Against All Disaster

Located as we are (somewhere between holograms and shapeshifters) in our march to a brave new world, the term Pilgrim is probably so far beyond archaic as to be hung up in John Wayne Cowboy World. Maybe the term surfaces at Thanksgiving, but I wouldn’t doubt that for some younger types Pilgrim is as likely thought the name of the turkey pardoned by presidential decree. And if remembered, the Pilgrims of Plymouth and Massachusetts yore loom so severe as to need a pardon also.

But the Pilgrims had plenty of fellows in England, and their Puritan ways were forged in the midst of the most amazing times and sensibilities. In fact, the story of Puritanism in England can hardly be told without reference to the English Civil War that raged from 1642 till 1651. While England at the beginning of the wars was Protestant, the Church of England was very high church and little changed from the Catholicism it derived from.

The spirit of the Reformation lived on, however, and a broad group emerged known as the Puritans. They were concerned with biblical purity and holy living. They were increasingly at odds with the established church. And they were horrified that King Charles I had a Catholic wife and seemed determined to undo the Reformation. So when the King’s chosen archbishop of Canterbury, an arrogant fellow named William Laud, changed the Book of Common Prayer, the Puritans smelled a theological rat and threw their lot behind the Parliament in its challenge to the king’s authority.

Very quickly the civil war took on a religious dynamic, with the Parliamentary armies dominated by Puritan elements and their champion, General Oliver Cromwell, on the one side, and the king with his aristocratic and foreign supporters on the other. The king lost—his kingdom and his head—and his execution was made more palatable by the discovery that he was plotting to call an overseas Catholic army to help him. Along the way Archbishop Laud was executed by order of Parliament, underscoring the dominant religious sensibility that played out in the civil war. After the dust settled, General Cromwell was offered the crown, which he refused, and took the title Lord Protector of the newly proclaimed republic.

And so began the greatest test for the Puritans. They had political power—how would they use it? Cromwell’s reign was not long; he died of natural causes in 1658, and two years later the Parliament invited the slain king’s son back to reign as Charles II. Cromwell is not easily cast as a despot, in spite of the harsh treatment his army meted out to Catholic Ireland—a conflict that actually considerably predated the Civil War and the Protectorate. Cromwell himself was almost a pluralist—allowing the Jews back into England and having an indulgent attitude to all religious diversity save Catholicism. But it was the petty killjoy rule of the army over the population that grated. Regional major-general administrators used rules and regulations to harass the citizenry into godly behavior.

It was this failed exercise in mandated morality the brought back the monarchy. The people agitated Parliament to invite back Charles II--the “merry monarch,” as he was known. Easy to see him as such, as public entertainments resumed and debauched court life became “more so.”Too easy for all but the Puritans to ignore the systematic hunting down of all who had acted against the king’s late, “martyred” father. Harder to ignore was the king’s bias toward the Catholic faith and his political plotting to roll back the Reformation. It took a few years, after Charles’s death and rule by his younger brother James II—a man even more determined against Protestantism—for Parliament to catch on to the game. Ergo the Glorious Revolution of 1688, during which James II fled England and his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband, William of Orange, were recognized as coregents.

The United States has had a long identity as a dominantly Protestant society. While thousands of fearful Puritans flooded into the New World after the collapse of the Protectorate and salted communities from New England to the Southern states with a continuing dream of a Religious Republic, in the main the new nation learned from the old and steered a decidedly secular and religiously nonpartisan course, even as it committed to protecting as inviolable all personal religious commitment. And so far, no major-generals have troubled our countryside with edicts against kite flying and freelance theology.

A reality worth clinging to in these tempting times, for those who would call up the legions of law on behalf of national spiritual renewal.

The wheel of history has us on a spoke more than a little connected to England in the mid-1600s. While not as obviously heading to violent revolution as the 1960s and on; when the Beatles sang “Revolution” and students spawned the Weathermen and campus riots, and cities burned across America, we are nevertheless in a revolutionary moment, suffused with religious aspiration. Moral decline has driven many tender-conscienced neo-Puritans to think that only political action can restore our spiritual greatness. Parliament and the king are in debate over powers, and yet all remain strangely ineffective and alien to the electorate. There is deep suspicion that outside powers are meddling in our affairs, but not much clarity over who and what sort of powers.

Time to refer to our great cover for this issue. The knight is back on his heels, as a monstrous fiend comes in for the kill. It is not a Marvel Comics tale nor a picture from a medieval bestiary—it is a woodcut from one of the most popular works in the English language: The Pilgrim’s Progress, written by John Bunyan. The man in the armor is Christian/Pilgrim, John Bunyan himself; and you and me, if we see it.

John Bunyan had been a soldier in the Parliamentary army during the English Civil War. But like many in his day and ours, he was militant but not religious. According to Bunyan’s biographical Grace Abounding, he was a spectacularly profane and irreligious fellow at that time. But after the war, he got religion—the real thing. He’d begun dabbling in biblical exposition, and then one day he chanced upon some women talking “about a new birth” and “the work of God on their hearts,” as Bunyan put it. “By these things my mind was now so turned,. . . it was so fixed on eternity . . . that neither pleasures, nor profits, nor persuasions, nor threats, could loose it, or make it let go his hold.” He was a changed man! And the veteran soldier was now equipped for the spiritual battle of his life. Pilgrim had become Christian and, as the account in his famous book underscored, able in this new armor to take on Apollyon himself—the most hellish ruler of the part of this world unattached to the Celestial City Bunyan now craved.

Our illustration visualizes what Bunyan described as real enough for words, but the true cosmic faith struggle that determines our destiny. When Apollyon, in a rage, says of Christian’s new Lord Commander,“I am an enemy to this Prince; I hate His person, His laws, and people. I am come out on purpose to withstand thee,” he is, after much struggle, defeated by the weaponry called in Ephesians 6 “the whole armour of God.” These things are at once symbolic and real: the belt of truth, shoes of peace, shield of faith, helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit.

I pray that our fellow pilgrims today can take a lesson from the journey of Bunyan the old soldier. Way before Vietnam taught us that the real battle is for hearts and minds, the Tinker Soldier was recruiting for the real battle. From prison he wrote words that eventually took music as part of The English Hymnal: “He who would true valour see” “there’s no discouragement shall make him once relent his first intent to be a pilgrim. . . . He’ll with a giant fight, he will have a right to be a pilgrim.” Religious freedom is worth fighting for; will require a great defense. Not the ancient ones of force and hatred; but the Pilgrim kit.


Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."