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Hot Protestants

Michael P. Winship—

In late 1535, 300-year-old Cleeve Abbey’s seventeen Cistercian monks received an emissary of King Henry VIII, the lawyer John Tregonwell. Like the rest of the monks, John Hooper, an Oxford University graduate in his late thirties, must have wondered why Tregonwell was really there. Was it because Tregonwell’s master the king was truly concerned about the spiritual health of the monastery? Or did the king have designs on the monastery’s wealth? Perhaps the king’s emissary had come to sniff out recalcitrant monks who refused to accept that Henry, not Pope Paul III, was now by act of Parliament legally the head of the Church of England. Hooper and the other monks also probably wondered if their visitor was still sound in his ancestral faith. Or had he joined the Protestant heretics who were growing increasingly brazen as Henry flaunted his new independence from the pope? If Tregonwell had gone all the way over to Protestantism, he would be inwardly scoffing at the prayers the monks poured out to shorten the stay of the dead in purgatory, while scorning the pilgrims who flocked to Cleve Abbey’s miraculous statue of the Virgin Mary as deluded idol worshipers.

Henry left Cleeve Abbey alone, but only for a year. In 1536, a new royal emissary, Thomas Arundell, arrived to close the monastery for good, a doom that would soon befall all of England’s monasteries and nunneries. Henry himself had no great religious objections to them (nor, probably, did Arundell), but he wanted their wealth. Cleeve Abbey was seized, its church torn down, its abbot pensioned off, and Hooper and the rest of the monks expelled to fend for themselves. Hooper joined Arundell to serve as steward over his household affairs.Hooper could scarcely have imagined that in a few years he himself was to become a committed Protestant, let alone that the conflicts he was to generate in his new-found haste to purge England of its Catholic past would mark the beginning of what would be called puritanism. John Hooper’s conversion to Protestantism came around 1540 when he got hold of two treatises written by Swiss Protestants. Hooper studied them “night and day,” he later recalled, with “an almost superstitious diligence.” The books’ arguments made Hooper realize that by “following the evil ways of my forefathers” he had been guilty of the damnable sins of idolatry and blasphemy. But now, at last, thanks to those books, he “rightly understood what God was.”

Protestants were at the time still only a small minority in England, concentrated in London and its surrounding counties. It was not entirely safe to be one, for King Henry remained uncertain how far he wanted to steer his newly liberated Church of England away from Catholicism. He whipsawed back and forth between his Protestant advisors and his religiously traditionalist ones, who clung to their inherited Catholic practices and beliefs. In the early 1540s, traditionalists were in the saddle; Protestants were being burned; and Henry’s government was trying futilely to force the Protestant genie of lay Bible reading back into its bottle. Hooper’s traditionalist master, Arundell, tipped off Stephen Gardiner, the Protestant-hating bishop of Winchester, about Hooper’s conversion to Protestantism. For his own safety, Hooper started periodically retreating to the continent while supporting himself as a cloth merchant. In 1547, he moved to Zurich in Switzerland, a city of about six thousand people where the Swiss Reformation had begun in the early 1520s.

The Reformation had gone through an eventful three decades since Martin Luther in Wittenberg, Germany and Huldrych Zwingli in Zurich had begun it by pushing their criticism of the Catholic Church to the point of breaking away from it. The relationship between the followers of Luther, the Lutherans, and the Swiss Reformed churches like Zwingli’s was tense to start with and had grown steadily worse. Lutherans and the Swiss Reformed were starting to disagree about predestination: the Lutherans lacked the Reformed churches’ hostility to sacred images and other Catholic survivals; they were less intensely focused on obedience to God’s biblical laws; and, unlike the Swiss Reformed, they insisted that Christ was objectively present at celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. By the 1540s, Lutheran Protestants and Reformed Protestants could work themselves into a hatred of each other only slightly less intense than their shared hatred of Catholics.

For Hooper, and for many English Protestants then and later, the Swiss Reformed churches had recovered Christian worship in its true biblical purity and simplicity. The churches of Zurich had been entirely liberated from the idolatrous statues, stained glass, and pictures that still befouled the English parish churches. Ministers wore simple black gowns, not the colorful Catholic vestments still in use in England. Choral polyphony, which buried the sense of its often non-biblical words under glorious clashes of massed melodic lines, was banned. Zurich’s plain services of prayer and preaching had no connection to the older, elaborate Catholic liturgies.

In 1547, while Hooper was settling into Zurich, Henry died. His funeral rites remained firmly in the traditional vein: elaborate masses and ceremonies spread over five days to speed the departed king’s soul through its otherworldly journey. “Of your charity pray for the soul of the high and most mighty prince, our late sovereign lord and king Henry VIII,” cried the king’s chief herald at each of these gatherings to the assembled noble and royal household mourners. For English Protestants like Hooper, however, the prayers the kingdom showered upon Henry’s soul were pointless. Christ had made complete satisfaction on the cross for the sins of those whom God had predestined for heaven, and Henry had gone immediately to wherever he was going to spend eternity, be it heaven or hell (for Protestants, there was no purgatory). In neither location could he or any other soul, not even the Virgin Mary, respond to or be affected by the prayers of the living.

From Hot Protestants by Michael P. Winship. Published by Yale University Press in 2021. Reproduced with permission.


Michael P. Winship is E. Merton Coulter Professor in the Department of History at the University of Georgia.


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