What If the English Reformation Had Never Happened?

In a recent review of Bill Griffeth’s By Faith Alone: One Family’s Journey Through 400 Years of American Protestantism (Harmony, 2007), Chris Scott notes Griffeth’s assertion that his family roots, which are among the New England Puritans and their journey from England to America, would “never have happened if Henry VIII’s request for a divorce had been granted’ [“Religion: Faiths of the Forefathers”, Bookpage (January 2008), 30]. In other words, if Henry VIII had been able to coax Pope Clement VII (Pope, 1523-1534), the grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent, into giving him a divorce then the English Reformation would not have taken place. This is an intriguing thought—one of those that delight those who enjoy the pastime of reading of alternative histories. It is like the question: What if JFK had never been assassinated? Or this one: What if Hitler had invaded England in 1940? This Reformation alternate history then is this: Was the English Reformation so dependent on state support that if Henry had not gone into schism over his desire for a new wife, then the Reformation would have been stillborn?

Any close study of the period I think would reveal that men like William Tyndale would have pursued their programme for Reform—could the Reformation have succeeded, though, without state support? And if Henry had stayed within the orbit of Rome, would his children have done the same? It might be the case, that what might have been produced would have been the Reformed Church the Puritans longed for—in which case there would have been no need for the Puritans to venture overseas.

But this is not what happened. Clement stalled for time, not wanting to alienate either Henry or the nephew of Catherine of Aragon—Henry’s wife—who was Charles V, before whom Luther stood at Worms and who genuinely scared the Pope. And in the providence of God there was a Reformation in England—and how thankful we are to God for such. Whatever England may be now, her sons and daughters were once at the cutting edge of the advance of the Kingdom of God in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And their American evangelical cousins performed a similar service in the twentieth century and are still, by God’s grace, at the heart of the expansion of that Kingdom. Long may it be so!