To Honour God: The Spirituality of Oliver Cromwell (134 pages)

Classics of Reformed Spirituality Series Edited and introduced by Michael A. G. Haykin.

The pimples and warts of the Protector

     The editor opens up this fine little book by explaining that Cromwell (1599-1658) liked to have his portrait painted with all his “roughness, pimples, warts and everything.” History has taken Cromwell at his word. The verbal pictures handed down to us by historians and theologians alike have contained far more warts than those revealed in Samuel Cooper’s famous portrait of England’s Lord Protector.  Mrs Macaulay, they say, proved in her History of England, that the idol, which seemed to be of gold, was a wooden one. William Cowper confessed to John Newton that he was astonished that people could be so blind as to imagine that ‘the crafty nave’ and ‘tyrant’, Cromwell, could be mistaken for a true patriot. Challenging the ‘Puritan’ image of Cromwell, Augustus Toplady, lover of the doctrines of grace as he was, castigated Cromwell for being the dupe of Arch-Arminian John Goodwin. These were Reformed Anglican critics and we might expect more respect from the Dissenting side, but we will be disappointed. Edward Calamy, in his famous Abridgement of the Life of Baxter mentions time and time again Cromwell’s scheming trickery, promise-breaking and downright lies, not to mention his major part in murdering the King. Baxter, too, added his sting to such opinions by openly declaring that Cromwell was an honest and righteous man, only when it suited his scheming to be so.

Cromwell had more than meets the eye

     Prof. Haykin, shows us that there is more to Cromwell’s character portrait than meets the eye. His introductory essay stresses that Cromwell was well aware of his Old Adam whom he found, (and who does not?), very difficult to mortify. Cromwell constantly confessed to God how weak, unskilled and unfitting he was for his calling. It takes a very great man to admit great wrong and, whenever Cromwell lapsed, as in Calamy’s example where he deceived both Parliament and the army in order to remodel the former on the latter, his Christian conscience forced him to confess openly that he had sinned.

     After dealing with Cromwell’s view of his own vileness, Haykin devotes a chapter to Cromwell’s spirituality, showing how Cromwell aimed to use the powers God had given him to promote heart-religion as opposed to institutionalised religion and to do so in a country so ruled by him as to promote genuine liberty of conscience. In this, Cromwell was convinced that he had an essential role to play in God’s Providence for Britain, confessing humbly that because of displays of grace in his life, “Truly no poor creature hath more cause to put forth himself in the cause of God than I.”

Out-Laudianising Laud

     One point where this reviewer lost the thread of Haykin’s argument is in his statement that Presbyterians, Independents and Baptists did not have “the depth of compassion for Christian unity” that Cromwell had. Surely Cromwell’s attacks against Christian unity was one of the many weak spots in Cromwell’s armour. The Protector of the Commonwealth was certainly not the Protector of the churches, even those who strove for unity in verity. Rather than respect Anglican and Presbyterian Christians, Cromwell influenced Parliament to put an end to the Reformed Church of England, dealing out a blow from which it never recovered. He moved both army and magistrates to ban Presbyterianism from Parliament and the ecclesiastical power which went with such posts and thus paved the way for Presbyterian decline in England. It is also true to say that Cromwell’s anti-Baptist feelings grew with his power, especially concerning those in his own army. Left in his purged Parliament alone with the Congregationalists, Cromwell never succeeded in allying himself fully with the Independents, either. Like John Goodwin, he appeared to be a man without a visible church who found no home in any of the denominations created by the Rebellion. Indeed, once practising Anglicans and Presbyterians had fallen from Cromwell’s grace and been removed from Parliament, one must admit that it was Prof. Haykin’s own denomination, the Baptists, who now preserved the best of Reformed Anglican, Presbyterian and Independent thinking. Cromwell’s alternative was a purging of the secular state to make it a Christian church, over which he was Lord Protector. Neither the Anglicans nor the Presbyterians had seen church unity in this ‘light’ and to the Baptists, the idea destroyed the New Testament concept of the local, visible church. Puritan Anglicans were convinced that Cromwell was out-Laudianising Laud.

Confessing Christ in private and public

     Pages 39-41 provide a very useful time-line from Cromwell’s birth to death before the reader is introduced to Cromwell’s personal and public expressions of his faith in extracts from his correspondence and speeches. Here we see Cromwell opening his heart to friends, relations and the country. It is when writing to people before whom Cromwell had nothing to hide, that we see the true humility of the man, striving to keep a Christian testimony in the environment of a crown, which had all such characteristics but the actual object, laid upon his very uneasy head. We also see the follies and blood, sweat and tears of warfare as Cromwell writes to his brother-in-law Colonel Walton, to tell him with apparent military coldness, “Sir, God hath taken away your eldest son by a canon-shot. It brake his leg. We were necessitated to have it cut off, whereof he died.” Then Cromwell leaves this log-book-like record to give the bereaved father deep spiritual comfort. Such spiritual intimacy, however, is not merely shown when dealing with family members and close friends. When writing to Thomas Fairfax who was at the head of Cromwell’s troops, the Protector praises God for health restored and for the fact that he is accounted to die daily as the world has nothing to offer him. “I find this only good, he tells his General, “to love the Lord, and his poor despised people, to do for them, and to be ready to suffer with them.”

     This reviewer was very thankful for Prof. Haykin’s provision of Cromwell’s sound Christian thoughts echoed in public documents, showing that the Protector was not a mere arm-chair Christian but was most conscious of his faith in addressing Parliament and the nation. We thus find Cromwell appealing to the British people on March 20, 1653 to enter into a day of fasting and humiliation, praying that the fruits of the Spirit might belong to the nation. On opening Parliament on Sept. 17th, 1656 we find Cromwell opening up his Bible at the 85th Psalm, reading it to the gathered members and wishing that the words of these precious verses were engraved in every heart present so that all could say, “Thou hast done this.” “Thou has pardoned our sins.”

The bitter mingled with the sweet

     This reviewer found these sweet and delightful insights into Cromwell’s spiritual life and testimony a new and real refreshment. However, there is still something of a bitter taste left. Cromwell destroyed far too much of well-established Reformed church life on coming to his usurped power and he certainly paved the way for fierce church conflict after those who helped put him in power, grew tired of him and pleaded with Charles II to return to England. It is not commonly known that the very Five-Mile and Conventicle acts had been passed by Parliament, against the King’s wishes, at the Restitution were based on similar persecuting laws passed to restrain Anglicans during Commonwealth times. Cromwell stifled the growth of much positive church development during the Rebellion, especially in those churches he called ‘sects’. Thus, though we must certainly be reminded that Cromwell died in full assurance of saving grace applied to his own soul, yet we must also remember, as John Buchan said, that after Cromwell’s death, “Everywhere what Oliver had exiled, or suppressed, or curbed, raised its head and drew breath in hope.”

     Symptomatic of Cromwell’s Erastian view of the Church is his policy of liberty of conscience mentioned in Haykin’s Anthology. One of the greatest Dissenting ideals has always been freedom of conscience and no one spoke more of this than Cromwell himself. Yet, whenever Cromwell promises his people the freedom to express their own Christian convictions, as in his speech before Parliament in September, 1654, he promises a liberty of conscience which is greater than that offered by the ‘Episcopalians, the Presbyterians and the sects’. What Christian body does he then feel are the trustees of such a liberty? Sadly, none at all. He sees true liberty of conscience purely as resting in the powers of the secular supreme magistrate, who was at the time, to all intents and purposes, himself. Maurice Ashley, writing on Oliver Cromwell and the Revolution, criticises Cromwell for not being ruthless enough in establishing a fixed and settled parliamentary rule. This is to misunderstand the fact that Cromwell saw his own rule as being the expression of God’s rule in a new model people. Thus a settled government provided by a third party was superfluous!

A well-produced, needy and informative book

     The fact that major biographers of more modern times such as Merle D’Aubigné, Lord Tweedsmuir and Maurice Ashley, present us with completely different pictures of Cromwell, show that much work has still to be done on the Protector’s life. Let us hope that this little book will provoke Christians, when they turn to those troubled times of revolution, to see that where the hand of man is active, the guiding and permitting hand of God is supervising and influencing the entire action to His glory. It is good to know that even in one of the darkest periods of British history, those who drew down the blinds were not entirely without light!

     The book is charmingly produced with a cover design and other motifs by Deborah Livingston-Lowe reminiscent of Pauline Baynes and William Morris. Numerous detailed footnotes giving biographical, historical and Biblical information adorn the pages, adding greatly to the instructive nature of the book. The select bibliography appended reveals some treats indeed and makes this reviewer wish it were longer. Finally, Prof. Haykin adds such a warm encouragement to read the Christian Classics that the reader is assured that there are other gems in this series to come. I, for one, am looking forward to them. Those who would like to know more about Michael Haykin will find a tiny c. v. facing the inside back cover. Usual, I complain when no indices are added but this is a book which can easily be read in an hour and is so well fitted out with division titles that indices are scarcely necessary.