Oliver Cromwell and the People of God

by Dr David L Smith

Synopsis by Serrie Meakins

Dr Smith considers what Cromwell meant when he talked about the ‘people of god’ – the Elect nation that he was destined to lead. To his mind, God’s people were a godly minority of which he was one. Yet he also saw England as an elect nation, and this presented him with a paradox- how to reconcile the interests of the godly minority and the nation of the Elect? Dr Smith shows how, in a country where the old prayer book was still being used at the time of Cromwell’s death, these two aims were hard to reconcile. Great for a better understanding of Cromwell’s’ religious views.


On 21 April 1657, in one of the speeches to Parliament’s representatives in which he meditated on their offer of the kingship, Oliver Cromwell offered these words of praise for those who had framed the Humble Petition and Advice: ‘I think you have provided for the liberty of the people of God, and for the liberty of the nation. And I say he sings sweetly that sings a song of reconciliation betwixt these two interests! And it is a pitiful fancy, and wild and ignorant to think they are inconsistent. Certainly they may consist!’1 This was a highly revealing passage, for it reflected a profound tension within Cromwell’s thinking between two conceptions of the people of God: firstly, the belief that the English were an Elect nation, a chosen people; and secondly, the desire to liberate and protect those godly people who as yet comprised only a minority within England. In this lecture I want to explore how, throughout Cromwell’s career, despite his persistent attempts to reconcile these two imperatives, they remained distinct, separable and to some extent contradictory.


Cromwell had a vision of England as an Elect nation, analogous to the people of Israel in the Old Testament. He expressed this very vividly in the opening paragraph of a Declaration as Lord Protector issued on 9 May 1654:

That this hath been a nation of blessings in the midst whereof so many wonders have been brought forth by the outstretched arm of the Almighty, even to astonishment, and wonder, who can deny? Ask we the nations of this matter and they will testify, and indeed the dispensations of the Lord have been as if he had said, England thou art my first-born, my delight amongst the nations, under the whole heavens the Lord hath not dealt so with any of the people round about us.2

Early the following year, on 22 January 1655, he told the first Protectorate Parliament: ‘I look at the people of these nations as the blessing of the Lord; and they are a people blessed by God.’3 In Calvinist terms, this meant that membership of God’s Elect could apply to nations as well as to individuals. For, as Cromwell told the second sitting of the second Protectorate Parliament three years later, ‘As God pardoneth the man whom He justifieth … sometimes God pardoneth nations also’. Cromwell believed that the course of England’s history from the Reformation onwards pointed to her special destiny as an Elect nation:

Truly I hope this is His land: and in some sense it may be given out that it is God’s land. And He that hath the weakest knowledge and the worst memory can easily tell that we are a redeemed people. We were a redeemed people, when first God was pleased to look favourably upon us, and to bring us out of the hands of Popery in that never-to-be-forgotten reformation, that most significant and greatest the nation hath felt or tasted.

England’s redemption was ‘comprehensive of all the interest of every member, of every individual of these nations’.4

Yet Cromwell also associated the idea of God’s people with that godly minority of whom he clearly saw himself as one. He did not identify this minority with any particular denomination or sect, but instead believed – unusually for the godly in early-modern England – that those whom he called ‘God’s children’ were scattered among a number of different churches. On 6 November 1648, he wrote to Colonel Robert Hammond that he prayed and ‘waited for the day to see union and right understanding between the godly people (Scots, English, Jews, Gentiles, Presbyterians, Independents, Anabaptists, and all)’.5 Later, in his opening address to Barebone’s Parliament, he condemned the Rump for not intending good ‘to the people of God – I mean, when I say so, that large comprehension of them under the several forms of godliness in this nation; … all tenderness was forgotten to the good people’.6 He devoutly wished to see these ‘several forms of godliness’ enjoying liberty of conscience and co-existing peacefully with each other.

This duality in Cromwell’s thinking reflected a central paradox that he never succeeded in resolving. He hoped that the interests of the godly minority, and of England as an Elect nation, might be reconciled, and he regularly affirmed his conviction that this could indeed be achieved. He commended the Instrument of Government to the first Protectorate Parliament as a constitution ‘wherein I dare assert there is a just liberty to the people of God, and the just rights of the people in these nations provided for’.7 He asserted that he did not wish to remain Lord Protector ‘an hour longer than I may preserve England in its just rights, and may protect the people of God in such a just liberty of their consciences’.8 Later, in his speech on 3 April 1657 to representatives of the second Protectorate Parliament, he made a similar point in relation to the Humble Petition and Advice:

If anyone whatsoever think the interest of Christians and the interest of the nation inconsistent, or two different things, I wish my soul may never enter into their secrets…And upon these two interests, if God shall account me worthy, I shall live and die. And… if I were to give an account before a greater tribunal than any earthly one; and if I were asked why I have engaged all along in the late war, I could give no answer but it would be a wicked one if it did not comprehend these two ends.9

Yet, in a nation where evangelical Puritanism advanced only patchily at best during the 1650s and where, by the time of Cromwell’s death, many parishes were still using all or parts of the old Prayer Book, it proved extraordinarily difficult to bring those two ends together.10

These tensions within Cromwell’s thinking about God’s people need to be set within a wider intellectual framework, for they were in part a consequence of the particular way in which Calvinist thought had developed in England during the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. From the reign of Elizabeth I onwards, it was highly characteristic of English national identity to apply the Calvinist doctrine of the Elect to the whole nation, thereby creating the idea of an Elect nation that had withstood the threat from international Catholicism led by Spain.11 A similar pattern of belief also emerged in the Dutch Republic, the only other major Western European state in which Calvinists formed more than a minority of the inhabitants.12 This in turn generated a problem: were the Elect those who felt a sense of assurance that they were among God’s saints; or were they all members of the Elect nation? This was an issue with which Cromwell wrestled throughout his career, but never succeeded in resolving. His speeches to Parliaments constantly assumed that the two were compatible and would ultimately be reconciled, but he recognised that this could not be other than a very difficult and indeed painful process. As he put it in his opening address to the first Protectorate Parliament on 4 September 1654:

These are but entrances and doors of hope, wherein through the blessing of God you may enter into rest and peace. But you are not yet entered. You were told today [in Thomas Goodwin’s sermon that preceded the opening of the Parliament] of a people brought out of Egypt towards the land of Canaan, but, through unbelief, murmuring, repining and other temptations and sins, wherewith God was provoked, they were fain to come back again, and linger many years in the wilderness, before they came to the place of rest.13

He hoped that ‘if the Lord’s blessing and His presence go along with the management of affairs at this meeting’, Parliament would ‘be enabled to put the topstone to this work, and make the nation happy’. But he insisted that ‘this must be by knowing the true state of affairs; that you are yet, like the people under circumcision, but raw. Your peaces are but newly made.’14 England thus, in Cromwell’s view, bore the marks of being a chosen people and now had to embrace that responsibility by liberating the godly, encouraging the ungodly towards the ways of godliness, and thereby furthering God’s purpose for England.

These objectives formed urgent priorities throughout Cromwell’s career, although he remained flexible about the institutional means by which they might be achieved. He was, as he reportedly put it in the Putney Debates in the autumn of 1647, not ‘wedded and glued to forms of government’ for these were ‘but dross and dung in comparison of Christ’.15 Yet this pragmatic approach to constitutional forms went along with a preference for working with Parliaments which he continued to see as ‘the truest way to know what the mind of the nation is’.16 As late as April 1657, he remained convinced that ‘whatsoever is done without authority of Parliament in order to settlement, will neither be very honest, nor to me very comprehensible’.17

Whatever his issues with individual Parliaments, this commitment to the ‘authority of Parliament’ was deeply rooted within Cromwell. During the Civil Wars, he urged Parliament to liberate and mobilize the godly so that they could spearhead a revolution against a monarch tainted by false religion. His correspondence from this period constantly reiterated the need for those who managed the Parliamentarian war effort to support and promote the godly, and to trust them to drive forward the fight against Charles I. This was the principle that lay behind his famous letter of September 1643 to Sir William Spring and Maurice Barrow, prominent members of the Suffolk County Committee, in which he declared:

‘A few honest men are better than numbers. … If you choose godly, honest men to be captains of horse, honest men will follow them. … I had rather have a plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that which you call a gentleman and is nothing else’.18 In Cromwell’s vocabulary, ‘honest’ occurred frequently as a close synonym for godly or righteous, and he saw the Civil War in terms of the ‘godly party’s’ struggle on behalf of God’s cause: hence his assertion that the battle of Marston Moor ‘had all the evidences of an absolute victory obtained by the Lord’s blessing upon the godly party principally’.19 The following year, after Naseby, he was more outspoken and wrote to William Lenthall, Speaker of the House of Commons: ‘Honest men served you faithfully in this action. Sir, they are trusty; I beseech you in the name of God, not to discourage them. I wish this action may beget thankfulness and humility in all that are concerned in it. He that ventures his life for the liberty of his country, I wish he trust God for the liberty of his conscience, and you for the liberty he fights for.’20

Three months later, following Parliament’s recapture of Bristol, Cromwell wrote even more fervently to Lenthall:

Faith and prayer obtained this city for you: I do not say ours only, but of the people of God with you and all England over, who have wrestled with God for a blessing in this very thing. … Presbyterians, Independents, all had here the same spirit of faith and prayer; the same pretence and answer; they agree here, know no names of difference: pity it is it should be otherwise anywhere.21

Although the Commons censored these passages in both letters before printing them, Cromwell’s allies in the Lords ensured that full versions were subsequently published.22

Alongside these attempts to liberate the godly minority, the less godly majority was to be ruled in ways that Cromwell believed were in its best interests even if not necessarily pleasing to it. As he reportedly asserted in the summer of 1647, ‘it is the general good of them and all the people of the kingdom that’s the question – what’s for their good, not what pleases them.’23 Cromwell believed in a dual approach of liberating the godly and taking a firm hand with the ungodly, a challenging strategy that required energy and vision on the part of England’s rulers, especially those in Parliament.


Unfortunately, from the later 1640s onwards, Cromwell often found Parliaments sadly lacking in those qualities. In January 1648, in the wake of the King’s escape from Hampton Court and his engagement with the Scots, Cromwell urged the Commons to pass the Vote of No Addresses, and to be mindful of its duty to the godly who had fought for Parliament: ‘Look on the people you represent, and break not your trust, and expose not the honest party of the kingdom, who have bled for you, and suffer not misery to fall upon them for want of courage and resolution in you, else the honest people may take such courses as nature dictates to them.’24 Here again we see the repeated use of the word ‘honest’ as a synonym for godly. Cromwell was determined that Parliament should not betray its trust to these people, and fear of such a betrayal is crucial in understanding his treatment of subsequent Parliaments.

It helps to explain, for example, his deteriorating relationship with the Rump and his eventual expulsion of it on 20 April 1653. According to one account of Cromwell’s speech that day, his denunciation of the Rumpers included the question ‘how can you be a Parliament for God’s people?’25 In a declaration published two days later, Cromwell argued that ‘there more and more appeared amongst [the Rumpers] an aversion to the things themselves, with much bitterness and opposition to the people of God, and His spirit acting in them’. He felt that ‘this Parliament … would never answer those ends which God, His people, and the whole nation expected from them’; instead, there needed to be ‘some more effectual means to secure the cause which the good people of this Commonwealth had been so long engaged in and to establish righteousness and peace in these nations’.26

Cromwell initially believed that he had found such an ‘effectual means’ in Barebone’s Parliament. Convinced that the Rump had betrayed its trust to the godly, he adopted Major-General Thomas Harrison’s scheme of an assembly consisting exclusively of the godly. Modelled on the ancient Jewish Sanhedrin of saints, this body comprised 140 carefully selected godly souls, nominated by the radical religious congregations of London, and added to by the army council.27 The members were to be ‘persons fearing God, and of approved fidelity and honesty’.28 Once again, Cromwell’s underlying hope was that the interests of the godly and of the whole nation could be reconciled, and in his summons to members of Barebone’s, he spoke in the same breath of their ‘love to, and courage for, God and the interest of His cause, and of the good people of this Commonwealth’.29

The same desire to further the interests both of the godly and of the whole nation was evident in Cromwell’s remarkable opening address to the assembly on 4 July 1653: ‘if God give you hearts to be easy to be entreated, to be peaceably spirited, to be full of good fruits, bearing good fruits to the nation, to men as men, to the people of God, to all in their several stations – this will teach you to execute the judgement of mercy and truth.’30 He urged them ‘to be as just towards an unbeliever as towards a believer’, and this passage culminated in what John Morrill has called ‘the loveliest of all [Cromwell’s] pleas for toleration’:31

I beseech you – but I think I need not – have a care of the whole flock. Love the sheep, love the lambs; love all, tender all, cherish and countenance all, in all things that are good. And if the poorest Christian, the most mistaken Christian, shall desire to leave peaceably and quietly under you – I say, if any shall desire but to lead a life in godliness and honesty, let him be protected.32

Cromwell’s high hopes were to be cruelly disappointed. Barebone’s soon degenerated into internal squabbling over which reforms to prioritize, until the moderate majority – ‘believing that the issue of that meeting would have been the subversion of the laws and of all the liberties of this nation, the destruction of the ministry of this nation; in a word, the confusion of all things’33 – voted on 12 December 1653 to dissolve the assembly and surrendered power back to Cromwell, who came to regard the whole episode as ‘a story of my own weakness and folly’.34

Four days later, Cromwell was installed as Lord Protector under the terms of the newly adopted Instrument of Government. Throughout the Protectorate Cromwell continued to pursue the twin goals of liberty of conscience for the godly, and pushing the ungodly towards behaviour fit for members of an Elect nation. That pressure on the ungodly was sometimes fairly gentle, sometimes more robust, depending mainly on how far they were willing to live peaceably under the Cromwellian regime. Both these policies encountered considerable resistance within Parliament and in the country more widely, and it is worth analysing Cromwell’s pursuit of each of them during the Protectorate.


As Lord Protector, he remained convinced that the godly should enjoy liberty of conscience.35 This was one of the four ‘fundamentals’ in the Recognition which he required members of the first Protectorate Parliament to sign on 12 September 1654. As he told them that day:

Is not liberty of conscience in religion a fundamental? … Liberty of conscience is a natural right; and he that would have it, ought to give it; having himself liberty to settle what he likes for the public. Every sect saith: “Oh, give me liberty!” But give him it, and to his power he will not yield it to anybody else. Where is our ingenuousness? Liberty of conscience – truly that’s a thing ought to be very reciprocal.36

Yet, even after the withdrawal of between fifty and eighty members in protest at having to sign the Recognition, the issue of liberty of conscience continued to be a bone of contention between Cromwell and those who feared that it would unleash what they saw as errors, heresies and blasphemies.37

Undeterred by this opposition, when he opened the second Protectorate Parliament Cromwell spoke at length about who he believed should enjoy liberty of conscience and who should be excluded from it. He affirmed that ‘whatever pretensions to religion would continue quiet [and] peaceable … should enjoy conscience and liberty to themselves; and not make religion a pretence for arms and blood, truly we have suffered them, and that cheerfully, so to enjoy their own liberties.’ On the other hand, ‘whatsoever is contrary, and not peaceable, let the pretence be never so specious – if it tend to combination, to interests and factions – we shall not care, by the grace of God, whom we meet withal, though never so specious, though never so quiet. And truly I am against all liberty of conscience repugnant to this.’ Cromwell then came as close as he ever did to defining who in his view constituted the godly. These were:

men that believe in Jesus Christ – that’s the form that gives the being to true religion, faith in Christ and walking in a profession answerable to that faith – men that believe the remission of sins through the blood of Christ and free justification by the blood of Christ, and live upon the grace of God: … men that are certain they are so, they are members of Jesus Christ, and are to Him as the apple of His eye.

He insisted that ‘whoever hath this faith, let his form be what it will, [if] he [is] walking peaceably, without the prejudicing of others under another form, it is a debt due to God and Christ; and He will require it, if he, that Christian, may not enjoy this liberty.’38

Many Members of Parliament nevertheless remained uneasy about the dangers of extending liberty of conscience more broadly, as the debates over the fate of the Quaker James Naylor in December 1656 showed.39 By the mid-1650s, Quakerism was a particular cause of anxiety for those who feared that religious liberty might turn to licence: in the wake of Naylor’s case, they ensured that the Humble Petition and Advice did not extend liberty of conscience to those who published ‘horrible blasphemies’ or held forth ‘licentiousness and profaneness’.40 This article defined the limits of liberty of conscience more precisely than the Instrument of Government had done, and it remained in the Humble Petition despite Cromwell’s continuing commitment to what he called ‘that great, natural, and religious liberty, which is liberty of conscience.’41 This was one of Cromwell’s most cherished priorities right up to his death, and in his penultimate speech to Parliament, on 25 January 1658, he pleaded that ‘liberty of conscience may be secured for honest people, that they may serve God without fear; that every just interest may be preserved; that a godly ministry may be upheld, and not affronted by seducing and seduced spirits; that all men may be preserved in their just rights, whether civil or spiritual’.42

What Cromwell found particularly frustrating was the lack of reciprocity among the godly and he was greatly distressed by evidence of mutual antagonism between God’s people. In his speech dissolving the first Protectorate Parliament on 22 January 1655 he asked:

Is there not yet upon the spirits of men a strange itch? Nothing will satisfy them unless they can put their finger upon their brethren’s consciences, to pinch them there. Is it ingenuous to ask liberty, and not to give it? What greater hypocrisy than for those who were oppressed by the Bishops to become the greatest oppressors themselves, as soon as their yoke was removed?43

This hypocrisy and lack of mutual toleration continued to haunt him, and prompted one of the most deeply felt – indeed disturbing – passages in his speech of 25 January 1658:

What is the general spirit of this nation? … What is it? That every sect may be uppermost. That every sort of men may get the power into their hands, and they would use it well – that every sect may get the power into their hands. … We have an appetite to variety, to be not only making wounds, but widening those already made, as if we should see one making wounds in a man’s side, and would desire nothing more than to be groping and groveling with his fingers in those wounds. … This is the spirit of those that would trample on men’s liberties in spiritual respects. They would be making wounds, and rending and tearing, and making them wider than they are. Is not this the case?44

This horrific vision of wounds being torn open stood in dramatic contrast to Cromwell’s ideal of the ‘several forms of godliness in this nation’45 living together in mutual tolerance and respect. It showed how far, during the last year of his life, he felt that realities in England had fallen short of his hopes.

What, meanwhile, of those people who fell outside Cromwell’s definition of the godly? Towards them he developed policies designed to encourage them, more or less forcibly, to accept the responsibilities of being members of a chosen people. In 1654, he issued two Protectoral ordinances intended to improve the quality of ministers and schoolmasters: the first established a national body of ‘triers’ to vet all new clergy, while the second set up county commissioners known as ‘ejectors’ to expel ‘scandalous, ignorant and insufficient ministers and schoolmasters’.46 Jeffrey Collins has argued that the creation of these bodies was ‘almost certainly the most significant institutional achievement of the Interregnum regimes’.47 In general, historians have concluded that the triers were rather more successful than the ejectors.48 Cromwell himself wielded extensive ecclesiastical patronage as Lord Protector, having inherited the rights both of the Crown and of many Royalists, and his own patronage may have accounted for as many as forty per cent of the triers’ presentations.49 By contrast, the impact of the ejectors appears to have been patchy at best, and to have varied considerably from region to region.50 Cromwell took a very positive view of these innovations. On 21 April 1657 he told representatives of the second Protectorate Parliament that ‘we have settled very much the business of the ministry’, and went on: ‘If I have anything to rejoice in before the Lord in this world, as having done any good or service, I can say it from my heart,… that it hath been [this]’. He asserted that ‘there hath not been such a service to England since the Christian religion was professed in England’, and that ‘we know not how better to answer our duty to God and the nation and the people of God, in that respect, than in doing what we did.’51 Here again, Cromwell’s yardstick for success was how far he believed that the interests of both the nation and the people of God were being efficiently served.

Those who failed to respond to the improved quality of the ministry, or who actively tried to subvert godly practice, could expect to receive harsher treatment. Cromwell declared on 22 January 1655:

As for prophane persons, blasphemers, such as preach sedition; the railers, evil-speakers, who seek by evil words to corrupt good manners; persons of loose conversation – punishment from the civil magistrate ought to meet with them. Because, if these pretend conscience, yet walking disorderly and not according but contrary to the Gospel, and even to natural light, they are judged of all, and their sins being open, make them subjects of the magistrate’s sword, who ought not to bear it in vain.52

Cromwell’s position hardened significantly during the course of that year. Following Penruddock’s Rising in March 1655, and then the failure of the Western Design in April-May, he became more and more determined not only to tighten security against Royalists but also to promote what he called a ‘reformation of manners’.53 He later reflected that ‘since fair means would not indulge, foul should enforce the Royal party to a peaceable deportment’. The results were the Decimation Tax and the rule of the Major-Generals. Cromwell insisted that ‘the sole end of this way of procedure was the security of the peace of the nation, the suppressing of vice and encouragement of virtue, the very end of magistracy.’54 The Major-Generals were instructed to ‘encourage and promote godliness and virtue, and discourage and discountenance all profaneness and ungodliness’. They were also ‘to enforce the laws against drunkenness, blaspheming and taking of the name of God in vain, by swearing and cursing, plays and interludes, and profaning the Lord’s Day, and such-like wickedness and abominations’.55

Cromwell was deeply committed to this ‘reformation of manners’. As he told the second Protectorate Parliament on 17 September 1656: ‘It is a thing I am confident our liberty and prosperity depends upon – reformation. To make it a shame to see men to be bold in sin and profaneness, and God will bless you. You will be a blessing to the nation; and by this, will be more repairers of breaches than by anything in the world.’56 In that same speech, he presented a very positive view of the Major-Generals: ‘truly I think if ever anything were justifiable as to necessity, and honest in every respect, this was’, and he went on to assert that their rule ‘hath been more effectual towards the discountenancing of vice and settling religion than anything done these fifty years’.57 Historians have generally been rather less optimistic about the impact of the Major-Generals. In the most detailed study of this episode, Christopher Durston concluded that although they had some success in improving the regime’s security, in terms of ‘creating a more godly society’ they ‘failed unequivocally’.58 Their remit was too ambitious, and they were given too little time and insufficient support, for them to achieve more than very limited progress towards godly reformation. In areas where they had the assistance of sympathetic local commissioners – as John Sutton has found in Staffordshire, for example59 – some success was possible, but in much of England there was a marked lack of popular enthusiasm for Cromwell’s vision. What the experiment did succeed in creating was considerable resentment of rule by ‘swordsmen’: the elections of 1656, dominated by cries of ‘no swordsmen; no decimators’, returned a Parliament that was strongly opposed to the Major-Generals, and that ended their rule by voting down the Militia Bill in January 1657.60 The godly thus remained a minority, grateful no doubt for the Major-Generals’ affirmation and encouragement, but continuing to need the regime’s protection.


This exploration of Cromwell’s complex understanding of the people of God helps, in conclusion, to shed light on the paradoxical nature of his achievements and legacy. On the one hand, Cromwell failed to create the godly nation for which he yearned. As Derek Hirst has written, ‘there is surprisingly little evidence of the advance of godliness. … Godly rule and reformation had … proved to be an image to which the world stubbornly refused to be remade.’61 Christopher Durston echoed him: ‘Throughout the 1650s, the English and Welsh peoples showed themselves to be both strongly attached to their traditional festive culture and deeply antagonistic to the new godly one that Cromwell’s government was attempting to impose upon them’.62 Barry Coward likewise argued that ‘Cromwell’s most signal failure was his inability to advance significantly the godly reformation, the pursuit of which had been the central aim of his career’. Equally, Coward also noted that Cromwell’s ‘one positive lasting effect on the future development of the country … [was] the establishment of Protestant nonconformity as a permanent feature of life in Britain from that day to this’.63 The Restoration settlement proved unable to eradicate it: after 1660, widespread Protestant dissent remained ingrained within English society, and the Church of England henceforth lost any credible claim to be a national, comprehensive church.64 The dichotomy of Church and Chapel, so characteristic of English communities down to the present, owes much to Cromwell’s support for non-Anglican forms of Protestantism during the 1650s. Whatever his frustrations that more people did not embrace godliness, the godly minority in England did survive, thanks in no small measure to the fact that he had affirmed and liberated them. Cromwell recognised this as a genuine achievement. As he put it in Parliament on 20 January 1658: ‘who could have forethought, when we were plunged into the midst of our troubles, that ever the people of God should have had liberty to worship God without fear of enemies?’65 The people of God certainly encountered enemies after 1660, but the Interregnum regime had left them well placed to cope with such hazards and they proved remarkably resilient in the face of persecution.

In the end, Cromwell’s tragedy was that he was unable to reconcile the interests of the godly minority, to which he belonged, with those of the whole nation. Despite wishing, as in April 1657, to hear ‘a song of reconciliation’ between ‘the liberty of the people of God’ and ‘the liberty of the nation’, it was ultimately not possible to make ‘these two interests’ consistent with each other. Cromwell was convinced that England was a chosen people, like the people of Israel in the Old Testament, but he failed to persuade more than a minority of the nation to share in this vision. The fact that they remained a minority was the measure of his failure to create a godly nation. Equally, the fact that they survived, and could not be extirpated despite the best efforts of the Restoration regime, underlined the extent of his achievement in protecting and encouraging the godly minority. The people of God, though not as numerous as Cromwell would have liked, nevertheless had much reason to be grateful to him.

This was the Cromwell Collection lecture presented at Huntingdon on 9 November 2011.

1 The Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell, with elucidations by Thomas Carlyle, edited in three volumes with notes, supplement and enlarged index by S.C. Lomas, with an introduction by C.H. Firth, M.A. (3 vols., 1904) [hereafter cited as Lomas-Carlyle], III, 101 (Cromwell to the representatives of the second Protectorate Parliament, 21 April 1657). In these notes, place of publication is London unless otherwise stated.
2 W.C. Abbott (ed.), The Writings and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell (4 vols., Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1937-47), III, 290 (Declaration of 9 May
3 Lomas-Carlyle, II, 425 (Cromwell to the first Protectorate Parliament, 22 January 1654[/5]).
4 Lomas-Carlyle, III, 153-4 (Cromwell to the second Protectorate Parliament, 20 January 1657[/8]).
5 Lomas-Carlyle, III, 390-1 (Cromwell to Colonel Robert Hammond, 6 November 1648).
6 Lomas-Carlyle, II, 283 (Cromwell to Barebone’s Parliament, 4 July 1653).
7 Lomas-Carlyle, II, 419 (Cromwell to the first Protectorate Parliament, 22 January 1654[/5]).
8 Lomas-Carlyle, II, 419 (Cromwell to the first Protectorate Parliament, 22 January 1654[/5]).
9 Lomas-Carlyle, III, 31 (Cromwell to the representatives of the second Protectorate Parliament, 3 April 1657).
10 See, for example, Anthony Fletcher, ‘Oliver Cromwell and the Godly Nation’, in John Morrill (ed.), Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution (Harlow, 1990), pp. 209-33; Derek Hirst, ‘The Failure of Godly Rule in the English Republic’, Past and Present, CXXXII (1991), 33-66; Ann Hughes, ‘The Frustrations of the Godly’, in John Morrill (ed.), Revolution and Restoration: England in the 1650s (1992), pp. 70-90.
11 See, for example, R.T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649
(Oxford, 1979); Patrick Collinson, ‘England and International Calvinism, 1558-1640’, in Menna Prestwich (ed.), International Calvinism, 1541-1715 (Oxford, 1985), pp. 197-223; and the essays in the Douglas Southall
Freeman Historical Review (Richmond, VA; spring 1999).
12 On this theme, see especially G. Groenhuis, ‘Calvinism and the National Consciousness: the Dutch Republic as the New Israel’, in A. Duke and C. Tamse (eds.), Church and State since the Reformation (The Hague, 1981), pp. 118-33; Alastair Duke, ‘The Ambivalent Face of Calvinism in the Netherlands, 1561-1618’, in Prestwich (ed.), International Calvinism, pp. 109-34.
13 Lomas-Carlyle, II, 358 (Cromwell to the first Protectorate Parliament, 4 September 1654).
14 Lomas-Carlyle, II, 358 (Cromwell to the first Protectorate Parliament, 4 September 1654).
15 Lomas-Carlyle, III, 362, 373 (Cromwell at the Putney Debates, 28 October, 1 November 1647).
16 Lomas-Carlyle, III, 58 (Cromwell to the representatives of the second Protectorate Parliament, 13 April 1657).
17 Lomas-Carlyle, III, 81 (Cromwell to the representatives of the second Protectorate Parliament, 20 April 1657).
18 Lomas-Carlyle, I, 154 (Cromwell to Sir William Spring and Maurice Barrow, [?] September 1643).
19 Lomas-Carlyle, I, 176 (Cromwell to Colonel Valentine Walton, 5 July 1644).
20 Lomas-Carlyle, I, 205 (Cromwell to William Lenthall, 14 June 1645).
21 Lomas-Carlyle, I, 217-18 (Cromwell to William Lenthall, 14 September 1645).
22 John Morrill, Oliver Cromwell (Oxford, 2007), p. 28; J.S.A. Adamson, ‘Oliver Cromwell and the Long Parliament’, in Morrill (ed.), Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution, pp. 49-92, at pp. 66-8.
23 Lomas-Carlyle, III, 345 (Cromwell to the ‘Council of War’ at Reading, 16 July 1647).
24 British Library, Add. MS 50200 (parliamentary diary of John Boys), pp.31-2 (3 January 1648); printed as ‘The Diary of John Boys, 1647-8’, ed.D. Underdown, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, XXXIX (1966), 141-64; quotation at 156.
25 Lomas-Carlyle, II, 265.
26 S.R. Gardiner (ed.), Constitutional Documents of the Puritan Revolution, 1625- 1660 (3rd edition, Oxford, 1906), pp. 400-04 (declaration by the Lord General and Council, 22 April 1653); quotations at pp. 401-03.
27 The fullest account of Barebone’s Parliament and its members is Austin Woolrych, Commonwealth to Protectorate (Oxford, 1982).
28 Gardiner (ed.), Constitutional Documents, p. 405 (Cromwell’s summons to a member of Barebone’s Parliament, 6 June 1653); Lomas-Carlyle, III, 121.
29 Gardiner (ed.), Constitutional Documents, p. 405.
30 Lomas-Carlyle, II, 292 (Cromwell to Barebone’s Parliament, 4 July 1653).
31 John Morrill, ‘Rewriting Cromwell: A Case of Deafening Silences’, Canadian Journal of History, XXXVIII (2003), 553-78, at 576.
32 Lomas-Carlyle, II, 294 (Cromwell to Barebone’s Parliament, 4 July 1653).
33 Lomas-Carlyle, III, 99 (Cromwell to the representatives of the second Protectorate Parliament, 21 April 1657).
34 Lomas-Carlyle, III, 98 (Cromwell to the representatives of the second Protectorate Parliament, 21 April 1657).
35 Blair Worden, ‘Toleration and the Cromwellian Protectorate’, in W.J. Sheils (ed.), Persecution and Toleration (Studies in Church History, XXI, 1984), pp. 199-233.
36 Lomas-Carlyle, II, 382-3 (Cromwell to the first Protectorate Parliament, 12 September 1654).
37 Patrick Little and David L. Smith, Parliaments and Politics in the Cromwellian Protectorate (Cambridge, 2007), pp. 83-7, 197-205.
38 Lomas-Carlyle, II, 535-6 (Cromwell to the second Protectorate Parliament, 17 September 1656).
39 Little and Smith, Parliaments and Politics, pp. 138, 183-5, 211-14.
40 Gardiner (ed.), Constitutional Documents, p. 455 (Humble Petition and Advice, 25 May 1657, § 11).
41 Lomas-Carlyle, III, 126-7 (Cromwell to the second Protectorate Parliament, 8 May 1657); Little and Smith, Parliaments and Politics, pp. 214-15.
42 Lomas-Carlyle, III, 184 (Cromwell to the second Protectorate Parliament, 25 January 1657[/8]).
43 Lomas-Carlyle, II, 417 (Cromwell to the first Protectorate Parliament, 22 January 1654[/5]).
44 Lomas-Carlyle, III, 174-5 (Cromwell to the second Protectorate Parliament, 25 January 1657[/8]).
45 Lomas-Carlyle, II, 283 (Cromwell to Barebone’s Parliament, 4 July 1653).
46 C.H. Firth and R.S. Rait (eds.), Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum, 1642- 1660 (3 vols., 1911), II, 855-8, 968-90.
47 Jeffrey R. Collins, ‘The Church Settlement of Oliver Cromwell’, History, LXXXVII (2002), 18-40, at 18.
48 Ann Hughes, ‘“The Public Profession of these Nations”: the National Church Interregnum England’, in Christopher Durston and Judith Maltby (eds.), Religion in Revolutionary England (Manchester, 2006), pp. 97- 104.
49 Hughes, ‘“The Public Profession of these Nations”’, p. 105.
50 Christopher Durston, ‘Policing the Cromwellian Church: The Activities of the County Ejection Committees, 1654-1659’, in Patrick Little (ed.), The Cromwellian Protectorate (Woodbridge, 2007), pp. 189-206.
51 Lomas-Carlyle, III, 118-19 (Cromwell to the representatives of the second Protectorate Parliament, 21 April 1657).
52 Lomas-Carlyle, II, 417-18 (Cromwell to the first Protectorate Parliament, 22 January 1654[/5]).
53 Lomas-Carlyle, II, 538, 540 (Cromwell to the second Protectorate Parliament, 17 September 1656); III, 113 (Cromwell to the representatives of the second Protectorate Parliament, 21 April 1657).
54 Lomas-Carlyle, III, 475-6 (Cromwell to the Lord Mayor and Corporation of the City of London, 11 March 1655[/6]).
55 Abbott (ed.), Writings and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell, III, 845 (Instructions to the Major-Generals).
56 Lomas-Carlyle, II, 540-1 (Cromwell to the second Protectorate Parliament, 17 September 1656).
57 Lomas-Carlyle, II, 531, 543 (Cromwell to the second Protectorate Parliament, 17 September 1656).
58 Christopher Durston, Cromwell’s Major-Generals: Godly Government during the English Revolution (Manchester, 2001), p. 228.
59 John Sutton, ‘Cromwell’s commissioners for preserving the peace of the Commonwealth: a Staffordshire case study’, in Ian Gentles, John Morrill and Blair Worden (eds.), Soldiers, Writers and Statesmen of the English Revolution (Cambridge, 1998), pp. 151-82.
60 Durston, Cromwell’s Major-Generals, chapters 8 and 9.
61 Hirst, ‘Failure of Godly Rule’, 46, 66.
62 Durston, Cromwell’s Major-Generals, p. 179.
63 Barry Coward, Oliver Cromwell (Harlow, 1991), pp. 161, 176. See also Barry Coward, The Cromwellian Protectorate (Manchester, 2002), p. 194.
64 See, for example, John Spurr, The Restoration Church of England, 1646-1689 (New Haven, 1991), pp. 43-9, 123-8, 263-6; Tim Harris, Restoration: Charles II and his Kingdoms, 1660-1685 (2005), pp. 28-9, 193-6, 300-09.
65 Lomas-Carlyle, III, 154 (Cromwell to the second Protectorate Parliament, 20 January 1657[/8]).

Dr David L. Smith is a Fellow and Director of Studies in History at Selwyn College, Cambridge, and a Trustee of the Cromwell Association.

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