On the April 27, 1688, King James II of England issued a "Declaration of Indulgence". As King, he was also the head of the Church of England. His latest public policy seemed so tolerant: it granted freedom to non-Conformists and Roman Catholics to worship publicly without legal reprisals, and removed the requirements that limited the holding of military and civil office to those who could demonstrate their credentials as good Anglicans. It sounds like a significant advance in human rights.
But there was a lot at stake. Literally - for in those days the stake was where you might end up if your disobeyed a royal proclamation. In this case, the declaration was not just a new law being passed, but a royal decree that the King's declaration should be read aloud in every church on Sunday morning. The bishops were called together to decide how to respond. Only seven were able to meet in the hurried time-frame, and they all agreed to disobey the king. They led the church's resistance - and in many churches, including Westminster Abbey, the buildings were packed with people who knew what was happening, and the moment the first words of the king's decree were read, the congregation rose as one man and left the building.
The Seven Bishops were put on trial as the king's declaration of tolerance proved to be quite intolerant of those who did not see things his way. There's nothing new under the sun: there is no greater intolerance than the intolerance of those who advocate tolerance in the public square. But the Bishops were not resisting the edict of tolerance because they were intolerant. Rather, they were aware that the guise of tolerance was being used to promote the agenda of the powerful ruling elite: in that instance, the intention to bring Britain back under Roman Catholic control.
Interestingly, the bishops' strategy was built on the encouragement of the non-Conformists, the evangelical Christians, who at great personal cost, had withdrawn from the state church. On paper, they stood to gain by the new legislation, but they knew that their supposed freedom of worship was a guise for something more sinister. One of their number, the novelist Daniel Defoe (author of Robinson Crusoe) encouraged their Anglican brethren to stand firm, saying, "I had rather the Church of England pull our clothes off by fines and forfeitures than the papists should fall upon the Church [of England] and the Dissenters, and pull our skins off by fire and faggot." They remembered well what life under the control of Rome had been like in recent history.
But the fundamental issue on which the bishops took their stand was not their anti-Catholicism, understandable as that might have been in the climate of their day. The bigger issue was that they refused to be told by the King what they must do in the church. Their protest was a classic case of the separation of church and state. They saw that in a way that has been reversed in the debates in our day: they saw it as a truth that prohibited the State from interfering in the life of the Church.
So, when the Bishops and King met prior to the fateful Sunday, the King declared, "You are trumpeters of sedition. Go to your dioceses and see that I am obeyed!" To which the Bishop of Bath and Wells replied, "We have two duties to perform: our duty to God and our duty to your majesty. We honour you, but we fear God." In Jesus' words, they were more than willing to render under to Caesar that which was Caesar's - the honour that was due to God's representative in the civil realm. But he had no jurisdiction over the Church, and God was to be obeyed in decisions about what went on there on a Sunday morning.
The trial of the bishops ended with a "Not guilty" verdict amid scenes of 10,000 Londoners cheering outside the courthouse. Within 6 months James II had lost his crown and fled the country. A new regime under William and Mary ushered in an era of genuine freedom: not the politically correct, top-down imposed vision of tolerance, but true freedom of worship. As we have seen in previous blogs, some things are worth fighting for.
For more on this historic conflict, there is an audio recording on our web site. J.C.Ryle wrote an interesting small book on the subject.