As long as we’re at something of a loose end, I’m picking over a few books that I’d intended to read previously – mostly leftovers from the first phase. One example is Sermons of the Great Ejection, a collection of the final sermons delivered by Puritan ministers before they were tossed out of the Church of England in 1662. You’ll know about the origin of the Anglican church under Henry VIII – man wanted a new wife, so he invented a new church that would let him get a divorce. That was in the early 1500s. By 1549 the Anglican church was a fully fledged church with its own new playbook – the Book of Common Prayer, courtesy of Thomas Cranmer. Over time there are a couple patches – Cranmer nerfs sacraments in the 1552 edition – and things tick along. In 1662, a new edition of the Book of Common Prayer is released. Parliament issues the Act of Uniformity, which requires all priests to accept the updated terms and conditions, and maybe two and a half thousand priests respond by chucking their phones out the window.
I’m messing around a bit – I should acknowledge that this Act is probably one of the major factors in creating ‘non-conformists’ as a distinct English category. It encompassed a bunch of denominations that we still know today, such as Methodists, Baptists, Quakers, and obviously the Puritans themselves. They all lost their right to preach under the Church of England, which was at the time the official state religion – meaning they also suffered a series of knock-on consequences, such as being barred from public office. The Act was passed in May, and required adherence by 24 August 1662. Thus this little collection, which features the final sermons given by some of those non-conforming ministers on the day of their expulsion. It’s more of a historical curio than anything – it’s mostly a lot of moaning about how England is going down the shitter, how banning Puritans is really banning God – you know, the usual. Some of the sermons are alright, though. This is really the speed we’re on today – it’s not very high stakes stuff. I read a nice sermon, and I thought it brought some interesting meaning out of the text, and I’m going to tell you about it.
So this is the first sermon in the book – it’s from a preacher called Edmund Calamy, who – really just seems to be some guy. Wikipedia says that he “lived quietly under the Commonwealth,” which is nice. He was a Presbyterian minister, and apparently he was the first of four generations of men called Edmund Calamy – he named his kid after himself, and so on for four generations. He’s therefore known as Edmund Calamy the Elder, to indicate that he was the first. He died in 1666, shortly after the Great Fire, which seems to have crushed his spirit. The verse that he preached on was 1 Samuel 4:13 –
“And when he came, lo, Eli sat upon a seat by the wayside watching: for his heart trembled for the ark of God.”
For context, Eli is a high priest in the temple at Shiloh. His adult sons are also priests, but they’re shitheads, and so God tells Eli that He’s going to cast down Eli’s family and pick somebody else to safeguard the faith. This is something that actually happens fairly often in the Bible – God sets someone in a particular role, and they get silly, and so He kicks them out and installs somebody else. It happens with David and Saul, for instance – Saul is king of Israel, God tells him to do something, Saul disobeys, and so God picks David to replace him. It’s just an interesting pattern – it speaks to the impermanence and relative meaninglessness of these institutional or hierarchical positions. They might have been established by God, but if they’re misused, He seems quite happy to tear the system down and start again.
Anyway, so Eli’s kids have nicked the Ark of the Covenant and carried it off to win a war. They figure that having the Ark in their campsite will help them defeat their enemies. God isn’t willing to be used like that, of course, and so He allows the Philistines to murder all the Israelites and to steal the Ark for themselves. This verse in chapter 4 has Eli sitting on the side of the road, completely blind, waiting to hear news about the battle. A guy runs up and tells him what happened – the Ark captured, his sons both killed – and Eli falls off his chair and breaks his neck and dies. It’s an ignominious end for God’s servant. Eli had failed to keep his kids in check, and they’d disrespected and misused the faith, and so they were all cast down.
This, then, is the moment that Calamy chooses to preach on – a failed, rejected priest, sitting on the side of the road waiting for the perverted structures of the faith to collapse around him. It’s one of the interesting things about sermons – people just keep finding ways to draw parallels between the Biblical text and the things that are happening in their own time. Calamy saw a parallel with how non-conforming ministers were being ejected from the church, and I’m sure if we thought about it, we could identify parallels with some of our own current events.
Much of the sermon is what you’d expect. Calamy compares the loss of the Ark to the loss of the Puritan ministers, and tells his audience they should be worried: “If I may put this doctrine in a gospel dress, take it thus: when the gospel is in danger of being lost, when gospel-ordinances and gospel-ministers are in danger of being lost, then the people of God have trembling heads and concerned and anxious hearts about it.” He tells his audience that they should be troubled when the Ark is in danger because of the bad things that might happen once the Ark departs – it’s all classic religious scaremongering. “When the Ark of God is taken, the souls of many are in danger. When the gospel is gone, your souls are in hazard.” There is also concern for the future of the nation, which is set upon by enemies when the Ark departs. The state of the nation is especially impacted by the sin of each individual: “therefore Mr Bradford, that blessed martyr, said in his prayer, ‘Lord, it was my unthankfulness for the gospel that brought in popery in Queen Mary’s days.'” There is a clear through-line tying together the health of the individual, the health of the state, and the health of the church. Sin or impurity in each area affects every other. Eli’s personal failure as a father, his failure to raise his kids right, causes corruption of the faith and impacts the outcome of the war between Israel and the Philistines.
The fate of the nation and the destiny of the church are tied especially close together: Calamy repeatedly emphasises that the glory of England is the Christian faith – which, he suggests, they are in danger of losing. “Wherein does England excel other places? There is more wealth in Turkey than in England, and the heathen nations have more of the glory of the world than any Christian king has. What is the glory of England? Is it not Christianity? What is the glory of Christianity but the gospel? If the gospel be gone, our glory is gone.” But, Calamy suggests, this tragic future will never come to pass. “God hath done great things already for this nation … if God had intended to destroy us, He would not have done what He has done for us. He who has done so much for us will not now forsake us.” That – honestly seems like missing the point of the story of Eli.
I think there are at this point a few observations we can make about some tensions in Calamy’s sermon. When he’s giving this sermon, he is a disbarred minister. This sermon was not his last before the Great Ejection, but rather one delivered later, in December 1662, in an ad hoc fashion after the local minister fell sick or somehow otherwise failed to turn up. Calamy gave this sermon as a non-conformist, outside of the state religion and banned from preaching. He was arrested for giving this sermon. And yet he doesn’t preach like someone who has internalised non-conformity. He’s not a man rebuilding his theology around the concepts of powerlessness and exile. He doesn’t have any thoughts on religious tolerance, and he doesn’t have a critique of the merging of church and state, or a critique of how religious doctrine is written into law. There’s no evidence that he’s against the practice of disenfranchising ministers – he’s completely fine with the existence of the mechanisms by which he was removed. He just wishes that he was the boot.
I dunno. I thought this was going to be a funny article, but suddenly it’s about Roe v Wade. Part of what’s fueling the evangelical lobby is exactly this principle – the through-line between the health of the individual, the health of the church, and the health of the state. If the state has laws that don’t reflect the values of the church, that’s considered an imbalance. It’s considered to affect or potentially affect the moral compass of each individual. And as with Calamy, the time spent out of power has not prompted reflection on the benefits of separating church and state. But, I think, the story of Eli might continue to be illustrative. Calamy writes of the security of England’s future, arguing that God has done too much to allow England to fail: “He who has done so much for us will not now forsake us.” But that’s not the take-away from the story of Eli. In fact it’s the opposite. In 1 Samuel 2, God tells Eli this:
“‘I promised that members of your family would minister before me forever.’ But now the Lord declares: ‘Far be it from me! Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained. The time is coming when I will cut short your strength and the strength of your priestly house, so that no one in it will reach old age, and you will see distress in my dwelling. Although good will be done to Israel, no one in your family line will ever reach old age. Every one of you that I do not cut off from serving at my altar I will spare only to destroy your sight and sap your strength, and all your descendants will die in the prime of life.'”
The evangelicals have taken up the Ark and carried it into their war. We’ll see what happens next.