IntroductionThe Controversy over Prelacy. Between the spring of 1641 and February 1642, Milton published four tracts against bishops, that is, against the episcopal form of church-government. In so doing, he joined the side of the Presbyterian party in Parliament in its opposition to the two wars against Scotland—the Bishops' Wars—in 1639 and 1640, and to William Laud's policies as Archbishop of Canterbury. Charles I made war upon Scotland in an unsuccessful attempt to force episcopal church government upon the Presbyterian Kirk of Scotland. Through Archbishop Laud, Charles attempted to halt, and even reverse, the reformation of the English Church, in opposition to the growing influence of Presbyterians in England. These oppositions eventually gave rise to the English Civil Wars of 1642-46 and 1648-49, at the close of which Charles I was tried by a "High Court of Justice," convicted of treason and executed on a platform outside the Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace.
Milton interrupted plans to extend his European tour into Sicily and Greece when he heard "the melancholy tidings from England of civil war." "For I thought it base," he wrote in A Second Defence of the English People (1654), "that I should be traveling at my ease...while my fellow citizens were fighting for their liberty at home" (translated by George Burnett, revised by Moses Hadas, in The Works of John Milton 8.125). Milton would have been familiar with Charles I's attempts to force the English-style episcopal hierarchy and liturgical forms on the Scottish Kirk even before he left England in the spring of 1638, but in November of that year, while Milton was in Italy, the Kirk's General Assembly, meeting in Glasgow, firmly rejected Charles's efforts by deposing all bishops and abolishing the use of the Book of Common Prayer. Scottish soldiers serving abroad returned to Scotland in anticipation of hostilities and an English force of 20,000 soldiers assembled on the border early in the summer of 1639. Milton regarded all this as more than simply an effort to subdue Scotland and its Kirk; he saw in this action a threat to the liberty of fellow citizens, and to the cause of English reformation.
Milton's anti-prelatical tracts belong to a larger set of polemical publications, both anti- and pro-bishops, prompted in part by the Root and Branch Petition addressed to the House of Commons on December 11, 1640. This petition, signed by 15,000 Londoners, called for the abolition of "the government of archbishops and lord bishops, deans, and archdeacons, &c., with their courts and ministrations...with all its dependencies, roots and branches." Seven days later, the House of Commons impeached Archbishop Laud for treason. These Presbyterian successes in Parliament bred a conservative reaction: a group of distinguished authors, most of them bishops and archbishops, undertook to defend English Church polity in general, and the administration of bishops in particular. Joseph Hall, Bishop of Exeter, led the reactionary party with his anonymous An Humble Remonstrance to the High Court of Parliament in January 1641. In March, a group of five Presbyterian clergy calling themselves Smectymnuus (Stephen Marshall, Edmund Calamy, Thomas Young, Matthew Newcomen, and William Spurstowe) responded with An Answer to a booke entituled, An Humble Remonstrance. Thomas Young was one of Milton's earliest tutors and a Scot. Milton's admiration for Young is evident in his Fourth Elegy; perhaps he took the attack on the Scottish Kirk more personally due to this friendship. The "Postscript" to this tract may be Milton's first entry into this controversy. Hall responded in April with A Defence of the Humble Remonstrance, and Smectymnuus shot back with A Vindication of the Answer to the Humble Remonstrance in June.
Milton enters the fray on his own in May 1641 with Of Reformation, followed by Of Prelatical Episcopacy, Animadversions Upon the Remonstrants Defence Against Smectymnuus, The Reason of Church Government (early 1642) and An Apology Against a Pamphlet (1642). Only one of these, The Reason of Church Government, bears Milton's name on the title page.
In The Reason of Church Government, Milton undertakes, once again, to assert that a Presbyterian form of church government is prescribed by God in scripture, and that the episcopal government and liturgy of the Church of England is derived principally from Roman popery, customs and traditions at variance with the testimony of the scriptures. He also specifically responds to the publication in Oxford in 1641 of Certain Briefe Treatises, Written by Diverse Learned Men, concerning the ancient and Moderne government of the Church. This pamphlet gathered together older material by Richard Hooker and Lancelot Andrewes with more recent arguments by James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh and Edward Brerewood, an antiquarian and astronomy professor. In Book I, Milton engages with the arguments made by Andrewes, Ussher and Brerewood and concludes by arguing that what some fear as sects, schisms and rebellion are either fictions and false alarms retailed by reactionary bishops or healthy conversation and dissent about matters of church administration and the proper worship of God. In Book II, Milton interrupts the polemics with a remarkable announcement of his ambitions to be a prophet to his native land, and to write an epic or tragedy in English that will rival the achievements of ancient Romans and Greeks. When he resumes the polemic, he no longer engages with specific authors or pamphlets, but argues that episcopal hierarchy and ceremonious doctrines harm not only the Church of God, but the state and trample on the God-given liberties of Englishmen.