Sunday, 1 June 2014

The Truth about Oliver Cromwell

I’m researching Oliver Cromwell to inform a presentation on what he did to help the Waldensians or Vaudois in 1655. Cromwell’s reputation has been so seriously damaged by his reputed massacres of Catholics in Ireland that defending him, on any front can seem a bit of a challenge. I am also seeking to answer:
  • why the British people heavily rejected Cromwell’s republican Commonwealth at the Restoration of Charles II (1660) 
  • why Cromwell behaved as he did in Ireland - ordering, it is claimed, the massacre of a number of Catholics including priests 
  • what the Puritans did - and did not do - for England. 
Starting with the last question, Oliver Cromwell is an inspiration for Christian rights and freedoms. He was a surprisingly warm and passionate man who wrote very loving letters to his wife. He was interested in people and moved to defend those on the receiving end of oppression if they were Protestants, like the Vaudois. He was also an avid reader of the Bible, if not a devoted member of any local church. He was an Independent rather than a Presbyterian. A man of action, he restrained the power of unelected rulers for hundreds of years. This was an achievement - when France was suffering under the thumb of Sun King, Louis XIV.

Second, we must not confuse Cromwell’s profound commitment to:
  • the right of free speech 
  • the right to worship God according to the Bible 
  • the right of religious conscience 
  • the cause of European Protestantism 
with the modern secular notion of freedom - which is freedom from all social rules and God’s law. He would not have fought the Civil War for the latter concept. When Parliament today applauds Cromwell, it must appreciate that Oliver Cromwell did not fight for our freedom from the commands and standards of God. Freedom in the Christian sense comes with restraints and rules (although Christians are exempt from many religious rituals, such as animal sacrifices). Christian freedom comes from obedience to and acceptance of God.

The Commonwealth and Republic failed in 1660 because it was not Christian, in practice. Being Puritan, the leaders wanted a purer, cleaner way of life for all people. Instead of bringing about an improvement in public morality and behaviour by conversion to Christ, they passed severe Acts in 1650 on:

  • punishing adultery and all sex outside marriage - by death 
  • branding prostitutes with a “B” for “Bawd” - and death for their ongoing activity 
  • fines for swearing 
  • prohibiting public entertainments. 
Parliament even tried to pass a law against wearing cosmetics, but that failed, at the second attempt. The various death sentences were not acted upon, but they must have been a heavy yoke on the neck of the people.

Clearly, these governing Puritans were not acting in a Christian manner, which is rather mystifying. The Bible certainly teaches Christians not to engage in these activities themselves - but Christians cannot force non-believers to do the same. Majority Christian rule may seek to inhibit sin, by some laws, in some way, but it cannot force public obedience - involving imprisonment and the death penalty. Cromwell may have been more moderate. He says he was surrounded by men who "took delight" in putting their fingers on the conscience of others and pinching them:  this is vindictive bullying. All power corrupts.

As for Ireland, Cromwell was probably heavily influenced by misinformation about a so-called massacre which took place on hundreds of thousands of second and third generation English living in Ireland in 1640-41. They were certainly turned out in their shirts and many were ruined and exiled, but there is no mass of evidence of mass slaughter by the Irish. Though untrue, this story was so often put into print that Cromwell was clearly influenced by a widespread English belief in Irish “barbarism” - and, no doubt, acted accordingly. Though this does not excuse his brutality, it sets it in a wider context. Some Continental Catholics and the Inquisition had behaved, at times, in a similar manner.

Our Chief of Men by Antonia Fraser

1 comment: