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History Is His Story

Thomas Cartwright
And English Presbyterianism

By William P. Farley

Pretend that the president of the United States, despite his lack of spiritual convictions, is the spiritual and temporal head of the official church of the United States. This is also the only church allowed in the United States, and it is a compromise between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Last, the President controls this church through state-appointed bishops, all ministers are paid by the state, and no one can minister unless he is willing to swear an oath of loyalty to the chief executive.

This fantasy is foreign to the 21st-century mind; yet it is in this situation that Thomas Cartwright (1535–1603), the father of English Presbyterianism, found himself as a young man in the 1560s. To understand his life and the important contribution he made to church history, we must understand how England came to be in this situation.

The English Reformation

Martin Luther began the Reformation when he nailed his 95 theses to the door of his Wittenberg church in 1517. Quickly, the reforming fires spread across Europe, and Henry VIII separated England from the Roman Church (1532–36). Motivated by lust rather than doctrinal purity, he established what was in effect a Roman Catholic church with himself as pope.

In 1547, Henry died and his 10-year-old, sickly son, Edward VI, ascended the throne. Edward vigorously advanced Protestantism. He pointed England away from the Roman Church and embraced the teachings of Luther and Calvin. He installed Protestants in key positions at Oxford and Cambridge, encouraged the preaching of the gospel by men like Latimer, Ridley, and Knox, and instructed Archbishop Cranmer to reform the Anglican liturgy and doctrine.

In 1553, however, 16-year-old Edward died and his half-sister, Mary, replaced him. Mary was the daughter of Catherine of Aragon, a Roman Catholic who was divorced, and of Henry VIII, who was Protestant, and who had also mistreated her. As a result, Mary rejected everything Protestant. She re-instituted Roman Catholicism in England. She was gentle and kind. She lavishly forgave her enemies, and often in incognito, left her castle to visit the poor and unfortunate.1 She was obstinate, rigid, and brutal in only one area — religion. Historians nicknamed her Bloody Mary.

During her 5-year reign, approximately 200 Protestants who refused to convert to Catholicism were burned at the stake. Among them were Latimer and Ridley. Her brutality abhorred the English people. “Mary’s actions ensured that England would be a Protestant country after her death,”2 notes Peter Toon. Her death came in 1558 after only 5 years in power. Her half-sister, Elizabeth, ascended to the throne in 1558.

The Elizabethan Settlement

Unlike the reigns of her half-brother, Edward, and her sister Mary, the reign of Elizabeth was long, prosperous, and peaceful. However, at the commencement of her administration Elizabeth faced a tremendous problem. For 20 years England had been on a religious yo-yo — Catholic, Protestant, then Catholic. The populace was tired, divided, and fearful of persecution. Western and northern England was mostly Catholic. To the south and east, especially in the major cities, Protestants held the majority. The nation was a powder keg of religious instability waiting for the right match to blow it into anarchy, or worse, civil war.

Elizabeth offered a compromise designed to preserve the peace and deflate the high-flying tensions. Historians call it the Elizabethan Settlement. It had three pillars: the Act of Supremacy — uniting church and State under Queen Elizabeth; the Act of Uniformity — requiring all clergy to use identical liturgies; and, the 39 Articles, a Protestant and reformed confession of faith, still used by the Anglican Church today.

The Puritans were mostly loyal Anglicans who resented Elizabeth because her compromise prevented them from going all the way with the Bible. Driven by loyalty to Scripture, they sought a simple worship. They abhorred everything that hinted of Catholicism such as vestments, the sign of the cross, and burning incense. Because these were the measures that Elizabeth’s settlement tolerated, even encouraged, trouble was inevitable.

Thomas Cartwright

Thomas Cartwright3 was an early Puritan whose teaching opposed the Act of Supremacy. He was born 2 years after Elizabeth and died in the same year as Elizabeth. Like Elizabeth, his youth and education took place during the yo-yo years. But unlike Elizabeth, he immersed himself in the Bible. He was a loyal Anglican, but because of his commitment to the Bible he was fiercely dedicated to Puritan worship and theology.

At age 15, Thomas entered Cambridge. He was a brilliant student and advanced rapidly. But when Cartwright was 18, Bloody Mary ascended the throne and Cambridge ejected him because of his Protestant convictions.

When Elizabeth came to power, Protestantism was again in vogue and the political climate became favorable to men like Cartwright. At age 25, he returned to Cambridge and advanced rapidly in learning and spiritual power. His preaching began to draw large crowds. In 1564, Queen Elizabeth visited Cambridge. Cartwright was selected to preach in her presence. Hagstotz notes, “He is said to have drawn such a crowd that the windows of St. Mary’s Cathedral were removed to permit those outside to hear him. … A man of genius and one who would have been prominent in any age,” he was “an eloquent preacher and a rising theological scholar.” He was also “the first one to introduce extemporary prayer into the service.”4

When Cartwright was 34 (1569), Cambridge gave him the Lady Margaret chair of divinity. This was a prestigious position. From it he began a series of lectures on the Book of Acts that were to greatly influence the church. As we have noted, the English Church was top heavy. The church was ruled by the monarch and through appointed bishops. Unity of society under one religion was the goal. Despite the Reformation, there had been little change in church government since the days of the Roman Church.

Cartwright And Presbyterianism5

As he studied the Book of Acts, Cartwright observed a decentralized church government. Elders ruled the local church. Although each local church had autonomy, a common allegiance to apostolic authority bound them together. In other words, the Bible emphasized a church government free from State interference.

The goal of the Elizabethan Settlement was to unify society under the Anglican Church, but the effect was a bloated church bureaucracy corrupted with secularism and worldliness — one that gave the common Englishman little freedom of conscience. It also made church discipline at the parish level almost impossible.

Using his prestige and authority Cartwright proposed his biblical model for the Anglican Church. One of his great concerns was maintaining purity in the church through local church discipline. He suggested rule by presbytery (the Greek word translated elder). The term Presbyterian stuck.

Cartwright’s ideas were radical and incendiary to the 16th-century English mind. “He averted that bishops should preach, deacons should look after the poor, and only ministers who knew how to preach should be selected to govern their own churches; that it was the right of the churches, rather than of the state or of the bishops, to elect their own pastors; and only what the Scriptures taught should be sanctioned in a church.”6

Until now, Puritanism had been a burr under the saddle of the Anglican Church. Cartwright’s lectures on Acts upped the ante. His teaching stepped on powerful toes. It threatened the queen’s sovereignty.

In the 16th century, control of the nation through bishops was deemed indispensable to the crown. Cartwright’s proposal to replace bishops with presbyteries threatened the queen. Cartwright’s ideas were a direct challenge to her power to control the State. In his 36th year (1571), Cambridge fired Cartwright, a warrant for his arrest was issued, and he fled to the Continent.


Meanwhile, a friend who remained in England drafted “An Admonition to Parliament for the Reformation of Church Discipline,” requesting legislation that would eliminate bishops in favor of Presbyterianism. Cartwright returned to England to write the foreward. About this time the first presbyteries began to secretly meet in southern England. In 1574, Cartwright once again fled to the Continent to escape imprisonment or death. Unable to return, he spent 10 years in Antwerp pastoring an English congregation.

At age 50 (1585), he risked another visit to England and was immediately imprisoned. Powerful friends interceded with Elizabeth for his discharge. After 2 months he was released and allowed to resume teaching and pastoring.

Meanwhile Presbyterianism was rapidly spreading and secret presbyteries were meeting underground. By 1590, nearly 500 pastors had embraced Cartwright’s radical ideas. Elizabeth again arrested Cartwright. This time he was imprisoned for 2 years in the Fleet prison. He emerged at age 57, an old man, his health permanently broken. When he died in 1603, bishops were still in full control of the Anglican Church.


Cartwright died without knowing the full effect of his life’s work. Although Presbyterianism was never adopted as the official Anglican Church government, it was the preferred form of church government for most Puritans and took firm root in Scotland.7

After Cartwright’s death the Puritan party grew in status and power. Influenced by Cartwright and Knox, they increasingly petitioned Elizabeth’s successors — James I (1566–1625) and his son, Charles II (1600–49) — for liberty of conscience and greater local church autonomy. Unwisely, the crown tightened control. The English Civil Wars (1642–52), a contest for liberty of conscience and decentralized church and civil government — were the tragic results.8

During this conflict Parliament convened the Westminster Assembly to, among other things, complete the work that Cartwright had started in the 1570s. Parliament asked the Westminster Divines to produce a new confession of faith (The Westminster Confession) and a new presbyterian model of church government to replace the episcopal system. However, before the latter could be installed Charles II became monarch. He reinstated the episcopal system, and it has been the norm in England to this day.

But Cartwright did not suffer in vain. The Scottish church adopted the Westminster Confession (they had already adopted the presbyterian form of church government under John Knox), and over the next 200 years exported both throughout the English-speaking world.


What lessons can today’s pastor learn from Thomas Cartwright and the events that took place during his life? First, God is more interested in faithfulness than immediate results. Cartwright did not enjoy the immediate result of church growth, fame, or financial comfort. But he faithfully persevered in the work to which God called him. Ultimately, that is how God measures success.

Second, we should expect faithfulness to be costly. Persecution, financial loss, and career stress affected him most of his life. Like Ezekiel, the Word of God was honey in his mouth, but caused indigestion to his stomach. So it is with many who hear from God and walk faithfully.

Third, like many men who are called by God, Cartwright was often misunderstood. The understanding of church government that God gave him was a tiny seed that slowly grew into a great tree that many of today’s religious liberties nest in. Like Cartwright, if we are faithful to the revelation that God gives us, and if we persevere in faithfulness without compromising God’s means, God will bless our labors, but the blessing may be long-term.

Fourth, when you become discouraged, remember Thomas Cartwright and the price he paid for his convictions about church government. You have probably not lost a prestigious job, had to flee the country, or spent 2 years in prison for your convictions — at least not yet.

Because of Cartwright, and men like him, the president does not control our congregations, pay our ministers, or stifle our religious convictions. Let us be thankful.

History is His story.


William P. Farley is pastor of Grace Christian Fellowship in Spokane, Washington. He is the author of For His Glory, Pinnacle Press, and Outrageous Mercy, Baker. You can contact him at 509-448-3979.


  1. Will Durant and Ariel Durant, The History of Civilization, vol. 4, The Age of Faith: A History Of Medieval Civilization — Christian, Islamic, And Judaic — From Constantine to Dante: A.D. 325-1300 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), 588-90.
  2. J.D. Douglas and Earle E. Cairns, ed., The International Dictionary of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), 641.
  3. Read Thomas Cartwright and Elizabethan Puritanism, by Dr. A.F. Scott Pearson (1925).
  4. Gideon Hagstotz, Heroes of the Reformation (Albany, Ore.: Ages Software, 1998), 44.
  5. For more details on this crucial period read The Elizabethan Puritan Movement, by Patrick Collinson (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1967).
  6. Ibid., 45.
  7. The Presbyterianism form of church government was brought to Scotland by John Knox, not Cartwright. Both Knox and Cartwright borrowed their church government model from the church in Geneva under John Calvin.
  8. See previous columns on Cromwell and Bunyan.

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