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Religious combatants

I was wandering through Braithwaite's Beginnings of Quakerism last night when I found this brief description of religious combat:

This general knowledge of the Bible was now diffused, and accordingly when the era passed in which the State repressed schisms and sects, it was at once succeeded by an age of controversial warfare between conflicting opinions. Polemic replaced persecution, and its virulence was at least better than the fires of Smithfield.

In the keen doctrinal atmosphere of the time, a day's dispute in public between opposing combatants was the most delightful and improving of pastimes. A Puritan divine, for example, at Henley-in-Arden, would take up the cudgels against preaching without a call and argue his case with five private preachers - a nailer, a baker, a plough-wright, a weaver, and a baker's boy.

When Thomas Taylor, who afterwards became a Friend, disputed at Kendal in 1650 on the subject of infant-baptism in the parish church against three other ministers, and had got the better of them, his hearers ran up Kendal Street crying "Mr. Taylor hath got the day! Mr. Taylor hath got the day!" with an enthusiasm now reserved for the result of a game of football. (17-18)

Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down presents similar stories. Braithwaite is right that times have changed. The explosion of religious interest in England (and its former colonies) burst out, eventually created a new tolerant world, and then faded back.

Religious discussion continues, of course, but public combat? Could it find a similar audience today?


Such "public combat" does take place on-line, including in the Quaker blogging world. (See for example this ongoing "combat", in which I am (alas!) deeply entangled, at Zach Alexander's blog site.)

When I was young such "combats" happened a lot in college dormitory "bull sessions", but I don't know whether they still happen there to the same extent today. I get the impression that not all generations of college students are equally alive to the Big Questions, or are equally willing to entertain new ideas about them.