An old piece from a parish newsletter:

Anyone who reads the phrase ‘moderate Nazi’ will immediately recognize it as grotesque.  It is a strange quirk of our age that the equally grotesque phrase, ‘moderate Marxist’, is not so immediately recognized.  As a description of historians the phrase usually refers to scholars of generally Leftist views who emphasize the importance of economic forces and class interests when analyzing historical events.  For instance, I have an attorney friend who was an enthusiastic advocate of Newt Gingrich’s ‘Contract with America’, with the exception of a single element:  he was vehemently opposed to tort reform.  A Marxist historian would smile and say that lawyers’ class interests determine their ideological views.  Theory and ideology follow money and class.  Most of the rest of us will think that the influence of financial and class interests is real and often very important, but hardly the all-important factor that the Marxists suppose.

One of the most prominent historians of 17th century England and sometime Master of Balliol College, was a ‘moderate Marxist’ named Christopher Hill.  Hill’s writings deal particularly with the period of the English Civil Wars and the Interregnum – roughly from the reign of Charles I to the Restoration of Charles II in 1660.  To some observers the English Civil Wars are a kind of extension of the continental wars of religion.  Irish Roman Catholics, Scottish Presbyterians, English Anglicans and Puritans and sectarians, mixed it up and used and abused each other to get their religious way.  While nationalism and personal connections and class interests tugged and pulled the actors, religion was the principal issue at stake.

For others, sometimes described as the ‘Whig historians’, the fight was about the gradual shift away from an arbitrary monarchical government and towards a Parliamentary democracy.  Old, ossified royal and feudal interests, including the Church, gave ground to the wealth-creating, dynamic, and religiously skeptical forces of merchants, explorers, inventors, and the House of Commons.  The Marxists take this Whig view and push it further.  For Hill the story is not just about the decline of the Church, Crown, and nobility before the merchants and Commons: it is also about the premature but prophetic ferment of farm laborers, apprentices, and others of the lower orders, who often expressed themselves through religious radicalism.  The royal and feudal order was Anglican and joined Throne and Altar.  The rising merchants and Commons were Presbyterian.  The premature revolutionaries belonged to a variety of exotic sects: the Diggers and Levellers, the Muggletonians and Fifth Monarchists, the Quakers and Baptists and Ranters.  The Whigs thought the goal of history was something like Parliament and the Reform Club around 1890.  For Marxists, the Whigs were just a stage on the road to something more radical.  The Whigs were gentlemen, while the Marxists quote the Levellers:  ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, / Where was then the gentleman?’

Hill and many other historians have produced significant studies of the economic problems of the Church in the 17th century.  [Later note.  Hill had an impressive ability to find 17th century evidence and quotations that support his arguments.  Another prominent historian, David Steinmetz, once said in my presence that while one never supposed Hill made up evidence, one sometimes suspected that he had brought forth the only piece of evidence in the century that DID support his argument.]  If we put aside faulty Marxist assumptions, we can still profit from any honest historian’s useful findings.  While economics do not govern all, it is obvious that they influence much.  In the reign of Charles I the Church had a major economic problem.  In the century from 1530 to 1630 the Church had been stripped of vast amounts of wealth.  Henry VIII plundered the monasteries and shrines of late medieval England, and either seized their lands and wealth for himself or used them to reward his supporters.  The process continued under Edward VI and Elizabeth I.  Religious offices were often bestowed on condition that the appointee kick back some of the income from his office to the Crown or to other patrons.

Powerful officials, noblemen, and local squires used the Church as a cash cow in other ways.  Suppose the local vicar was paid by the produce of a farm attached to the vicarage.  The value of the produce might be £100 per year.  The local squire might propose to the priest that the priest sell to the squire the rights to the produce of the farm for the next ten years (worth £1,000) for a one-time payment of £500.  The squire could anticipate doubling his money, while the Church as an organization and the vicar as an individual would lose half the value of the property.  Furthermore, if the vicar were replaced in that period, his successor would have a severely impaired income.  The priest, however, would get a one-time windfall and would oblige an important neighbor.  Powerful laymen pushed the clergy into such arrangements in thousands of cases.  The overall result was an impoverished Church and clergy.  This poverty in turn made the Church a much less attractive vocation, which meant that well-educated, able men tended to look elsewhere.  Then the Church was criticized by powerful Puritan laymen – who often were profitting from the system just described – for failing to provide clergy able to preach intelligently.

When James I succeeded Elizabeth I in 1603, the Elizabethan sale of bishoprics and other lucrative Church offices declined.  But James did not interfere much in the more subtle system of lay profiteering at the expense of the clergy and Church.  With the accession of Charles I, however, and his chancellor, Archbishop William Laud, the Church suddenly gained powerful allies in its tussle with rapacious squires and lords.  Laud was determined to restore the authority and dignity of the Church by preventing disadvantageous leases, pressured sales, and similar losses to powerful laymen.  Laud and Charles also worked to prevent powerful individuals from similarly taking advantage of the poor and of the community, as, for instance, when a local squire would enclose common grazing land for his own private use.  The government of Charles I was often arbitrary and incompetent.  But Charles and Laud sincerely pursued religious ends and a vision of social, communal justice.  If we ‘follow the money’, as Hill and others recommend, we find that when Charles and Laud lost their power and their heads, the Church and the poor of England lost much as well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s