In an ordered arrangement of classes and synods these Presbyters were to govern their flocks, to regulate their own order, to decide in matters of faith, to administer "discipline." Their weapon was excommunication, and they were responsible for its use to none but Christ. The province of the civil ruler was simply to carry out the decisions of the Presbyters, " to see their decrees executed and to punish the contemners of them." The spirit of Calvinistic Presbyterianism excluded all toleration of practice or belief. Not only was the rule of ministers to be established as the one legal form of Church government, but all other forms, Episcopalian and Separatist, were to be ruthlessly put down. For heresy there was the punishment of death. Never had the doctrine of persecution been urged with such a blind and reckless ferocity. "I deny," wrote Cartwright, "that upon repentance there ought to follow any pardon of death.... Heretics ought to be put to death now. If this be bloody and extreme, I am content to be so counted with the Holy Ghost".
Opinions such as these might wisely have been left to the good sense of the people itself. Before many years they found in fact a crushing answer in the "Ecclesiastical Polity" of Richard Hooker, a clergyman who had been Master of the Temple, but whose distaste for the controversies of its pulpit drove him from London to a Wiltshire vicarage at Boscombe, which he exchanged at a later time for the parsonage of Bishopsbourne among the quiet meadows of Kent. The largeness of temper which characterized all the nobler minds of his day, the philosophic breadth which is seen as clearly in Shakspere as in Bacon, was united in Hooker with a grandeur and stateliness of style, which raised him to the highest rank among English prose writers. Divine as he was, his spirit and method were philosophical rather than theological. Against the ecclesiastical dogmatism of Presbyterian or Catholic he set the authority of reason. He abandoned the narrow ground of Scriptural argument to base his conclusions on the general principles of moral and political science, on the eternal obligations of natural law.
The Puritan system rested on the assumption that an immutable rule for human action in all matters relating to religion, to worship, and to the discipline and constitution of the Church, was laid down, and only laid down, in Scripture. Hooker urged that a Divine order exists, not in written revelation only, but in the moral relations, the historical developement, and the social and political institutions of men. He claimed for human reason the province of determining the laws of this order; of distinguishing between what is changeable and unchangeable in them,between what is eternal and what is temporary in the Bible itself. It was easy for him to push on to the field of theological controversy where men like Cartwright were fighting the battle of Presby-terianism, to show that no form of Church government had ever been of indispensable obligation, and that ritual observances had in all ages been left to the discretion of churches, and determined by the differences of times. But the truth on which Hooker based his argument was of far higher value than his argument itself; and the acknowledgement of a divine order in human history, of a divine law in human reason, which found expression in his work, harmonized with the noblest instincts of the Elizabethan age.
Against Presbyterianism, indeed, the appeal was hardly needed. Popular as the Presbyterian system became in Scotland, it never took any general hold on England; it remained to the last a clerical rather than a national creed, and even in the moment of its seeming triumph under the Commonwealth it was rejected by every part of England save London and Lancashire, and part of Derbyshire. But the bold challenge to the Government which was delivered by Cartwright's party in a daring " Admonition to the Parliament," which demanded the establishment of government by Presbyters, raised a panic among English statesmen and prelates which cut off all hopes of a quiet appeal to reason. It is probable that, but for the storm which Cartwright raised, the steady growth of general discontent with the ceremonial usages he denounced would have brought about their abolition. The Parliament of 1571 had not only refused to bind the clergy to subscription to three articles on the Supremacy, the form of Church government, and the power of the Church to ordain rites and ceremonies, but favoured the project of reforming the Liturgy by the omission of the superstitious practices. But with the appearance of the "Admonition" this natural progress of opinion abruptly ceased.
The moderate statesmen who had pressed for a change in ritual withdrew from union with a party which revived the worst pretensions of the Papacy. As dangers from without and from within thickened round the Queen the growing Puritanism of the clergy stirred her wrath above measure, and she met the growth of "nonconforming" ministers by a measure which forms the worst blot on her reign.
The new powers which were conferred in 1583 on the Ecclesiastical Commission converted the religious truce into a spiritual despotism. From being a temporary board which represented the Royal Supremacy in matters ecclesiastical, the Commission was now turned into a permanent body wielding the almost unlimited powers of the Crown. All opinions or acts contrary to the Statutes of Supremacy and Uniformity fell within its cognizance. A right of deprivation placed the clergy at its mercy. It had power to alter or amend the statutes of colleges or schools. Not only heresy, and schism, and nonconformity, but incest or aggravated adultery were held to fall within its scope: its means of enquiry were left without limit, and it might fine or imprison at its will. By the mere establishment of such a Court half the work of the Reformation was undone. The large number of civilians on the board indeed seemed to furnish some security against the excess of ecclesiastical tyranny. Of its forty-four commissioners, however, few actually took any part in its proceedings; and the powers of the Commission were practically left in the hands of the successive Primates. No Archbishop of Canterbury since the days of Augustine had wielded an authority so vast, so utterly despotic, as that of Whitgift and Bancroft and Abbot and Laud. The most terrible feature of their spiritual tyranny was its wholly personal character.