I. I begin by saying that the Reformation delivered England from an immense quantity of evils.
In describing those evils, it is hard to know where to begin and where to leave off. Their number is legion. The utmost I can do is to give you a short summary of them, and to ask you to believe that the half is left untold.
(a) For one thing the Reformation delivered England from gross religious ignorance and a spiritual darkness that might be felt. No doubt there was a professing Church of Christ in the land when Henry VIII. ascended the throne, a Church abounding in wealth, and garrisoned by a whole army of Bishops, Abbots, Friars, Priests, Monks, and Nuns. But money and clergymen do not make a Church of Christ any more than “men with muskets” make up un army. For any useful and soulsaving purposes the English Church was practically dead, and if St. Paul had come out of his grave and visited it, I doubt if he would have called it a Church at all. The plain truth is, that it was a Church without a Bible; and such a Church is as useless as a light-house without a light,—a candlestick without a candle—or a steam-engine without a fire. Except a few scattered copies of Wycliffe’s translation of the Vulgate, there were no English Bibles in the land, and the natural consequence was that priests and people knew scarcely anything about God’s truth and the way to be saved.
As to the clergy, as a general rule, their religion was the merest form, and scarcely deserved to be called Christianity at all. Most of them were pitiful turncoats without a conscience, and were ready to change sides in religion at word of command. In fact they did so no less than four times;—once under Henry VIII., once under Edward VI., once under Bloody Mary, and once more under Elizabeth.
The immense majority of the clergy did little more than say masses and offer up pretended sacrifices—repeat Latin prayers, and chant Latin hymns which of course the people could not understand,—hear confessions, grant absolutions, give extreme unction, and take money to get dead people out of purgatory. Preaching was utterly at a discount. As Bishop Latimer truly remarked, “When the devil gets influence in a Church, up go candles and down goes preaching.” Quarterly sermons were indeed prescribed to the clergy, but not insisted on. Latimer says that while mass was never to be left unsaid for a single Sunday, sermons might be omitted for twenty Sundays in succession, and nobody was blamed. After all, when sermons were preached they were utterly unprofitable; and latterly, to preach much was to incur the suspicion of being a heretic.
To cap all, the return that Bishop Hooper got from the rich diocese of Gloucester, no barbarous and uncivilized corner of England, when he was first appointed Bishop in 1551, will give you a pretty clear idea of the ignorance of pre-Reformation times. He found that out of 311 clergy of his diocese, 168 were unable to repeat the Ten Commandments; 31 of the 168 could not say in what part of the Scripture they were to be found; 40 could not tell where the Lord’s Prayer was written; and 31 of the 40 did not know who was the author of the Lord's Prayer!
As to the laity it is not too much to say that the bulk of them, except in the hour of trial, sickness, and death, had no religion at all. Even at such seasons as those there was no one to tell them of the love of God, the mediation of Christ, the glad tiding of free salvation, the precious blood of atonement, and justification by faith. They could only send for the priest, who knew nothing himself and could tell nothing to others; and then at last they received absolution and extreme unction, and took a leap in the dark. “The blind led the blind and both fell into the ditch.”
To sum up all in a few words, the religion of our English forefathers before the Reformation was a religion without knowledge, without faith, and without lively hope,—a religion without justification, regeneration, and sanctification,—a religion without any clear views of Christ or the Holy Ghost. Except in rare instances, it was little better than an organized system of Mary-worship, saintworship, image-worship, relic-worship, pilgrimages, almsgivings, formalism, ceremonialism, processions, prostrations, bowings, crossings, fastings, confessions, penances, absolutions, masses, and blind obedience to the priests. It was a huge higgledy-piggledy of ignorance and idolatry, and serving an unknown God by deputy. The only practical result was that the priests took the people’s money, and undertook to secure their salvation, and the people flattered themselves that the more they gave to the priests the more sure they were to go to heaven. As to the grand cardinal question, “What must I do to be saved ?” probably not one Englishman in fifty could have given you half as good an answer as any ordinary Sunday school child would give in our own day. Such was the IGNORANCE which was scattered to the winds by the English Reformation. Mind you do not forget it.
Hugh Latimer, Sermon of the Plough, in Sermons (1906 ed.), p. 64:
And now I would ask a strange question: who is the most diligentest bishop and prelate in all England, that passeth all the rest in doing his office? I can tell, for I know him who it is; I know him well. But now I think I see you listening and hearkening that I should name him. There is one that passeth all the other, and is the most diligent prelate and preacher in all England. And will ye know who it is? I will tell you: it is the devil. He is the most diligent preacher of all other; he is never out of his diocess; he is never from his cure; ye shall never find him unoccupied; he is ever in his parish; he keepeth residence at all times; ye shall never find him out of the way, call for him when you will he is ever at home; the diligentest preacher in all the realm; he is ever at his plough: no lording nor loitering can hinder him; he is ever applying his business, ye shall never find him idle, I warrant you. And his office is to hinder religion, to maintain superstition, to set up idolatry, to teach all kind of popery. He is ready as he can be wished for to set forth his plough; to devise as many ways as can be deface and obscure God's glory. Where the devil is resident, and hath his plough going, there away with books, and up with candles; away with bibles, and up with beads; away with the light of the gospel, and up with the light of candles, yea, at noon-days. Where the devil is resident, that he may prevail, up with all superstition and idolatry; censing, painting of images, candles, palms, ashes, holy water, and new service of men's inventing; as though man could invent a better way to honour God with than God himself hath appointed. Down with Christ's cross, up with purgatory pickpurse, up with him, the popish purgatory, I mean. Away with clothing the naked, the poor and impotent; up with decking of images, and gay garnishing of stocks and stones: up with man's traditions and his laws, down with God's traditions and his most holy word. Down with the old honor due to God, and up with the new god's honour. Let all things be done in Latin: there must be nothing but Latin, not so much as Memento, homo, quod, cinis es, et in cinerem reverteris: "Remember, man, that thou art ashes, and into ashes thou shalt return:" which be the words that the minister speaketh unto the ignorant people, when he giveth them ashes upon Ash-Wednesday; but it must be spoken in Latin: God's word may in no wise be translated into English.