by Joshua Horn
This article is in the series, Blogging the Reformers.
Oliver Cromwell was born in Huntingdon, England on April 25, 1599. His family was in the lower class of gentry, and he remained fairly obscure for the first part of his life. He married Elizabeth Bourchier on August 22, 1620 at 21 years of age. They had nine children. He was saved sometime later, and became a zealous Puritan. One biographer said, “He was henceforth a Christian man, not on Sundays only, but on all days, in all places, and in all cases.”1 Another said, “Oliver Cromwell was now a real Christian: he remained one until his last breath; and, if we except a few moments of trouble, to which the most godly men are subject, he persevered in faith and confidence till his course of mortality was completed.”2
He was elected to Parliament in 1628 when he was thirty years old. He spoke for the first time a year later against the bishops in England who desired to reestablish Catholicism and turn England away from Christianity. At the time England had a relatively republican government with the king at the head and the Parliament the representatives of the people to hold him in check. The king was allowed to dissolve the Parliament, but only the Parliament could levy taxes. Charles I, who was king at the time, was a tyrant and believed in the divine right of kings: that God gave kings absolute authority to do whatever they want. He dissolved the Parliament, but he was forced to call it again in 1640 because of the lack of money. They voted that they king could no long dissolve them, and it was called the Long Parliament because it continued for 9 years. Cromwell was a member of this Parliament. The Long Parliament attempted to constrain the king’s tyrannical power, and war broke out between the Parliament and the king in 1642.
Cromwell raised several companies of soldiers and joined the Parliamentary army. He fought to defend the Protestant religion and the liberty of England. He fought in several battles commanding a cavalry regiment, and gained experience and success as a commander. In 1643 he said this to one of the Parliamentary leaders, “How can we be otherwise than beaten? Your troopers are most of them old decayed servingmen, and tapsters, and such kind of fellows: and theirs are gentleman’s sons, younger sons, and persons of quality. But I will remedy that. I will raise men who will have the fear of God before their eyes, and who will bring some conscience to what they do; and I promise you they shall not be beaten.”3 He did this, and raised one of the godliest armies in history, which was eventually called the New Model Army. He would only allow men to join if they were Christians. In his camp instead of gambling, they sang psalms and worshiped God. God blessed them, and miraculously they never lost a battle. He once said, “I had rather have a plain, russet-coated Captain, that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that you call a Gentleman and is nothing else.” They defeated all the Royal armies in battle, and in 1646 the first part of the English Civil War ended with the Parliament capturing of the king.
In 1647 the king escaped and started another civil war, but Cromwell and the New Model Army defeated his armies and captured him again within a year. Then Cromwell and the other military leaders met together for three days to pray, and at the end of that time they decided that Charles should be executed for his crimes. The army, which remember contained only Christians, presented a petition to Parliament that Charles should not be reestablished as king. On December 1648 the Parliament voted to reestablish him. Therefore the army marched to the Parliament building, guarded the doors, and only let in the 75 members that were against the king. This may not have been the correct thing to do, but they did it out of a desire to obey God, and preserve the religion and freedom of England.
What was called the “Rump Parliament” voted to try Charles for high treason. The court heard the witnesses, and sentenced him to death for high treason. Charles I was executed on January 30, 1649. Though Cromwell believed that Charles deserved death, he did not believe in a general massacre. One historian said, “It was confidently reported, that, in a counsel of officers, it was more than once proposed there might be a general massacre of the royal party, as then only expedient to secure the government; but that Cromwell would never consent to it.”4
In 1649-1650, Cromwell took the New Model army to Ireland, which had rebelled. He defeated and put down the Royalist Roman Catholics. In doing this, even his enemies admit that he brought peace to Ireland. In 1650 the Scottish Presbyterians, though they were reformed Protestants, proclaimed Charles II as king. Cromwell sent an appeal to the Scottish church, and he said, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” They refused to reconsider, and therefore England declared war on them. Cromwell quickly defeated their armies, and forced Charles II to flee to France. In 1651 Cromwell returned to England, and found the Parliament filled with factions. They refused to have elections, and so Cromwell and the New Model Army decided that they might need to be dissolved. Cromwell entered the Parliament, listened to their debate, and then stood up and declared the Parliament dissolved. He later said, “When I went into the House, I did not think to have done this; but perceiving the Spirit of God strong upon me, I would no longer consult flesh and blood.”5 While we may disagree with his reliance on what the Holy Spirit told him, or what he thought the Holy Spirit told him, rather than what the Bible says, we still must recognize that he did it to please God, not gain power.
Cromwell and his advisers established what was called the Barebone’s Parliament on July 4, 1653 from the most godly men of England. The Parliament ran into many conflicts, and eventually they dissolved themselves, and turned the power back over to Cromwell. Cromwell was again left without a government. John Lambart, a general of the army, wrote a document called the Instrument of Government, the first constitution in the English speaking world. This constitution which was instituted by Cromwell was the forerunner of the United States Constitution. Cromwell once said, “In every government there must be somewhat fundamental, somewhat like a Magna Charta, that should be standing and unalterable…That parliaments should not make themselves perpetual is a fundamental.”6 Under it, Cromwell was appointed the Lord Protector with a Parliament. Again, this Parliament did not work out and he was forced to dissolve it.
He tried several more times to establish a government that would defend the Christian religion and political liberty, but it never worked out, so he remained the Lord Protector until his death in 1658. He said, “I desire not to keep my place in this government an hour longer than I may preserve England in it’s just rights, and may protect the people of God in such a just liberty of their consciences….”7 He was offered the crown by one of the Parliaments that he established, but he refused it. As Lord Protector, Cromwell worked for liberty of conscience in the Protestant religion in England and all over the world.
Even though we may disagree with some of the things that Cromwell did, we must admit that he was used by God. He was one of the men that God used the most to advance Christianity and Christian liberty. D’Aubigne, one of the greatest Reformed historians, said, “God works by instruments; and if there is any one man who, in times past, has contributed more than another, more than all others, to the wonders of the present day, that man is Oliver Cromwell.”8 Cromwell built upon the foundations of Christian liberty which were begun in the Reformation with John Calvin and John Knox and eventually resulted in the founding of the United States.
1J. H. Merle D’Aubigne The Protector: A Vindication (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1861) p. 31
2Ibid, p. 33
3Ibid, p. 50
4Ibid, p. 91-92
5Ibid, p. 153
8The Protector a Vindication. p. 280