Judging by his serene expression, he certainly doesn’t look like a man who should have changed England’s politics, culture and history forever. I refer to Oliver Cromwell and his expression preserved for the ages in his death mask on display at Warwick Castle, Warwick England.1
Oliver Cromwell (1559-1658) one of the signal personalities of English history and politics, played a crucial role in what was perhaps the turning point in England’s modern history 2. One of his homes is just a few miles from mine. Other than his death mask and a small plaque on a former home, there is little, in Oxfordshire 3 anyway, to indicate Cromwell’s historical importance, but Cromwell is an important figure indeed. 4
Oliver was the child of puritan parents and raised in an atmosphere generally congenial to Puritanism.5 His father died when Oliver was eighteen so he was raised by his mother with his seven sisters. Oliver’s schoolmaster and pastor was a puritan interested in the theater. 6 He matriculated in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge University, whose master was Samuel Ward, one of England’s delegates to the Synod of Dort (1619).
Cromwell’s public political career began in 1628 when he was elected to Parliament, but he did not enjoy a meteoric rise to fame. Two years later, after some financial difficulty, he was forced to return to farming as a tenant. From 1530-36 he is said, according to a note by his physician, to have suffered extreme melancholy. 7 Yet, through this period, Cromwell’s commitment to Christ and his appreciation of the graciousness of grace seems to have increased.
In 1640 Cromwell was again elected to Parliament, not from Huntingdon, but this time from nearby Cambridge due to political maneuvering by his opponents. In the first two years Cromwell supported financial reforms and ecclesiastical reforms which would help the puritan cause. 8 In 1642 the English Civil War broke out and soon Oliver Cromwell had risen to a prominent place of leadership over the eastern third of the Parliamentary forces, which he fashioned into the “New Model Army.”.
It had been long enough since the last major war that many in the nobility who would support King Charles did not know how to fight. In addition, on the Parliamentary side, Cromwell’s “Ironsides” Regiment was hand-picked and famous for its self-discipline. Drunkenness was punished with the stocks and desertion with public whipping. Thus the Parliamentary forces, with better tactics and better artillery, had a distinct advantage.
King Charles described his Parliamentary opponents with epithets such as “Anabaptist” and “atheist” and accused them of being “destroyers” of church and state. Cromwell had come to command men of a wide range of men, including religious radicals like Anabaptists. His principle, in determining fitness for public service was that he was less concerned what a man’s beliefs were than his willingness to serve the public good. Not only were his policies and troops increasingly perceived as radical, so were his military tactics. Where the Kings troops on horseback would charge the enemy, they often did not regroup and were essentially done for the day. Cromwell’s troops had the ability to charge, regroup and charge again repeatedly thus turning potential defeats into victories.
The first civil war more or less whimpered to a close in 1646 with a Parliamentary victory During the course of the first war. After the first war Parliamentary forces had King Charles in hand, but the serious political, economic and social differences between Cromwell and the Parliamentary ‘Presbyterians’ which had simmered during the war, erupted after. Cromwell had accused the leader of the Presbyterian forces to being less than willing to prosecute the war, to avoid damaging the monarchy.
In 1648 Charles escaped mysteriously from the custody of Cromwell’s troops to the Isle of Wight (controlled by Cromwell’s cousin) and the Civil War was on again. By this time, there was a genuine fear by many in Parliament of Cromwell’s “radical” (i.e., democratizing) troops. There was little sympathy in the Commons for democratic reforms, i.e., freedom of association and especially land reform. Most in the Parliament simply wanted Charles to behave himself, to stop his land and tax grab and they hoped that neither side would win decisively. This hope was, as it turns out, vain.
Charles was re-captured and brought to London for trial. Cromwell was in Scotland for several weeks while Parliamentary troops took over the government, purged it of royalists and arranged for Charles’ trial. At first Oliver tried to save Charles’ life. After he arrived in London, however, he seemed to sense that the providence of God had specially arranged these events and he was soon arguing for Charles’ execution, even to the point of overseeing the signature of the death warrant. 9
Cromwell continued to lead Parliamentary forces against the Irish, Scots and Dutch. By 1653, however, the revolution was over and the nation was tired of war and its high costs. Cromwell not only had defeated the Crown, he was also at odds with his former comrades in arms, many of whom were executed. Cromwell had dissolved the Long Parliament (at musket point!) and the Barebones Parliament. After the latter parliament he was declared “Lord Protector” of England. In his inaugural oath he swore to protect freedom, property rights and to advance the gospel of Christ.
Governors are typically more conservative than campaigners. 10 Soon Cromwell was discovering that the national unity obtained during war, doesn’t often last in peace. The simple matters of civil administration and justice had to be attended to. So, ironically, he turned increasingly to the landed nobility for help in ruling England. Once in power, it is also alleged, Cromwell even made use of an astrologer to predict the future. 11
The first parliament under Oliver’s protectorate closed in failure. In 1655, Cromwell heeded his generals and established direct military rule in England. Dividing the country into eleven districts, each with a military governor.
I call your attention to a colorful Christian personality, but not to canonize him. Cromwell, like all believers, was simul iustus et peccator, i.e., at the same time justified and sinful. While you and I sin in relative (humanly speaking) anonymity, Cromwell’s sins are there for all the world to see and for historians to remember!
Cromwell’s life is both an encouragement and a warning to us. He is an encouragement because he illustrates what men and women of (Calvinist) faith are able, by God’s providence, to accomplish in this life. Cromwell’s faith propelled him toward social action. Cromwell stood for election, worked within the system for many years as a principled politician. While war is always evil, it is sometimes necessary. 12 Under the authority of elected officials, Cromwell successfully commanded his armies by force of prayer and his personality. Their slogan, “trust in God, and keep your powder dry”. illustrates the fact that Cromwell understood the distinction between trusting providence and presuming upon it.
As a ruler he advanced education and the arts, he was a proponent of tolerance and liberality (in the old fashioned sense of the word) and transformed England from an agrarian nation into a world military and economic power.
I am not suggesting that because he held Calvinist beliefs, we should admire everything Oliver did. Like David, Cromwell was a man of blood. He had no clear church affiliation 13 and he was a man of selective tolerance. Under his administration, Roman Catholics, in England, enjoyed more liberty than they did under James I or his son Charles, but he refused to extend that same tolerance to Catholics in Ireland. As a religious dissenter in England, as much as anyone, Cromwell should have understood that the state and the sword are miserable instruments for settling theological disputes. But, as you know, these were not particularly tolerant times. 14
The moral of the story, if you will, is not just that we should remember to never place our trust in men, but that we should be wary of even the most apparently godly political leaders. It is extraordinarily difficult for even the most pious of men to seek first God’s kingdom while aspiring to collect Caesar’s coin. 15
Hill, Christopher. God’s Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution. Penguin: London, 1970.
Fraser, Antonia. Cromwell: Our Chief of Men. London. 1973. Reprinted 1989.
1. The Earl of Warwick was one of Oliver’s friends and co-belligerents against King Charles.
2. This period is full of tremendously important events and people, (e.g., John Milton, the Westminster Assembly) far too many to be noted here.
3. Cromwell was born in Huntingdon near Cambridge, where the Cromwell Museum is now located.
4. This may be explained in part by the fact that during the Civil war, Oxford was home to the Court of Charles! One of Cromwell’s major modern biographers calls Oxford, a “royalist university.”
5. By Puritan and Puritanism I mean Calvinist and English Calvinism. The term is often used broadly to describe everyone who dissented from the Elizabethan Settlement including semi-Pelagians like Richard Baxter. To be reformed, is in this sense to be ‘puritan’ in that for the Puritans, Scripture is the sole authority for faith and life. In worship this leads to the regulative principle (we do that and only that in worship which is explicitly taught or implicitly required in God’s Word) and in the doctrine of salvation that leads to belief in the doctrines of grace. There are Anglican Calvinists of various sorts, but rigorous, thorough-going Calvinism is relatively unusual here. According to J.I. Packer, the Anglican ministry has been dominated since the time of Archbishop Laud, by Arminians. Thus the Puritans considered the Church of England to be “but halfly reformed.” During the recent conference to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Westminster Confession of Faith, James Montgomery Boice, the pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church (PCA), Philadelphia preached in the pulpit of Westminster Abbey. He was the first non-Anglican to stand in that pulpit since the restoration of 1660! So it is ironic that it was Bible believing American Calvinists (NAPARC) who brought this celebration to Westminster.
6. It is a common caricature that the puritans were mean-spirited “kill-joys” or anti-intellectual. As for the latter, Puritan’s made up a large part of the Royal Academy of Science. As for the former, it is well known among Puritan scholars that they were among the leading importers of French wine. Remember, Cromwell was one of eight children and he himself fathered five, indicating that at least these puritans likely had some romantic interest! Regarding the common myths repeated in our state school classrooms, It is a sign of laziness to simply impute to one’s enemies all the characteristics one most despises.
7. Some scholars have speculated that he was what is called today, manic-depressive. Psychoanalysis of the dead is risky business to say the least. The most notorious example of this sort of analysis is Eric Erikson’s Young Man Luther (Norton: New York, 1962.) in which Luther is analyzed from a Freudian point of view!
8. The Anglo-Catholic Archbishop Laud had prosecuted puritan “lectureships.” In churches where there was no permanent pastor, lectureships were endowed by men like Cromwell. These lectureships were restored under Cromwell’s administration.
9. Interpreting providence is notoriously hazardous. From a biblical point of view it is doubtful that this case of regicide can be justified.
10. The truth of this statement is self-evident. The radical Cuban communists led by Castro in the 1950’s turned as despotic as any right-wing regime when they took power in the 1960’s. The same is true of the Russian revolution and the French Revolution. Perhaps the major exception which proves (i.e., tests) this rule is the American Revolution. Certainly our experience tells us that governments tend to centralize power and wealth and inhibit
11. History is full of rulers, who having obtained power, forget who put them there! Solomon is an outstanding example. Unfortunately, Cromwell is not the only political leader in modern times to consult the stars for guidance.
12. Calvin abhorred revolution but allowed disciplined rebellion under the doctrine of “lesser magistrates” (Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.20.31). His immediate successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza, (in The Right of Magistrates) fleshed out this idea.
13. His New Model army was largely composed of “independents” as opposed to other regiments made up of Presbyterians. It was Presbyterians who sought to replace Anglican Episcopacy with Presbyterianism who opposed Cromwell most fiercely in the house of commons.
14. It is likely that Cromwell’s original aims were diluted or even eclipsed by a desire to solve practical financial problems, such as the need for a larger tax base. It is also true that Cromwell had some reason to fear Irish Catholicism as a military and political movement as much as a theology.
15. It is probably too much to ask that a man be both a skilled administrator and theologian. Cromwell, like most politicians was too often the pragmatist. One notable exception to this rule is the great pastor, theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper, Prime Minister of The Netherlands, 1901-1904. See W. R. Godfrey, “Church and State in Holland” in Through Christ’s Word: A Festschrift for Dr. Philip E. Hughes (Presbyterian and Reformed: Phillipsburg, 1985).
[Note: this was written in Oxford, England in 1994 as part of an intended series of Letters From Oxford]