Religious conformity in early modern England was as much about loyalty to the crown as acceptance of a particular theological doctrine. Attendance at Sunday services was compulsory, so refusal to attend became both a secular and temporal crime, particularly in the face of conflicts with Catholic France and Spain. However, both Jesuit missionaries and puritan dissenters fought against conformity as dangerous to their faiths. As the seventeenth century progressed toward the English Civil War the penalties for religious non-conformance increased, ensuring that more and more dissenters of both Catholic and Protestant stripes. The primary theme is the question of whether church attendance was a solely religious issue, or one of loyalty to the English crown.
The most visible religious dissenters were Catholics, called recusants, who refused to attend the Church of England’s services in accordance with dictates of the Pope. Recusants faced imprisonment, fines, and loss of lands if prosecuted for non-attendance. As a result, most Catholics, called conformists or church papists, chose to attend Anglican services. For some Catholics church attendance provided a visible declaration of loyalty to the crown in addition to avoidance of civil or criminal penalties. While attending church preserved the lives, freedom, and property of conformists, Papal decrees stated that attendance at Anglican services was a mortal sin. Catholics that repeatedly attended Protestant services were ineligible for absolution from the sin of attendance.
Jesuit missionaries sought to discourage conformity by Catholics with a propaganda campaign. Priests used hidden presses to publish and distribute tracts denouncing conformity in part because they lacked the traditional parish structure to distribute their message. Missionaries secretly distributed manuals to teach Catholics the best way to respond to queries about their refusal to attend church. In this way, the act of refusal became a positive assertion of their beliefs, not a negative reaction to authority.
Not only did the missionaries struggle to bring lapsed Catholics back to the faith, but they worked to prevent conformists from accepting Protestantism through osmosis. Jesuits worried that long-term exposure to proselytizing from the pulpit would win Protestantism new converts from conforming Catholics attending services. Missionaries also warned Catholics against falling into the error that they could be responsible for their own spiritual health.
A key Jesuit tactic in their battle against conformity was to exalt the suffering of the heroic martyrs punished by the government for their dedication to their faith. Catholics in England were enjoined to accept penalties for recusance as God’s gift to the faithful. Loss of property and relationships were akin to the vows of cloistered monks and nuns. Recusants could thus expect heavenly rewards for their suffering in England. Missionary tracts urged recusants to reject personal associations with conformists, arguing that conscientious Catholics should pursue total separation from Protestants and conforming Catholics in order to maintain their own spiritual purity.
Being a recusant was not the only form of dissent open to Catholics. Some Catholics expressed their dissent by refusing to participate in Protestant communion rituals. Conformists could also remain silent during responsorial liturgies, or could make a public declaration of dissent before their congregation rather than remaining absent from church services. Finally, some Catholic families chose to have husbands attend services while wives became recusants. Wives hen became responsible for raising children in religion. Some Catholic theologians argued that these lesser forms of dissent were acceptable for normal people, particularly landed gentry. Extreme measures like recusancy were necessary only for clergy and magistrates, because it represented the perfection of the Catholic faith in England. Only those mentally and spiritually prepared for the great sacrifice of matrydom should embark on this course. Those needing to demonstrate political loyalty could attend church services as long as they did not partake of the sacraments. Conformists had this leeway for two reasons: persecution of recusants, and the facts that laws requiring church attendance were solely designed as tests of loyalty to the state.
Catholics were not the only religious dissenters in sixteenth and seventeenth century England. Puritans also either refused to attend services conducted in an overly ceremonial manner or still dependent on some religious iconography. When puritans did attend services, they were frequently disruptive, denouncing “false doctrine.” The presence of conforming Catholics was also offensive to puritans. Anglicans sometimes viewed puritan non-conformity the same way they viewed Catholic recusants: as a plot to damage the church. Lancelot Andrewes went further to describe puritan focus on inward religion and the gospels as a form of idolatry, and an act of denial of the totality of God’s creation.
Andrewes also argued that puritan non-conformity could lead to rebellion against secular authority. If anything, since puritans were Protestants, their non-conformity was more dangerous than that of recusants because it had the force of popular piety behind it. Unlike Catholics had to wait for an invasion to free them, Puritans could create an English army of rebellion. Anglicans also detected a dangerous disrespect for authority inherent in the doctrine of predestination. If the elect were saved regardless of their actions on earth, they were free to ignore secular authorities. Thus, like recusants who were due to perceived links to potential invaders, puritan non-conformists were suspect due to their perceived ability to rise in rebellion against the crown.
A significant historical question is whether Jesuits in England acted as evangelists or acted more to restore parochial life and maintain England’s Catholics against the eventuality that Catholicism returned to England. The evidence seems to indicate that Jesuits and other missionaries spent more time working to protect Catholics from the Protestant majority, as seen in their constant harping on the dangers of conformity. Preaching against conformity in person or print was the Jesuits primary activity in England.
The dichotomy created by historians between lay and clerical responses to the issue of conformity is another challenging issue. While the traditional interpretation is that conformity was the response of a leaderless laity, while the clergy argued for non-conformance, Alexandra Walsham argues that this is overly simplistic. As penalties for recusance grew, the clergy were forced to adopt a more tolerant attitude toward conformance, as did missionaries who understood that diatribes against lay people were likely to have an adverse affect on their loyalty.