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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XVIII. “Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity”

§ 6. The preface to the Polity

The preface, which, in itself, is as long as the shorter books of the treatise, is of great importance as a survey of the whole field of discussion. Hooker begins by declaring to the puritans,

  • I must plainly confess unto you, that before I examined your sundry declarations in that behalf, it could not settle in my head to think but that undoubtedly such numbers of otherwise right well affected and most religiously inclined minds had some marvellous reasonable inducements, which led them with so great earnestness that way.
  • But careful study, as he affirms, only convinced him that the change which churchmen are required to accept “is only by error and misconceit named the ordinance of Jesus Christ, no one proof as yet brought forth whereby it may clearly appear to be so in very deed.” That he approached the discussion, not in the spirit of a partisan, but with a strong desire to deal with fairness and moderation and to think well of his opponents, is seen in the justice he does alike to the greatness of Calvin and to the attractiveness of his system.

    After having spoken of Calvin in the most complimentary terms, Hooker instantly puts his finger on the weak point of the Swiss reformation, the extreme dogmatism with which each independent church ordained its government “in so commanding a form,” that it was to be received “as everlastingly required by the law of that Lord of lords, against whose statutes there is no commandment to be taken.” This assertion of final infallibility on the part of the newly constituted churches made all mutual accommodation impossible, and sapped the strength of the continental reformation at the close of the sixteenth century. Hooker, thoroughly English in temperament and, in some respects, far in advance of his age, accepts no system of government, either in church or state, as unalterable and is prepared to discuss all forms on their merits. His contention is always for liberty. With much skill, and not a little quiet satire, he traces the popularity of the Calvinian discipline in England to a craving to exercise the right of private judgment, to the democratic spirit of the age and to the influence of women, as well as to reliance upon Scripture and the high spiritual pretensions claimed by its advocates. He discusses the inconsistency of the attempt to restore the exact condition of the apostolic age, and insinuates the impossibility of proving the existence of the so-called “discipline” of those days. “Of this very thing ye fail even touching that which ye make most account of, as being matter of substance in discipline, I mean the power of your lay elders, and the difference of your doctors from the pastors in all churches.” As regards the existing law of England, Hooker points out that it must be obeyed without disputation; for, though a law may be changed, it is, he tells the puritans, “the deed of the whole body politic, whereof if ye judge yourselves to be any part, then is the law your deed also”; and, on this account, he deems public discussion inadvisable under the circumstances of their age. After stating the subject of each book of his proposed work, he goes on to point out the dangers of the puritan movement. In the first place, he sees that it must necessarily cause a serious schism, and, indeed, though the puritans lamented the secession of the Barrowists, these only followed out logically the teaching of the “disciplinarians” who, by their own admission, were continuing members of a church which they were continually denouncing as “anti-christian.” As for the “discipline” itself, Hooker believed that it could not be established without civil disturbance, as the nobility would never submit to the local tyranny of small parochial courts of spiritual jurisdiction, none of which acknowledged any superior judge on earth. Discipline at the universities would, necessarily, be at an end if puritan equality of ministers were to be established, and the secular courts would be completely superseded by the powers claimed by the new “discipline.” Hooker, naturally, alludes to the dangers disclosed by the spread of anabaptism and concludes with an eloquent appeal to his opponents to consider their position:

  • The best and safest way for you therefore, my dear brethren, is, to call your deeds past to a new reckoning, to re-examine the case ye have taken in hand, and to try it even point by point, argument by argument, with all the diligent exactness ye can; to lay aside the gall of that bitterness wherein your minds have hitherto over abounded, and with meekness to search the truth. Think ye are men, deem it not impossible for you to err; sift unpartially your own hearts, whether it be force of reason or vehemency of affection, which hath bred and still doth feed these opinions in you. If truth do anywhere manifest itself, seek not to smother it with glosing delusions, acknowledge the greatness thereof, and think it your best victory when the same doth prevail over you.
  • This dignity of language, combined with singular moderation, is characteristic of Hooker, whose guiding principle in controversy may be summed up in his own words, “There will come a time when three words uttered with charity and meekness shall receive a far more blessed reward than three thousand volumes written with disdainful sharpness of wit.”