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400th Anniversary Of The Hampton Court Conference

Author
Category Articles
Date December 17, 2004

The second paper at the Westminster Conference in London in December 2004 was given by Dr Robert Oliver of Bradford on Avon Old Baptist Church, and lecturer in Church History at the London Theological Seminary. The paper was on the 400th anniversary of the Hampton Court Conference of 1604.

When James VI of Scotland became James I of England at the death of Elizabeth I there was hope amongst the Puritans that a new day of liberty for New Testament Christianity would begin to dawn. James I was presented with the Millenary Petition by the Puritans, and the King agreed to the suggestion of a conference between representatives of the bishops and the Puritans. The King decided to be the chairman.

The Conference lasted four days and took place in January at the Hampton Court Palace. Ninety years later Christopher Wren transformed it into its red-brick grandeur which we see today. Then it was a building of little towers and battlements. It was heated by glowing braziers standing in each room. The Conference was held in the Presence Chamber. The King sat on a velvet-covered chair. The Lords of the Privy Council stood in groups on one side. The satin-clad prelates gathered on another side. Numbers of them had been far more radical before ‘elevated’ to the episcopate, but they had developed a taste for their office and now zealously defended it. The little group of Puritans had friends of years of standing amongst the bishops, but now there was a line drawn between the two groups. The four men were put to sit on a plain wooden bench at the front rather like the accused in a trial. John Reynolds was master of Corpus Christi. He was the principal spokesman. John Knewstubs spoke little; Laurence Chaderton, Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, was as ‘mute as any fish.’ Thomas Sparke was a little-known preacher who said nothing at all.

The Conference lasted four days. The Bishops spoke first, kneeling before the King, and he frequently humiliated them. The Puritans were humiliated even more for the five hours in which they were interrogated, enduring it all as if they were in the stocks. John Reynolds named the abuses which they wished to see changed: the ceremony of confirmation which had no basis in Scripture where adult baptism was the only form of entry into the church; the use of the cross as a kind of magic symbol; the surplice had nothing to do with Christ (the King had never seen one before he had arrived in London); kneeling down to receive the elements at communion. The King dismissed all these objections. They were familiar objections which he had heard often in Scotland. The atmosphere was nasty.

The King allowed for some minor changes in the Book of Common Prayer, to attenuate the power of the High Commission, to improve parish livings and eliminate pluralities, and to change the methods of suspension and excommunication. All this was promised but little was actually done. One decision, though, was to have a world-affecting change. There would be a new translation of the Bible, the famous Authorised Version, or as the Americans call it, the King James Version. It will be seven more years before the 400th Anniversary of the appearance of that version will be celebrated.

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