By Jay Rogers
Published April 26, 2008
There is definitely an association between John Knox and Oliver Cromwell. Knox, in his book The Reformation of Scotland, outlined the whole process without which the British model of government under Oliver Cromwell never would have been possible. Yet Knox was more consistently covenantal in his thinking. He recognized that civil government is based on a covenant between the magistrate (or the representative or king) and the populace. His view was that when the magistrate defects from the covenant, it is the duty of the people to overthrow him.
Cromwell was not a learned scholar, as was Knox, nevertheless God elevated him to a greater leadership role. Oliver Cromwell was born into a common family of English country Puritans having none of the advantages of upbringing that would prepare him to be leader of a nation. Yet he had a God-given ability to earn the loyalty and respect of men of genius who served him throughout his lifetime.
John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress served under his command in the English Civil War, and John Milton, who penned Paradise Lost, served as his personal secretary. It’s interesting to think of the man who wrote of the epic battle between Michael and Lucifer as associated so closely with Cromwell. John Milton’s command of language was put to good use.
Cromwell’s early years were ordinary, but after a conversion experience at age 27, he was seized by a sense of divine destiny. He became suddenly zealous for God. He was a country squire, a bronze-faced, callous-handed man of property. He worked on his farm, prayed and fasted often and occasionally exhorted the local congregation during church meetings. A quiet, simple, serious-minded man, he spoke little. But when he broke his silence, it was with great authority as he commanded obedience without question or dispute. As a justice of the peace, he attracted attention to himself by collaring loafers at a tavern and forcing them to join in singing a hymn. This exploit together with quieting a disturbance among some student factions at the neighboring town of Cambridge earned him the respect of the Puritan locals and they sent him to Parliament as their representative. There he attracted attention with his blunt, forcible speech as a member of the Independent Party which was made up of Puritans.
The English people were bent upon the establishment of a democratic parliamentary system of civil government and the elimination of the “Divine Right of Kings.” King Charles I, the tyrant who had long persecuted the English Puritans by having their ears cut off and their noses slit for defying his attempts to force episcopacy on their churches, finally clashed with Parliament over a long ordeal with new and revolutionary ideas. The Puritans, or “Roundheads” as they were called, finally led a civil war against the King and his Cavaliers.
When he discerned the weaknesses of the Roundhead army, Cromwell made himself captain of the cavalry. Cromwell had never been trained in war, but from the very beginning he showed consummate genius as a general. Cromwell understood that successful revolutions were always fought by farmers so he gathered a thousand hand-picked Puritans – farmers and herdsmen – who were used to the open fields. His regiment was nicknamed “Ironsides” and was never beaten once, although they fought greatly outnumbered – at times three to one.
It was an army the likes of which hadn’t been seen since ancient Israel. They would recite the Westminster Confession and march into battle singing the Psalms of David striking terror into the heart of the enemy. Cromwell’s tactic was to strike with the cavalry through the advancing army at the center, go straight through the lines and then circle to either the left or the right milling the mass into a mob, creating confusion and utterly destroying them. Cromwell amassed a body of troops and soon became commander-in-chief. His discipline created the only body of regular troops on either side who preached, prayed, paid fines for profanity and drunkenness, and charged the enemy singing hymns – the strangest abnormality in an age when every vice imaginable characterized soldiers and mercenaries.
In the meantime, Charles I invited an Irish Catholic army to his aid, an action for which he was tried for high treason and beheaded shortly after the war. After executing the national sovereign, the Parliament assumed power. The success of the new democracy in England was short-lived. Cromwell found that a democratic parliamentary system run by squires and lords oppressed the common people and was almost as corrupt as the rulership of the deposed evil king. As Commander-in-Chief of the army, he was able to seize rulership and served a term as “Lord Protector.”
During the fifteen years in which Cromwell ruled, he drove pirates from the Mediterranean Sea, set English captives free, and subdued any threat from France, Spain and Italy. Cromwell made Great Britain a respected and feared power the world over. Cromwell maintained a large degree of tolerance for rival denominations. He stood for a national church without bishops. The ministers might be Presbyterian, Independent or Baptist. Dissenters were allowed to meet in gathered churches and even Roman Catholics and Quakers were tolerated. He worked for reform of morals and the improvement of education. He strove constantly to make England a genuinely Christian nation and she enjoyed a brief “Golden Age” in her history.
When Charles I was beheaded, the understanding was that he had broken covenant with the people. The view of Cromwell and the Puritans was that when the magistrate breaks covenant, then he may legitimately be deposed. The Puritan understanding of the covenantal nature of government was the foundation for American colonial government. This was true of Massachusetts and Connecticut and to a lesser extent in the Southern colonies. When the Mayflower Compact was written, the Pilgrims had a covenantal idea of the nature of civil government. This was a foundation for later colonies established throughout the 1600s. These covenants were influenced by what Knox had done in Scotland and what the Puritans had done in England.
Progress of Nations, vol. IV, pp.144-153.
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