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Anti-CalvinistsThe Rise of English Arminianism c.1590-1640$

Nicholas Tyacke

Print publication date: 1990

Print ISBN-13: 9780198201847

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198201847.001.0001

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(p.266) Appendix II The Arminianism of Archbishop Laud

(p.266) Appendix II The Arminianism of Archbishop Laud

Oxford University Press

The claim that William Laud was an Arminian has proved surprisingly contentious.1 Therefore I print below the main documentary evidence, with an accompanying commentary.


May it please your Grace [Buckingham],

We are bold to be suitors to you in behalf of the Church of England and a poor member of it, Mr. Montague, at this time not a little distressed. We are not strangers to his person, but it is the cause which we are bound to be tender of.

The cause we conceive (under correction of better judgment) concerns the Church of England nearly; for that Church, when it was reformed from the superstitious opinions broached or maintained by the Church of Rome, refused the apparent and dangerous errors and would not be too busy with every particular school-point. The cause why she held this moderation was because she could not be able to preserve any unity amongst Christians, if men were forced to subscribe to curious particulars disputed in schools.

Now, may it please your Grace, the opinions which at this time trouble many men in the late work of Mr. Montague are, some of them, such as are expressly the resolved doctrine of the Church of England and those he is bound to maintain. Some of them such as are fit only for schools and to be left at more liberty for learned men to abound in their own sense, so they keep themselves peaceable and distract not the Church; and therefore to make any man subscribe to school-opinions may justly seem hard in the Church of Christ, and was one great fault of the Council of Trent. And to affright them from those opinions in which they have (as they are bound) subscribed to the Church, as it is worse in itself so it may be the mother of greater danger.

May it please your Grace further to consider that, when the clergy submitted themselves in the time of Henry the Eighth, the submission was so made that if any difference, doctrinal or other, fell in the Church the King and the bishops were to be judges of it, in a national synod of convocation, the King first giving leave, under his broad seal, to handle the points in difference.

But the Church never submitted to any other judge, neither indeed can she though she would. And we humbly desire your Grace to consider, and then to move his most gracious Majesty (if you shall think fit), what dangerous consequences may follow upon it.

  1. (p.267) 1) For, first, if any other judge be allowed in matter of doctrine, we shall depart from the ordinance of Christ and the continual course and practice of the Church.

  2. 2) Secondly, if the Church be once brought down beneath herself we cannot but fear what may be next struck at.

  3. 3) Thirdly, it will some way touch the honour of his Majesty's dear father and our most dread sovereign of glorious and ever blessed memory, King James, who saw and approved all the opinions of this book; and he in his rare wisdom and judgment would never have allowed them, if they had crossed with truth and the Church of England.

  4. 4) Fourthly, we must be bold to say that we cannot conceive what use there can be of civil government in the commonwealth or of preaching and external ministry in the Church, if such fatal opinions, as some which are opposite and contrary to these delivered by Mr. Montague, are and shall be publicly taught and maintained.

  5. 5) Fifthly, we are certain that all or most of the contrary opinions were treated of at Lambeth and ready to be published, but then Queen Elizabeth of famous memory, upon notice given how little they agreed with the practice of piety and obedience to all government, caused them to be suppressed; and so they have continued ever since, till of late some of them have received countenance at the Synod of Dort. Now this was a synod of that nation and can be of no authority in any other national church, till it be received there by public authority; and our hope is that the Church of England will be well advised, and more than once over, before she admit a foreign synod, especially of such a Church as condemneth her discipline and manner of government to say no more.

And, further, we are bold to commend to your Grace's wisdom this one particular. His Majesty (as we have been informed) hath already taken this business into his own care, and most worthily referred it in a right course to Church-consideration. And we well hoped that, without further trouble to the state or breach of unity in the Church, it might so have been well and orderly composed as we still pray it may. These things considered, we have little to say for Mr. Montague's person; only thus much we know, he is a very good scholar and a right honest man; a man every way able to do God, his Majesty, and the Church of England great service. We fear he may receive great discouragement and, which is far worse, we have some cause to doubt this may breed a great backwardness in able men to write in defence of the Church of England against either home or foreign adversaries, if they shall see him sink in fortunes, reputation, or health, upon his book-occasion.

And this we most humbly submit to your Grace's judgment and care of the Church's peace and welfare. So recommending your Grace to the protection of Almighty God,

We shall ever rest at your Grace's service,

  • John Rochester* [Buckeridge]
  • John Oxford* [Howson]
  • 2 August, 1625. William St. Davids [Laud]
  • (Laud, Works, VI. 244–6)2
(p.268) The foregoing letter, signed by Laud, comprises the most direct evidence of his Arminianism. Not intended for public eyes, it is an unusually frank statement and comes from an early stage in his episcopal career. Laud was the last and most junior signatory of this letter, although he must have agreed with the general tenor. Written in support of Richard Montagu, who at the time was under attack as an Arminian, it is illuminating on a number of counts. First, the letter assimilates the teaching of the Lambeth Articles to that of the Synod of Dort, which had condemned Arminianism in 1619. Secondly, it describes the published doctrines of Montagu as being ‘contrary’ to those of Lambeth and Dort. Thirdly, it condemns the articles of Lambeth and the canons of Dort as containing ‘fatal opinions’ incompatible with ‘civil government in the commonwealth or of preaching and external ministry in the Church’. Moreover, in so far as it distinguishes between the Lambeth Articles and the Synod of Dort, the former are deemed the more objectionable. ‘Queen Elizabeth, of famous memory, upon notice given how little they [the Lambeth Articles] agreed with the practice of piety and obedience to all government, caused them to be suppressed; and so they have continued ever since, till of late some of them have received countenance at the Synod of Dort.’

This last point is particularly interesting in the light of modern arguments that the Lambeth Articles do not represent a clear statement of Calvinist doctrine.3 The letter also exposes as false the subsequent claim by Laud, in the account of his trial, that he never gave his approbation to Montagu's published views. Since this letter was not available to the prosecution, they fell back on circumstantial evidence, such as the possession by Laud of Montagu's books. To which Laud replied ‘I have Bellarmine in my study [and] therefore I am a Papist, or I have the Alcaron in my study [and] therefore I am a Turk, is as good an argument as … I have Bishop Montague's books in my study [and] therefore I am an Arminian’.4 (Incidentally, while seeking to dissociate himself from Montagu's doctrines, Laud appears here to acknowledge that Montagu was indeed an Arminian.) There is, however, one further and very important feature of this letter. By describing the content of the Lambeth Articles and the Dort canons as ‘fatal’, the bishops indicate that they conceived anti-Calvinist or Arminian teaching on predestination to be part of ‘the resolved doctrine of the Church of England’ and not in the category of disputable particulars.

(p.269) B

For many things in the works of providence many men, yea and sometimes the best, are a great deal too busy with … They would fain know all the secrets of predestination. But it is one of God's foundations, and such a ‘foundation’ as he hath set a ‘seal’ upon it. ‘The Lord knows who are his.’ It is very dangerous breaking up of ‘seals’, especially God's. The indorsement is enough for us and very plain to be read. It follows: ‘and let every man that calls on the name of Christ depart from iniquity.’ If he do not that he is not Christ's, let him talk of predestination while he will.

(Laud, Works, 1. 130–1)

This passage occurs in a sermon preached by Laud at Whitehall, on 5 July 1626. Thus it dates from a bare three weeks after the issue of the proclamation concerning the Arminian controversy,5 and can be taken as Laud's comment on current royal policy. Laud goes considerably further than simply endorsing the official ban on the predestinarian dispute. The reference to ‘busy’ men, prying into ‘the secrets of predestination’, recalls the allusions of Lancelot Andrewes to the Synod of Dort,6 while the emphasis on conduct—departing from iniquity—hints that this is the cause rather than the consequence of predestination.


Mr. Pryn himself (who hath been a great stickler in these troubles of the Church) says expressly, ‘Let any true saint of God be taken away in the very act of any known sin, before it is possible for him to repent; I make no doubt or scruple of it, but he shall as surely be saved as if he had lived to have repented of it.’ And he instances in David, ‘in case he had been taken away before he had repented of his adultery and murder.’ So, according to this divinity, the true saints of God may commit horrible and crying sins, die without repentance, and yet be sure of salvation; which teareth up the very foundations of religion, induceth all manner of profaneness into the world, and is expressly contrary to the whole current of the Scripture … [Furthermore] almost all of them say that God from all eternity reprobates by far the greater part of mankind to eternal fire, without any eye at all to their sin. Which opinion my very soul abominates. For it makes God, the God of all mercies, to be the most fierce and unreasonable tyrant in the world. For the question is not here what God may do by an absolute act of power, would he so use it upon the creature which he made of nothing, but what he hath done and what stands with his wisdom, justice, and goodness to do.

(Laud, Works, VI. 132–3)

These remarks are to be found in Laud's reply to a speech by Viscount Saye attacking the liturgy of the Church of England. The (p.270) reply was written in the early 1640s, when Laud was a prisoner in the Tower of London. He is here ostensibly talking about ‘Brow-nists’, among whom he ranks William Prynne—by this date a presbyterian. The quotation is from Prynne's book The Perpetuitie of a Regenerate Man's Estate, which had been licensed for the press in 1626 by one of Archbishop Abbot's chaplains.7 At that time Prynne was a Calvinist episcopalian. The case of David, in the Old Testament, was standard among Calvinist exponents of the doctrine of perseverance. They argued that, as one of the truly regenerate, David could never have fallen totally from grace, and consequently his salvation was not conditional upon repentance. Nevertheless, they claimed that such repentance followed inevitably.

Prynne distinguishes here between ‘generall’ and ‘particular’ repentance for every sin committed, maintaining that only the former is ‘absolutely necessary to salvation’. But he also says that even admitting such particular repentance was essential to salvation, ‘when God doth take away any of his saints, in the very act of sinne, hee doth in that very instance which hee takes them in give them such an actuall and particular repentance as shall save their soules’.8 Clearly, therefore, Laud rejected orthodox Calvinist doctrine concerning the perseverance of the saints, while portraying it in a highly unfavourable light. The same holds true of his comment on reprobation. Most Calvinists differentiated between reprobation and damnation. The latter was indeed the reward of sin, whereas reprobation was the obverse of God's decision only to elect a minority of fallen mankind. At the very least this comment by Laud means that, like John Overall,9 he envisaged a majority of justified persons who might attain to Heaven by the exercise of their own free will.


(1) K. Sharpe, ‘Archbishop Laud and the University of Oxford’, in History and Imagination, ed. H. Lloyd-Jones et al. (1981), pp. 160–1; White, ‘Rise of Arminianism Reconsidered’, pp. 53–4.

(2) The original of this letter survives in the British Library. Harleian MS 7000, fo. 183r–v.

(3) Porter, Reformation and Reaction, pp. 366–71.

(4) Laud, Works, IV. 289–90.

(5) Stuart Constitution, ed. Kenyon, pp. 154–5.

(6) See above, pp. 45, 103.

(7) Prynne, The Perpetuitie, p. 339; Arber, iv. 118.

(8) Prynne, The Perpetuitie, pp. 338–9, 341.

(9) See above, pp. 24, 37.