

The Reformation was a process of both renewal and division amongst Christians in Europe. In this Reformation Anniversary year, many Christians will want to give thanks for the great blessings they have received to which the Reformation directly contributed…

…Many will also remember the lasting damage done five centuries ago to the unity of the Church, in defiance of the clear command of Jesus Christ to unity in love. Those turbulent years saw Christian people pitted against each other, such that many suffered persecution and even death at the hands of others claiming to know the same Lord. A legacy of mistrust and competition would then accompany the astonishing global spread of Christianity in the centuries that followed.

MANDATORY CAPTION: (C) Keith Blundy / Aegies Associates

For a Reformation historian this was a fascinating moment. It was also humorous (in a sort of bitter, 2017 way), since the Daily Mail immediately took offence at this show of remorse, declaring that since Henry VIII’s ‘war with the Pope’ began 500 years ago, and that it wasn’t even a required subject for the National Curriculum, it was hardly a ‘burning issue’. Ann Widdecombe, a former Tory minister and Strictly Come Dancing Star provided a quote, saying:

These gestures are pointless. The Archbishop has not put anyone to death, as far as I know… Modern Christians are not responsible for what happened in the Reformation… You might as well expect the Italians to apologise for Pontius Pilate.

I’m looking forward to discussing all this with my students this term. There’s certainly a lot to be said of the way that the media are reporting this statement as an ‘apology’, as well as to ponder in the emphasis on unity and the healing of past divisions. Of course, Widdecombe is right that modern Christians are not individually responsible for what happened in the Reformation, but I disagree with the implicit argument underpinning the Mail article, that the Reformation is ancient history, and nothing to do with ‘us’. Since our understanding of the past and of where we came from is intimately tied to the way we conceptualise our contemporary identities, the way that we think of and interpret that past has a direct and immediate importance for the present. Members of the Church of England today are informed by, and understand their institution with reference to the past, so it seems appropriate to reflect on the evolution of the Church and to reconsider contemporary responses to it in this anniversary year. Continue reading

Horrid ghosts of early modern England, part II: creeks, screeks and…bacon?

Laura Sangha

In my last post I explained the protestant position on apparitions – which was that they were most likely to be the work of the devil. However, the evidence provided by a range of cheap, short contemporary pamphlets suggests that ‘lived experience’ of spirits was rather different for many people. These five page pamphlets reported news of spirits and haunted houses, and a rash of them were published in England between 1670 and 1700.

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Dramatic news of the horrid ghosts of early modern England, part I

Laura Sangha

This is the first of three posts on early modern ghosts. Part 2 is here. Part 3 was published on All Hallow’s Eve and can be seen here.

grave-yard

St Johns Church, Leeds, in R. Thoresby, Ducatus Leodiensis (1715)

In seventeenth-century England the sepulchre was surprisingly likely to open its ponderous and marble jaws and cast up the dead. Apparitions in questionable shapes regularly made the night hideous and reduced people to jelly with fear. This belief was not restricted to old wives and children either, since people from all religious groups and every social level encountered ghosts, from servants to clergymen, soldiers to scholars.

[What, has this thing appeared again tonight?]

Traditional catholic belief, folklore and protestant theology each contributed to the contemporary understanding of what these ‘things’ were. Often apparitions had a clear purpose: they might appear to prophesy, to announce some strange eruption to the state, to reveal the location of treasure they had buried in life, or perhaps to request prayers for the soul that would ease their fate in the afterlife.

However, the nature of these apparitions was not something that was immediately obvious to those who encountered these spirits of health or goblins damned. An apparition might look like or wear the clothes of someone recently deceased, but its true nature could not be discerned from its appearance. Supernatural encounters with mysterious, otherworldly beings could be dangerous to the living, and were not to be entered into lightly.

[It wafts you to a more removed ground:
But do not go with it
] Continue reading