The Development of Religious Sects

If the attention religion and religious issues were given during the Interregnum can be an acceptable indicator of their relative importance, religion was the issue that defied overall settlement. The reason for this situation can be found in the explosive environment of the Civil Wars. The development of separate religious denominations was stimulated firstly by the challenge to the Caroline Church and secondly the collapse of censorship during the Civil War and the resultant Providentialism and millenarianism. In just a decade the extent of change is dramatic. Where in 1640 the only Protestant churches, those of England (Anglican - with its Puritan and Arminian wings) and Scotland (Presbyterian), by 1650, an array of sects who refused to submit to either Presbyterian or Anglican models of Church government had come into existence.

For members of sects there was a very fine line between looking to providence to determine God's approval or disapproval of events, and taking the upheaval of the times as a prophetic sign of imminent divine intervention. The sects were diverse in origins, beliefs and modes of worship. A popular misconception is that the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell stood for complete religious toleration. Cromwell was radical in the sense that for his times he advocated liberty of conscience for those Protestants who could not accept the Anglican or Presbyterian forms. This toleration was limited however: firstly to Protestants, and secondly excluded those Protestants who were socially and politically unacceptable to men of Cromwell's background.

The 1650s witnessed the ascendance and demise of radical religion to and from positions of unprecedented political power. The efforts to realise the godly reformation of English society ultimately failed because it lacked the necessary support in either the consensus of the political élite or that of the populace at large. The consequences of the radicals' aspirations to mould the lives of Englishmen provoked a bitter and deeply entrenched reaction after 1660 to Protestant groups and ideas outside the realm of Anglicanism. Yet this period was vital for the consolidation and development of radical Protestantism in England as the foundations developed in the liberal religious environment of the Commonwealth and Protectorate gave strength and encouragement to Dissenters in the face of hostility and persecution under subsequent monarchical regimes.

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