High Ways and By Ways

(a seminarian reflection paper prepared for Church History; Prof. Bruce Mullin, instructor; The General Theological Seminary, Michaelmas 2010)

High Ways and By Ways

The Elizabethan Settlement and the writings of Hooker; Wilcox & Field

submitted by Jean Hite

Born and formed in the Roman tradition, the sixteenth century English church prior to the reign of Elizabeth experienced the pushes and pulls of the continental reformers (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli) as well as the humanists (Erasmus, etc.).  The pathway followed by the Church was not a straight one: through various foreign influences interacting with fluctuating domestic affairs, church polity and doctrine swung first to one side and then to the other.  Beginning with Henry’s 1521 response to Luther, In Defense of the Seven Sacraments, an official series of Acts[1] and reactions, Confessions[2] and Articles[3] defined and defended this path through its stages on an ever winding course, charted between the boundaries of Rome on one side and Geneva on the other.

The Elizabethan Settlement was an attempt to embrace everyone except the extreme Romanists and the extreme Puritans within a unified Church of England.  Two documents define and defend the English Church of this period: John Jewel’s Apologia pro Ecclesia Anglicana (1562) answered the challenges and accusations of the Romanists.  Several decades later, Jewel’s student, Richard Hooker offered a defense against the Puritan challenge in Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.[4]   In the Laws, Hooker opened the gate to the Anglican Via Media.  Whereas the Roman Catholic Church was present as the separate, autonomous alternative, working to overthrow the Church of England, the Puritan Reformers were intent, not on autonomy, but on reforming the Church of England from within,[5] establishing as its authoritative principal the reformation mandate of sola scriptura – based solely and firmly on a literal reading of the bible – with scriptural warrant for the regulation of church polity, doctrine and worship.

Hooker’s Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity was a defense of the Elizabethan settlement against the Puritan Reformers, with particular reference throughout the text to Thomas Cartwright, a Puritan leader and Margaret professor of divinity at Cambridge who, as a result of his active promotion of extreme reform, was forbidden to teach or preach.  He retired for a period to Geneva and later returned to England.  Hooker’s Laws can be taken as a response to the Admonition to the Parliament of 1572, which was prepared by John Field and Thomas Wilcox[6] but strongly reflected the ideas of Cartwright.


England repent. Bishops relent,

returne while you haue space,

Time is at hand, by truth to stand,

if you haue any grace.

Joyne now in one, that Christ alone,

by scepter of his word:

May beare the stroke: least you prouoke

his heauy hand and sword.[7]


The Admonition of 1572 was the first open manifesto of the Puritan party; it marks the point at which Puritanism began to be a hostile force determined to do away with the existing system of polity and worship in the English Church.[8]  In earlier less aggressive action the Puritans within the Church had pushed for more moderate reform by challenging both the “externals of worship” (devastating chancels and churches, burning ornaments and refusing to conform to court enforced requirements concerning vestments) and the prescript order of the Prayer Book.  In 1563 the Lower House of parliament was presented with Six Propositions for reform which included omission of the crossing in baptism, making kneeling to receive communion optional, abolishing organs in churches and Saints’ days celebrations, and declaring a surplice sufficient vestiture for ministering of the sacraments.  Although the proposal failed to pass by only a very narrow margin, the Puritans realized that they would not be allowed to overturn the established order of the Church without a fight.  Beginning in 1566, the Puritan attack moved outside the council chambers of the Church and sought to achieve its objectives by civil legislation, an unconstitutional method of procedure.  The first of a series of ecclesiastical bills initiated by the Puritans in the House of Commons was stayed by the queen’s intervention.  Parliament was dissolved soon afterwards.  When parliament reconvened in 1571, the Puritans renewed their quest for civil legislation for reform.  The Queen responded with the declaration that is was “her Highness’ pleasure that from henceforth no more bills concerning religion shall be preferred or received into this House unless the same should be first considered and liked by the clergy.”[9]  In alternative action the Puritans issued a pamphlet, the Admonition to the Parliament (1572) as an appeal not only to the legislature but also to the country at large.

Offering “a true platform of a church reformed” the Admonition purports to show how a Puritan ideal differs from the English church of the day – how with reform the Church might reveal “the sincerity and simplicity of His Gospel.”[10]  The outward signs by which a “true Christian church” is known are divided into three categories: the “preaching of the word purely”, the “ministering of the sacraments sincerely” and “ecclesiastical discipline.”[11]  The Admonition points out how the Church falls short in these three areas and should be reformed:

Ministry of the Word:

  • “Neither the ministers thereof are according to God’s word proved, elected, called or ordained”[12]
  • “Nor are they well monitored, properly prepared or rightly selected”[13]
  • Puritans called for the removal of priests ordained under Kings Henry and Edward and Queen Mary.
  • Placement practices were deemed corrupt as positions were bought with money and favor.  Priests should be called by the congregation rather than appointed by a bishop.  Ordination should occur as positions were open and placement procured.
  • The requirements of alb, surplice, vestments, pastoral staff and “that ridiculous and blasphemous saying ‘Receive the Holy Ghost’ (at ordination)” should be abolished.
  • Priests should be resident rather than having many “flocks” and moving about.
  • True preaching should be reinstated; readers and the practice of reading sermons should be discontinued.
  • Titles and offices instigated by the Antichrist (carried over from the Roman Catholic church and the Pope) should be eliminated.  These included Metropolitans, Archbishops, Lord’s Graces, Ford Bishops, Suffragans, Deans, Archdeacons, etc.
  • Prayers should be moved by the Spirit, “not tied to any form . . . invented by man” and bonds to the prescript order of service (in the Book of Common Prayer) should be removed.[14]

Concerning the administration of sacraments:

  • Preaching, not reading should precede communion.
  • The observance of Holy Communion should return to apostolic practice.  “They took it with conscience; we with custom.”[15]  Reform should include removing added elements (such as the Introit), using “common and usual bread” rather than wafers, sitting rather than kneeling to receive.
  • Elders should take care with the examination of communicants.
  • The word of our Lord’s administration “take thou and eat thou” should replace the papist “The body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee . . .”
  • The “purity of the primitive church” should be restored to baptisms, including doing away with private baptisms, deacon and midwife baptisms “interrogatories to infants, godfathers and godmothers”, clergy surplices, holy fonts and “crossings.”
  • Most importantly, “do only what you have warrant for in scripture.”

Reinstitution of Ecclesiastical Discipline

  • Ministers of the Church should include elders (seniors who govern, consult, admonish, correct and order all things in the local church) and deacons only.  Further, the vocational integrity of deacons should be restored.
  • Popish lordship of one man over many churches should be stopped, and the equality of ministers restored.
  • Excommunication by the consent of the church (not just one man) should be freely practiced.  Confessions of excommunicants should be heard publicly (not dismissed privately for the payment of a fee as was currently practiced).

In addition to challenging the Church through legislative propositions and propaganda, Puritan ministers asserted their reform intentions through their ministerial practice.  While conforming to the Prayer Book based requirements, many organized additional gathering for bible study, discussion, prayer and “prophesying” as well, sometimes substituting them for Sunday morning liturgical worship.  Puritan clergy began to ignore bishops, reporting instead to a local committee of presbyters (classis) who trained and ordained clergy privately and then sent then off to the bishop for public “official” ordination.[16]

Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity was intended and conceived to show that the Puritan criticism of the Elizabethan church could not be substantiated.  Richard Hooker himself was committed to the Reformation movement, but unlike the Puritans he did not reject the first 1500 years of Christianity as perversion and error.[17]   Further, Hooker supported the relations between church and state as they had evolved in England and the episcopal church structure whether or not New Testament scripture could validate that structure.  From the church fathers of the patristic era, through the Middle Ages coming into the Reformation era, Hooker respected tradition as God’s presence and work in the world.

In his reaction against the excesses of the reformers especially the rationalism of the Puritans, Hooker found an ally in St. Thomas Aquinas.  Like Thomas he based his doctrine on natural and divine law, the “all-pervading reason of God. . . Christian life is governed by divine laws, but these are the fundamental facts of human life, not deistic ‘commandments’.  The approach is therefore ascetical in the wider sense of the term, and the doctrine-prayer synthesis remains central to the whole” of his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.[18]

Whereas the Puritans followed Calvin in the belief that whatever is not commanded in scripture is unlawful and that scripture alone is authoritative, Hooker answered with the conviction that God is revealed in many ways.  In Book II of the Laws, Hooker addresses the issue of sola scriptura used by the Puritans to argue against the polity and ceremonies of the established church.  His arguments fall into six categories:

1.  Hooker rejects the notion that all aspects of human life and behavior must be based on expressly biblical commands. “First therefore whereas they allege, ‘That Wisdom’ doth teach men ‘every good way;’ and have thereupon inferred that no way is good in any kind of action unless wisdom do by Scripture lead unto it see they not plainly how they restrain the manifold ways which wisdom hath to teach men by, unto one only way of teaching, which is by Scripture?  The bounds of wisdom are large, and within them much is contained.”[19]

2.  Hooker insists that God has established a variety of laws to govern human affairs, not just the law of Scripture. “For Scripture is not the only law whereby God hath opened his will touching all things that may be cone, but there are other kinds of laws which notify the will of God. . .(p. 292) doth any Apostle teach, that we cannot glorify God otherwise, than only in doing what we find that God in Scripture commandeth us to do? . . .”[20]

3.  Hooker points frequently to the law of reason to guide human endeavor. “The truth is, that the mind of man desireth evermore to know the truth according to the most infallible certainty which the nature of things can yield.  The greatest assurance generally with all men is that which we have by plain aspect and intuitive beholding” and falling short of this “by strong and invincible demonstration , such as wherein it is not by any way possible to be deceived, thereunto the mind to do otherwise” and if this fails “then which way greatest probability leadeth, thither the mind doth evermore incline.”[21]

4.  What is not clearly forbidden in scripture is permitted – left to our free choice. God has given us our “nature” and “The nature which himself hath given to work by he cannot but be delighted with, when we exercise the same any way without commandment of his to the contrary.”[22]

5.  Hooker argues for a balance between the Roman Catholic and the Puritan views of scripture, the two opinions being extremely opposite to each other, “both repugnant unto truth.”  Rome teaches “Scripture to be so unsufficient, as if, except traditions were added, it did not contain all revealed and supernatural truth, which absolutely is necessary for the children of men in this life to know that they may in the next be saved.”  The Puritans argue “as if Scripture did not only contain all things in that kind necessary but all things simply, and in such sort that to do anything according to any other law were not only unnecessary but even opposite unto salvation, unlawful and sinful . . . So we must likewise take great heed, lest in attributing unto Scripture more than it can have, the incredibility of that do cause even those things which indeed it hath most abundantly to be less reverently esteemed.”  Have they “overshot” themselves – even though (as Hooker believes) they meant well?[23]

6.  Hooker returns to the distinction between things necessary for salvation and “things indifferent.” “Some things in such sort are allowed, that they be also required as necessary unto salvation, by way of direct immediate and proper necessity final; so that without performance of them we cannot by ordinary course be saved, nor by any means be excluded from life observing them.  If actions of this kind our chiefest direction is from Scripture, nor Nature is no sufficient teacher what we should do that we may attain unto life everlasting.  The insufficiency of the light of Nature is by the light of Scripture so fully and so perfectly herein supplied, that further light than this hath added there doth not need unto that end.”[24]

A reading of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity reveals its author to have the heart of a reconciler, a peace seeker.  At the opening of Book II he writes: “Now whether it be that through an earnest longing desire to see things brought to a peaceable end, I do but imagine the matters whereof we contend to be fewer than indeed they are; or else for that in truth they are fewer when they come to be discussed by reason, than otherwise they seem when by heat of contention they are divided into many slips, and of every branch an heap is made . . . I know no cause why either the number or the length of these controversies should diminish our hope of seeing them end with concord and love on all sides; which of his infinite love and goodness the Father of all peace and unity grant.”[25]

Arthur McGrade observes that “Hooker is often ironic, sometimes sarcastic and angry, but never self-righteous.  The English law he defends demands obedience.  It does not merely request it.  In the last analysis, however, the move from ‘great reason’ to the acceptance of legal constraint is a matter of willing participation in a given communal order.  Accordingly, Hooker’s own appeal is to a judgment of conscience, for he sees that unless his own party and opposing parties can live together in good conscience, there will be no law or community left to defend.”[26]  In Hooker’s own prophetic words, “Insolency must be repressed, or it will be the very bane of Christian religion.”[27]


Bartholomew, Keith. “Biblical and Constitutional Interpretation and the Role of Originalism in 16th  and 20th Century Societies.” Anglican Theological Review 82, no. 3 (Summer 2000): 537-546. http://faculty.arch.utah.edu/bartholomew/HookerArticle.pdf (accessed November 30, 2010).

Field, John, and Thomas Wilcox. “An Admonition to the Parliament [1572].” In The Protestant Reformation. Edited by Hans J. Hillerbrand., 312-323. New York: Harper Perennial, 1968.

Frere, W.H., and C.E. Douglas, eds. Puritan Manifestoes: A Study of the Origin of the Puritan Revolt. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1907.

Hooker, Richard. Preface to Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1593), edited by John Keble, 125-196.  Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1876.  http://anglicanhistory.org/ hooker/preface/ (accessed November 30, 2010).

______________. “Book II.” In Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1593), edited by John Keble, 286-336.  Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1876. http://anglicanhistory.org/hooker/2/ (accessed November 30, 2010).

McGrade, Arthur Stephen. Introduction to Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought), by Richard Hooker, xiii-xxx. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ., 1989.

Moorman, John R.H. A History of the Church in England. 3rd, 1972 ed. Harrisburg: Morehouse, 1963.

Thornton, Martin. “The Caroline Divines.” In English Spirituality, 230-256. 1963. Reprint, Boston: Cowley, 1986.





[1] E.g. The Act(s) of Supremecy (1532) declaring Henry VIII “the only supreme head on earth of the Church in England”, repealed in 1554 during the reign of Mary as the church reestablished connections with Rome and reissued in 1558 when Elizabeth ascended the throne and declared herself “Supreme Governor.”

[2]  E.g. Wurtemburg Confession (1552), which holds special interest as having considerably affected CoE Articles and the 17th century Westminster Confession (1646).

[3]  Under Henry VIII:  The Ten Articles (1536), the year of the final rupture with Rome; The Thirteen Articles (1539 – Cromwell and Cranmer vs. Gardiner);  The Six Articles (1539 – Duke of Norfolk, against the resistance of Cranmer and his friends);  Under Edward VI:  The Forty-two Articles (1551).  Under Elizabeth I:  The Eleven Articles (1559); The Thirty-nine Articles (1571 – a revision of the Forty-Two issued two decades earlier); and the attempted amendment of the thirty-nine in The Lambeth Articles (1595).

[4]  Books I-IV containing the general principles used to refute Puritan objections to the ceremonies and polity of the Church of England. were published in 1593.  Book V, a defense of the Book of Common Prayer was published in 1597.  Books VI-VII dealing the Power of Jurisdiction were published posthumously in 1648 and 1661.

[5]   John R.H. Moorman, A History of the Church in England, 3rd, 1972 ed. (Harrisburg: Morehouse, 1963), 208.

[6] The anonymity of the authors and the secrecy of the press were shielded for a time because the Puritans held a powerful position in the book trade.  When the identity of the authors was revealed in July of 1572, John Field and Thomas Wilcox were imprisoned.   By this time Field had already developed a plan to establish a full presbyterian organization to supersede existing Church polity.

[7] A poem from a letter to The Reuerend Father in Christ, E.G. Bishop of L.T.B., “Wisheth grace and health from the Lord.”  In the Appendix to the Admonition in W.H. Frere and C.E. Douglas, eds. Puritan Manifestoes: A Study of the Origin of the Puritan Revolt (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1907), 55.

[8] Frere and Douglas, vii.

[9]  Frere and Douglas, xii.

[10] John Field and Thomas Wilcox, “An Admonition to the Parliament [1972],” in The Protestant Reformation, ed. Hans J. Hillerbrand (New York: Harper Perennial, 1968), page 313.

[11] Ibid., 314

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Field and Wilcox, 316.  Practices included in the BCP “contrary to God’s Word included: baptism by women, private communion, Jewish purifyings and the observance of holidays from “the pope’s list.”

[15] Ibid., 319.

[16] Moorman, 210.

[17] Arthur Stephen McGrade, introduction to Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought), by Richard Hooker (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ., 1989), xv.

[18] Martin Thornton, “The Caroline Divines,” in English Spirituality (1963; repr., Boston: Cowley, 1986), 232.

[19] Richard Hooker, preface to Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1593), ed. John Keble, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1876), 2.i.4, p 289, this sense, Hooker’s opponents are here adhering to an extreme form of literalism in which their understanding of a text “comes exclusively from the words of the text without regard to their social, historic, or linguistic contexts.” (“Biblical and Constitutional Interpretation and the Role of Originalism in 16th and 20th Century Societies,” Anglican Theological Review 82, no. 3 (Summer 2000): page #s, http://faculty.arch.utah.edu/bartholomew/HookerArticle.pdf (accessed November 30, 2010).

[20]  Ibid., 2.ii.2, p 291.

[21]  Ibid., 2.vii.5, p 322.

[22]  Ibid., 2.iv.5, p 298.

[23] Hooker, 2.viii.7, p 335.

[24] Ibid., 2.viii.3, p 331.

[25] Ibid., 2.1.1, p 287.

[26] McGrade, xxx.

[27] Hooker, 2.vii.7, p 327.

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