Psalm 137 and Religious Violence, Part III: Bishop Hall and the Smectymnuan Hydra

The invocations of Psalm 137 got uglier when Hall addressed a new tract to Parliament in the wake of the Root and Branch Petition. This tract drew responses from adversaries in his first category, the ones he had condemned to “darke lodgings, and Ellebore.” Prominent among these was a group of ministers—Stephen Marshall, Edmund Calamy, Thomas Young, Matthew Newcomen, and William Spurstowe—writing under the acronym Smectymnuus.

The powerful correlation between the psalm’s language—“Down with it, down with it”—and the root-and-branchers’ attitude toward episcopacy would seem to make the psalm useful only to the defenders of episcopacy, but this does not turn out to be the case, even though Hall is once again the one to introduce the psalm into the controversy.

Hall audaciously finds occasion in a remark that is couched in language nearly devoid of emotion. Smectymnuus had written that, because Hall had conceded that there was little difference between Genevan Moderators and English Bishops, “then the Alteration and Abrogation of Episcopacie will be with the less difficultie, and occasion the lesse disturbance.” [1]

Hall responds: “The old word is; welfare a friend in a corner; still you are for the destructive; none but the Babylonian note sounds well in your eare, Downe with it, downe with it, even to the ground.” “Abrogation” hardly sounds like an expression of furious Edomitish glee, and yet in Hall’s eyes it signals a deeply entrenched, false, and prejudicial opinion.

Even so, Hall shows no signs of pursuing this reference to the violent conclusions of Psalm 137:

But the God of Heaven whose cause it is, will, we hope, vindicate his owne ordinance, so long perpetuated to his Church, from all your violent and subtile machinations, and prevent the utmost danger of your already sufficiently raised disturbance. [2]

Hall uses Psalm 137 to score a hit on his opponents, but he does not mean to finish them off. Capable and intelligent writer that he was, Hall recognized that pressing too hard on violent scriptures might merely arouse memories of Bastwick, Burton, and Prynne. Nevertheless, Psalm 137 underscores the ideological thrust of Hall’s tracts: that intractable opponents of episcopacy have excluded themselves from the English church.

Smectymnuus responded indignantly to Hall’s charge with a flurry of scriptural proof-texts:

You tell us our note is the note of Babylon, down with it, downe with it. Yet as long as neither we are Edomits, nor speak of Sion, but of Sions enemies, the note is not Babylonish. As Babylon had her time to cry against Sion, downe with it, down with it even to the ground, so the time is coming when Sion shall shout with as strong a cry against her enemies, and the God of Heaven, whose promise is to arise for the sighing of the poore, we doubt not will vindicate his church from those proud adversaries, that have so long time tyrannized over her, and Judge, between the Sheep and the Goats. Even hee Judge whether wee that plead the truth against Bishops, or the Bishops whose cause the Remonstrant [i.e., Hall] pleads, have by violent and subtill Machinations most disturbed Sions peace, and advanced Babylons power. [3]

The divines bring a constellation of scriptures to their defense, beginning with Psalm 137 and their insistence that, unlike the Edomites, they do not speak against Zion.

Not content to let the matter rest there, they use the concordance of two scriptures to align episcopacy with Babylon instead. The first is Psalm 12, in which the Psalmist pleads for the Lord to avenge against “all flattering lippes, and the tongue that speaketh proud things,” and then offers the Lord’s response: “For the oppression of the poore, for the sighing of the needy, now will I arise (saith the Lord,) I will set him in safetie from him that puffeth at him.” [4]

Smectymnuus cement this claim to speak for the oppressed poor with a reference to one of the classic anti-episcopal texts, Ezekiel 34, which accuses the shepherds of Israel of feeding themselves and not the flock. In the margin they cite verses 16-18, which read:

16 I will seeke that which was lost, and bring againe that which was driven away, and will bind up that which was broken, and will strengthen that which was sicke: but I will destroy the fat and the strong, I will feede them with judgement.

17 And as for you, O my flocke, thus saith the Lord God, Behold, I judge betweene cattell and cattell, betweene the rammes and the hee goates.

18 Seemeth it a small thing unto you, to have eaten up the good pasture, but ye must tread downe with your feet the residue of your pastures? and to have drunke of the deepe waters, but ye must foule the residue with your feete?

These verses replace the corrupt shepherds with the true shepherd, the Lord, who will care for the flock even as he destroys those whose fatness evidences their earlier predation.

More significantly, Ezekiel relocates this fatness within the flock, thus replacing the prior distinction between the shepherds who fattened themselves and the flock that therefore suffered with a distinction between rams and goats, or sheep and goats in Smectymnuus’ phrase,  thereby indicating a division within the flock. Smectymnuus’ precise phrasing, “the Sheep and the Goats,” points to the eschatological sifting of the church in Matthew 25:31-46, which also strengthens the implication that the bishops will be condemned because they have not cared for the poor.

And yet the goats do not really belong to the flock; Ezekiel 34:19 reads: “And as for my flocke, they eate that which yee have troden with your feete: and they drinke that which ye have fouled with your feete.” The effect of these scriptural citations is first to remove the bishops from their positions as overseers (the literal meaning of the Greek episkopos), then to reduce them to mere members of the flock, and finally to eject them altogether. Having condemned the bishops as prideful oppressors and exposed them as false shepherds—both accusations frequently leveled at the Roman Church—Smectymnuus can now take another move from the playbook of antipapal polemic and equate the bishops with Babylon.

The sole accomplishment of this laborious scriptural takedown is to reverse the identification of the parties in the psalm: “No, we’re Israel, and you’re Edom. So there.” Far from resolving the conflict—which the relatively moderate Smectymnuans ostensibly wanted to do—such behavior exacerbates it.

<– Part II: Root and Branch *   Part IV: No Neuters –>


Smectymnuus, An answer to a booke entitvled An Hvmble Remonstrance in which the originall of liturgy, episcopacy is discussed (London, 1641), 71. Thomason E.161[4

Joseph Hall, A defence of the humble remonstrance, against the frivolous and false exceptions of Smectymnvvs wherein the right of leiturgie and episcopacie is clearly vindicated from the vaine cavils, and challenges of the answerers (London, 1641), 135. Wing H378.

Smectymnuus, A vindication of the ansvver to the humble remonstrance, from the vnjust imputations of frivolousnesse and falsehood: wherein the cause of liturgy and episcopacy is further debated (London, 1641, 182-83. Thomason E.165[6]. EEBO (accessed 27 Jan. 2009).

Psalm 12:3, 5. This and subsequent biblical quotations are from the 1612 edition of the King James Version, STC 2219.

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