Psalm 137 and Religious Violence, Part II: Root and Branch

Like Jacob and Esau after the episode of the pottage, the family relationship of the English Church had gone quite sour by 1640, and this bitterness gave Psalm 137 its potency in the church-government debates. During the 1630s Archbishop Laud and a group of like-minded divines had advanced a “High Church” program of reform that looked a little too Roman Catholic for the tastes of some. In 1637, three vociferous opponents of the Laudian reform, John Bastwick, Henry Burton, and William Prynne, were sentenced to have their ears cut off by the public executioner and their cheeks branded with “SL” (for “seditious libeller”). [1] All three were sent into exile.

Even so, the public punishment of Bastwick, Burton, and Prynne led many in England to question the bishops’ use of their extensive powers. These powers came further into question when King Charles and Archbishop Laud attempted to impose the Book of Common Prayer on staunchly Presbyterian Scotland, which provoked two brief but expensive wars that ended in humiliating defeat for the English.

These defeats forced Charles to seek money, and on 3 November 1640 he called what came to be known as the Long Parliament. In a sign of the king’s diminishing power, Parliament released Bastwick, Burton, and Prynne from exile, and they returned to London on 22 November amidst public celebration. On 11 December, a large group of Londoners presented a petition bearing some 15,000 signatures to Parliament. It called for the violent suppression of episcopacy “with all its dependances, rootes and branches,” and so became known as the Root and Branch petition. [2]

When Parliament took up the Root and Branch petition on 9 February 1641, George Digby rose and spoke with an acute awareness of episcopal abuses. Like Hall, Digby used Psalm 137 to characterize the opponents of episcopacy as Edomites, but unlike Hall, he refrained from invoking the psalm’s cursing aspects on them.

Digby understood that the bishops’ behavior, including the punishment of Bastwick, Burton, and Prynne, had inflamed passions to a violent temper: “as if [the bishops] would not onely derive their Brandisment of the spirituall sword from S. Peter, but of the materiall one too, and the Right to cut off Eares.” In light of such overreaching, Digby told the Commons: “I finde my self ready to cry out with the lowdest of the 15000 downe with them, downe with them, even to the ground.” [3]

By speaking the violent words of the Edomites, Digby indicates to an audience accustomed to thinking of itself as a modern incarnation of biblical Israel that he is not really siding with the petitioners, however sympathetic he might appear. He consciously uses Psalm 137 quite differently than Hall had a year earlier: in choosing to oppose the petition, Digby moderates his own Edomitish passion without, however, going on to align the petitioners entirely with the Edomites. [4]

What he does is rather more nuanced than most other invocations of Psalm 137 in this controversy. Recognizing himself as “a part too … of that Senate, from whose dispassionate and equall Constitutions, present and future times must Expect their happinesse or Infelicity,” Digby concludes that membership in the governing community of Parliament requires him to separate himself from the petitioners:

It obliges mee to the utmost of my power to divest my self and others of all those disturbances of Judgement which arise ever from great provocations, and to settle my thoughts in that temper which I think necessary to all those that would judge cleerely of such things as have incenst them. I beseech you gentlemen let not us be led on by passion to popular and vulgar Errors, it is naturall … to the multitude to fly unto Extremes, that seemes ever the best to them, that is most opposite to the presentest object of their hate. [5]

Digby accuses the multitude of displaying the sort of popular passion that led him to assume the voice of the Edomites himself. Nevertheless, he rejects this passion because it is popular and unrestrained, not because it is Edomitish. He does not excise the petitioners from the English body politic, for he acknowledges that he, as a member of that same body, feels as they do, although he is bound by legislative duty to stand above his feelings.

Thus, Digby takes his place within Hall’s second, Israelite, category of adversaries: “let us lay aside all thoughts of such dangerous, such fundamentall, such unaccomplished Alterations[.] … Let us not destroy Bishopps, but make Bishopps such as they were in the Primitive times.” [6]

Digby was one of many urging a moderate approach to ecclesiastical reform, and yet this moderation had its drawbacks. For one, he put himself in the crosshairs both of Hall’s defense of episcopacy and of its root-and-branch opponents.

A moderate course can prove very difficult to navigate well: eventually Digby had to choose sides. Ultimately, he sided with the king, and his advice led the king to a disastrous decision—Charles’ attempt to arrest five MPs by storming Parliament with an armed guard—that made civil war all but inevitable.

Digby’s example shows, moreover, how challenging it can be to attempt a balance between genuine sympathy for a segment of the public that justifiably feels oppressed and the demands of societal order. His concluding call for a return to primitive (i.e., pre-Constantinian) episcopacy works only because it is vague. He tries to give both parties what they want, but his proposed solution actually evades some central points of contention: what does it really mean to be a bishop, and what were bishops actually like in the primitive church?

Careful rhetoric gets Digby through this particular Scylla and Charybdis unscathed, but the rock still looms, and the whirlpool churns on. Digby has merely postponed the conflict between Israel and Edom for a moment: he has done nothing to resolve it.

<– Part I: “Down with it, down with it, even to the ground” *   Part III: Bishop Hall and the Smectymnuan Hydra –>


For those with a taste for Latin puns, Prynne quipped that “SL” stood for “stigmata laudis.” To be fair, Prynne’s offending tract had written of “Luciferian Lord Bishops” who were “profane, atheisticall gracelesse persecutors of all holinesse, piety, sincerity, godly Ministers, and preaching of God’s Word ,” while Bastwick’s contained a bitterly parodical description of Laud walking the streets of London with his train of toadies, some of whom would hold up his coattails “for the better breaking and venting of his wind & easing of his holy body (for it is full of holes).” William Prynne, Newes from Ipswich (Ipswich [i.e., Edinburgh], 1636), fol. A2v. STC 20469. John Bastwick, The letany of John Bastvvick (Leiden, 1637), 6. Thomason E.203[5].

The first and large petition of the Citie of London and other inhabitants thereabouts: for a reformation in church-government, as also for the abolishment of episcopacie (London, 1641), 3. Thomason E.156[20].

George Digby, Earl of Bristol, The third speech of the Lord George Digby to the House of Commons concerning bishops and the citie petition the 9th of Febr. 1640 [1641] (London, 1641), 14. Thomason E.196[30].  Digby refers to the account in the Gospels of Peter cutting off the ear of the high priest’s servant as Jesus was being arrested. See Matt. 26:51, Mark 14:47, Luke 22:50, and John 18:10.

Hall’s Episcopacie by Divine Right was published on 10 Feb. 1640.

Digby, 14-15.

Ibid., 18.

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