What is the best form of church government? Should there be bishops ruling in a hierarchical order, should each congregation be independent, should councils and synods establish church policy, or should a church be organized along some other lines? These issues were being fiercely debated in England in the seventeenth century. On December 11, 1640, the citizens of London presented a petition with 15,000 signatures to Parliament. Known as the "Root and Branch Petition", it sought to sweep away the existing church hierarchy with its "roots and branches."
The petition listed dozens of reasons for being rid of the existing system. Its second point can be taken as an example of the whole document. The evil it complained of was "The faint-heartedness of ministers to preach the truth of God, lest they should displease the prelates [churchmen of high rank]; as namely, the doctrine of predestination, of free grace, of perseverance, of original sin remaining after baptism, of the Sabbath, the doctrine against universal grace, election for faith foreseen, freewill against Antichrist, non-residents, human inventions in God's worship; all which are generally withheld from the people's knowledge, because not relishing [ie: not pleasing] to the bishops."
The Parliament which received the "Root and Branch Petition" became known as the Long Parliament. It was called by King Charles I out of his desperate need for money and lasted for twenty years. Once called, the Parliament took measures to destroy the absolutism of the King in both civil and religious affairs. The House of Commons accepted the "Root and Branch Petition" and passed the "Roots and Branch Bill." A majority of the members believed the office of bishop and the policies of Archbishop Laud should be destroyed, but they were not sure what form of church government to put in their place. As one member, Oliver Cromwell said, "I can tell you, sirs, what I would not have, though I cannot what I would."
There were several options available once the old hierarchy of rule by king-appointed bishops was abolished. Some wanted a state church with a commission chosen by Parliament replacing the bishops; some wanted a form of Scottish Presbyterianism. Others wanted an independent church, with each individual congregation controlling its own affairs. In the end, the House of Commons favored Presbyterianism while the Army favored the Independents. The House of Lords (which included many bishops), opposed the Root and Branch Bill entirely. They resented any pressure from the people to reorganize their House. Ultimately, the Bill was rejected by the House of Lords, and the episcopal organization of the Church of England remained in place.
- Based on an earlier Christian History Institute story.
- Gee, Henry and Hardy, William John, editors. Documents Illustrative of English Church History. New York: Macmillan, 1896.
- Jesse, John Heneage. Memoirs of the Court of England During the Reign of the Stuarts, including the Protectorate. (England Under the Stewarts). London: Henry G. Bohn, 1847. Source of the image.