364 Years Ago Today: Cromwell and Our Freedom of Religion

On this day in 1655, Protector Oliver Cromwell issued a proclamation announcing freedom of religion so long as the law was not broken. This allowed people to leave the state church to form their own sects and congregations. It also allowed undesirable groups such as ranters to flourish, but that is the price we pay for freedom. Roman Catholicism continued to be suppressed as Catholics owed a loyalty to a foreign head of state- the Pope- and therefore made their freedom more suspect. Cromwell remarked ‘Catholicism is more than a religion, it is a political power.’ Within 12 months, he allowed the Jews to return to England and practise their faith, they having been expelled by Edward I in the thirteenth-century.

Oliver Cromwell and his puritan government are sometimes considered an intolerant, Taliban-like state. Yet they sowed the seeds of our pluralism and liberty of conscience. As he told Parliament in 1654:

"Is not Liberty of Conscience in religion a fundamental? Liberty of conscience is a natural right”.

He went on to say that “he had rather that Mahometanism [i.e. Islam] were permitted amongst us than that one of God’s children should be persecuted.” Prophetic indeed.

As the current British government drops dark hints about dealing with religious ‘extremism’, street preachers continue to be arrested and Christian bakers are prosecuted by state-funded quangos for refusing to endorse un-Christian campaigns, we would do well to look back at this day 364 years ago.