Monday, September 3, 2012

September 03, 2012

Oliver Cromwell: Puritan Rabble-rouser or Man of God?

While researching Protestantism in the 1500s and 1600s I have come upon many references to Oliver Cromwell, who abolished England’s monarchy and introduced many restrictive reforms. Few of the references have been flattering. Yet I began to wonder if he really deserved all those negative comments. So I studied with an open mind.

Oliver Cromwell first rose to fame as a skilled soldier. He quickly used his Puritan leanings to create the “New Model Army,” of the English Civil War, which pitted Anglican supporters of King Charles I against Puritan “roundheads” who wished to abolish the monarchy and set up their own leadership. (I did not include this war in yesterday’s post when I spoke of England having no religious wars, because religion was not the only cause in this engagement. The preference of parliament over royalty was the key element).

Can one blame Cromwell for doing things such as abolishing Christmas? It was not the remembrance itself that he found disturbing; rather, he was offended that Christmas had become very pagan in practice and had little to do with Christ’s birth. Also, I realize that he saw flaws in England’s Protestant identity and wished to take the country further away from Rome’s influence. If there are two things, though, that serve to condemn him, it would be the execution of King Charles I and the anti-Catholic rampages in Ireland. The 1649 Siege of Drogheda would forever become one of Cromwell’s black marks. During this time over 3,000 people lost their lives at the hands of Puritan soldiers. There was another bloodbath at Wexford. The seventeenth century was far from a pleasant era.

I think it is important to remember that “our side” is not always the “good guys.” Studying the Protestant Reformation does not mean that every single Protestant believer was admirable. We were and are humans with a penchant for sinning, and many of these sins were great. Oliver Cromwell is a great example of what happens when religious fanaticism takes hold in any faith.

Although he is condemned for his lack of mercy during the English Civil War and for his treatment of Catholic Irishmen and Royalist soldiers, he is still an immensely important figure in English history. In 1653 he set up the “Protectorate.” Under this authority he was able to do such things as abolish theater (which, in his defense, had become increasingly immoral) and forbid English citizens to celebrate Christian holidays in the old manner.

So, let us take a moment to rate Oliver Cromwell’s accomplishments, the good, the bad, and the ugly. The massacres enacted by men under his command are certainly categorized as ugly, for there is no way to justify such behavior. We as modern Protestants should study Cromwell with an open heart but must never attempt to explain away or applaud his darker actions. Any student of history will duly note that both sides in any conflict “gave as good as they got,” so to speak, and whether or not we would like to believe that our side played knights in shining armor and did no wrong, we must be honest in admitting the wrongness of their actions.

As for the “ugly” category, Cromwell’s self-imposed authority to oversee King Charles I’s execution must go under that same category. Yet his very strict Puritan abhorrence of anything and everything “fun,” as modern man seems to think, could go under either “good” or “bad” depending on how much we read into it. For instance, banning Christmas, as I said before. Most Protestants would say “bad.” Yet, considering that he was attempting to take what he thought were “pagan” customs out of Christmas, and considering that he was disgusted with the lack of praise toward Christ, it is rather admirable. Banning “theater” and “dancing” was actually beneficial in many ways. Both practices had become quite immoral and enticed many Anglican brothers and sisters to stumble. Naturally, as time passed and the monarchy rose again, partying Englishmen made the connection between fun times = good and Puritanism = bad.

Oliver Cromwell was not in the wrong because of his strong religious convictions, which angered many but were meant to promote Christian morality. Rather he was in the wrong because of the festering prejudices that encouraged him to commit acts of violence. His involvement in bloodshed cannot be justified, nor can it be tolerated simply because that era was marked by such actions and it was considered normal behavior. Protestants admiring his strong Puritan stance in matters of faith certainly need not condone his sins. In conclusion, he was a man of his time, driven by prejudice, desperate to do right in God’s eyes, believing the world could only thrive if such reforms were put into place.

He may be viewed controversially, but his influence in English history simply cannot be ignored.

(c) 2012 Joyously Saved

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