When ordinary men and women got it into their heads that it was a fine thing, by the grace and power of God, to be “downright separatists,” the secular as well as the spiritual order was threatened. The “gathered Churches” of the separatists were democratic institutions. The congregation came together of its own will, chose its own minister by free election, supported him by contributions freely organized and given. Now that all authority was shaken and every speculation possible, the “gathered Churches” would soon be taken by some as the pattern for a reformed secular order, a society which came together by free consent of the governed, by agreement of the people.
— C. V. Wedgewood, THE KING’S WAR, 1641-1647 page 481
There are several reasons this passage fascinates me so much. It expresses, in a certain way, the moment in the English Civil War that is analogous to the Emancipation Proclamation in the US Civil War—the moment when, we might say, it went from potentially revolutionary to actually revolutionary.
Here, also, we see the role of ideology in human struggle: merchants, manufacturers, and commoners of England (the Scots were notoriously opposed to the “Sectaries” at this point, and the Irish still wanted their Church back, and I’m not at all sure about the Welsh) used their religious ideas in the same way that, five quarter centuries later, the Americans would use “pure reason,” which same ideology would be brought to its culmination a quarter century after that in France. In all cases, the ideology serves the needs of its social class in its efforts to break out of the oppressive grip of a social order that was strangling it.
Here, too, is where we see the sharp separation between the nobility, many of whom supported Parliament against the King, and the commoners: the former were fine up until this point, but reforming the secular order to give more power to the riff-raff was going too far! And, parallel to this, the bourgeoisie, about to step into power for the first time, accepted it, but were unwilling to go as far as those below them: this was the period when the Leveler Party was created. This is also a period in which the House of Commons, through the “Committee of Both Kingdoms,” had almost complete power; the House of Lords was all but irrelevant.
The needs of the capitalist class clashed sharply with the old forms of feudal property relations, and so, in an almost perfect parallel, the new class used its relationship to God (a personal relationship, up to each individual’s conscience, and not requiring a member of the nobility, uh, I mean the priesthood, to intervene) to begin the transformation of society into its own image.
What began as a war to limit the powers of the king, to save him from “evil counselors,” transformed into a revolutionary struggle in which Charles was separated from his kingship, and his head from his body. Praise be to God, or, rather, to the ability of the human mind to use the ideological tools at hand to move society forward.