Vol I No. 7
English Reformation

A History of the Articles

by The Editors

The following excerpt, taken from the introduction to The Teacher’s Prayer Book by Alfred Barry, illustrates the complex history of the Thirty-Nine Articles and their connection to the magisterial confessions of the sixteenth century. 


THE CONFESSIONS OF THE 16TH CENTURY. The Articles of the Church of England form one of the many declarations on faith and discipline, which were put forward in the 16th century by such religious bodies as had thrown off allegiance to Rome, and disowned at the same time many points of the religious and ecclesiastical system of the Mediaeval Church. For this action of what is commonly termed Protestantism is, by the nature of the case, simply negative. It declares what is repudiated, not what is accepted. It may indicate true Reformation or entire Revolution in things religious. Hence at a time when the unsettlement of the whole mediaeval system gave occasion to much wild speculation and practice, and the repudiation of allegiance to Rome forced on men the necessity of discovering other bonds of Christian unity it became necessary for the various Reformed bodies to declare positively what they held in faith, and what ecclesiastical constitution they recognized. The result was seen in a series of Confessions, of which the great Augsburg Confession was the chief.

THE AUGSBURG CONFESSION. This Confession, published in 1530, afterwards enlarged and amended in 1552, and put forth as the Wurtemburg Confession, has special interest to us, as having considerably affected our own Articles. It was drawn up chiefly by Melancthon, and approved by Luther for presentation to the Diet, at a time wham there seemed hope of reconciliation between the Roman Catholic and Lutheran bodies in Germany, and when the extravagances of ultra-Protestantism had so alarmed Luther himself, as to suggest great care and moderation in framing authoritative statements of doctrine. The original Confession contains xxi. Articles of Faith and vii. of Protest against Abuses. Of the former Articles it may be noted:

  1. that (as is the case of all Lutheran documents) they lay great stress on the reality and efficacy of Sacramental grace, while they insist strongly on the need of spiritual reception; and, in relation to the Holy Communion, declare expressly that the Body and Blood of Christ are really present;
  2. that they define the Church much as in our Articles, assert the authority of the Church to ordain rites and Ceremonies, and claim for it the preaching of the Word, the Power of the Keys, and the Administration of the Sacraments;
  3. that, while they set forth with great fullness and emphasis the doctrine of Justification by Faith, and the absolute need of God’s prevenient grace, they abstain from all declarations on Predestination and Election;
  4. that they maintain that nothing in the Lutheran system is alien from Holy Scripture and the primitive Church.

The Abuses protested against are mainly the refusal of the Cup to the Laity, Compulsory Celibacy of the Clergy, Monastic Vows, Propitiatory Sacrifice of the Mass, Compulsory Confession, and Papal Supremacy. It will be seen at a glance that in general the Confession adopted much the same basis which was afterwards taken up in England; and indicated a desire, frustrated by unfortunate circumstances, to take the same line of Reformation, as distinct from Revolution.

This Confession was one of many. Not only did every Reformed body put out its own Confession, but even those who retained their obedience to Rome were obliged to define their position, as by the promulgation of the decrees of the Council of Trent, and the acceptance of the Creed of Pope Pius IV.

THE POSITION OF THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND. The Church of England perhaps especially felt this necessity. For at the very moment of the repudiation of the Papal Supremacy, it was expressly declared upon her behalf (in 1533) that there was no intention to decline or vary from the congregation of Christ’s Church in things concerning the very Articles of the Catholic faith, or in any other things declared by Holy Scripture and the Word of God necessary to Salvation. It was thought necessary that this declaration so remarkably exemplified subsequently in the whole composition of the Prayer Book, and the adoption, under limits, of the old Ecclesiastical Law should be expressed formally from time to time in certain Articles of Religion, not designed to be an exhaustive statement of the Christian Faith, but confined mainly to the points of faith and discipline then brought into controversy. These Articles assert the position thus taken up by the Church of England; and it will be seen that they bear on her relation primarily to the Church of Rome, but secondarily to the movements of the foreign Reformations, and also to the spirit of revolutionary speculation and action, naturally aroused, in England as elsewhere, at a time of great religious change.

THE TEN ARTICLES. The first series of such Articles, called the Ten Articles, was put forth in 1536, the year of the final rupture with Rome. They were prepared by a Committee of Divines, acting under direction of Henry VIII. and his Vicar-General, Thomas Cromwell; and having subsequently passed both Houses of Convocation, were issued as Articles to stablish Christian quietness and unity. They dealt with the principal Articles of Christian faith; with the Sacraments of Baptism, Penance, and the Altar; with Justification; with the veneration of Images and Saints; with the Rites and Ceremonies of the Church, and with Purgatory. Their whole character was transitional, as is strikingly seen in their adoption not of Two or of Seven, but of Three Sacraments; and their general tendency was conservative in doctrine, with reform of abuses in practice. Little influence, if any, of foreign Confessions is to be traced in them. No general subscription to them was required; but they were signed by Cromwell, by the Archbishops and many of the Bishops, and put forth with all the influence of the Royal authority.

THE THIRTEEN ARTICLES. After this ensued a struggle between two parties in the Church the party of further innovation, headed by Cromwell and Cranmer, and the party, represented by Gardiner, who would have refused further religious change, though still firm for independence of Rome. The former party was inclined to ally itself with the foreign Reformers of the Lutheran School, who were now, in the face of the Zwinglian and Calvinistic movements, inclining more than ever to conservatism in things religious, and even proposing a federation on the basis of Episcopal Government, in which the Church of England should take the lead. The result of these negotiations is seen in the Thirteen Articles, drawn up about 1539 in conference between Lutheran and Anglican divines at Lambeth, and contained in a document found among Cranmer’s papers. These Articles are written in Latin, evidently following the Augsburg Confession, but with characteristic variations; as, for example (a), defining Justification as including renovation of heart, and necessarily carrying with it regeneration of life; (b) strongly asserting the Independence of National Churches, and enforcing the rights of the Civil Authority; and (c) on Penitence, containing a long Dissertation, dwelling on the need and benefit of Confession and Absolution, but with no mention of any Sacrament of Penance. They dealt with the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and the twofold nature of Christ; with Original Sin and Justification; with the Church; with the use of the Sacraments; with the doctrine of Baptism and the Eucharist, and with Penitence; with the Ministry and Rites of the Church and the Civil Authority; and with the Resurrection and the Last Judgment. Their tenor is diffuse and explanatory. For they were evidently designed to be rather the basis of a Concordat with the Lutherans, than a body of Articles to be formally adopted. In fact, they never had any legal force at all; and their chief interest lies in this, that they were probably the channel through which the Augsburg Confession subsequently affected our English Articles.

THE SIX ARTICLES. The reaction, which followed in favour of the other party, is marked in the well-known Six Articles of 1539, brought forward in Parliament by the Duke of Norfolk, carried against the stout resistance of Cranmer and his friends, and accepted by the Convocation of Canterbury. These Articles, to which submission was enforced by the severest penalties, had little to do with definition of abstract doctrine. The first maintained the doctrine of Transubstantiation with its consequences; the others enforced certain important points of the Mediaeval Church system, viz., Communion in One kind, Vows of Chastity, the use of Private Masses, the Celibacy of the Clergy, and the obligation of Auricular Confession. The publication of these Articles, in fact, simply indicated the temporary victory of the party of reaction. It is doubtful how far the cruel penalties provided by Statute against all infringement of them were put in force; but their effect was to stop further progress in doctrinal and ecclesiastical change during the closing years of Henry VIII.

THE FORTY-TWO ARTICLES. The accession of Edward VI. introduced a complete reversal of this policy, giving to the reforming party all ascendancy, which they used vigorously and even vehemently. The publication of the Prayer Book was the first fruits of this ascendancy. The principles which it embodies are clearly expressed in the original Preface; and, as it had to be accepted and used by all, laity as well as clergy, under the Act of Uniformity, it might have been thought sufficient in itself to define the doctrinal and ecclesiastical position of the Church of England. But in 1551 it was decided to add to the publication of the Revised Prayer Book, and the proposed reconstitution of the Ecclesiastical Law, the promulgation of a more complete and definite body of Articles. The result was the Forty-two Articles, agreed upon by Bishops and other learned men in Synod of London, 1552, for avoiding of controversy and establishment of godly concord on certain matters of religion. From this heading it seems doubtful whether these Articles were submitted to the Convocations properly so-called. Cranmer had the chief hand in framing them, acting under an Order of the Council in 1551; probably he submitted them to the Bishops and other learned men for consideration and revision; afterwards they passed again through his hands, and were forwarded by him to the Council, with a view to the enforcement of subscription to them upon the clergy by royal authority; finally, they were published by the King’s Majesty’s commandment in May 1553, with the order that all beneficed clergy should sign them on pain of deprivation. But the death of Edward in July 1553 put a stop to the whole proceeding; and the Articles remained in abeyance through the whole time of the reaction under Queen Mary.

These Forty-two Articles are, as will be seen hereafter, the basis of our present Articles. Although the heading shows that they were only intended to deal with certain matters of Religion, in view of the controversies of the time, and although the consideration of their substance confirms this statement, yet they were far the fullest and most precise declaration yet put forth by the Church of England. They show very clearly the influence (perhaps through the abortive Thirteen Articles) of the Augsburg Confession; but they contain much independent matter, and, even where they follow the Confession, introduce material changes in its substance. In one point especially they go beyond it. At the time when they were drawn up the influence of Calvinism was just beginning to be felt in England, although it had as yet no great ascendancy; and it is obvious that this had made it necessary to pronounce upon the questions of Predestination and Election, on which the Calvinistic system turns. On the whole they clearly defined the position of the Church as Catholic, in respect of the preservation of the doctrine of the Creeds and the main features of Church organization; and at the same time, as what is usually called Protestant, in accepting the Reformation principle of adhesion to Holy Scripture as the basis of faith, asserting freedom and independence against Rome, claiming right to reject doctrinal corruptions and practical abuses contrary to Scripture and primitive Church practice, and dealing in complete independence with the doctrines of Justification and Election, which formed the leading principles of the Lutheran and Calvinistic Reformations.

THE ELEVEN ARTICLES. On the accession of Elizabeth, pending the revision of these Articles, a short preliminary series of Eleven Articles was issued in 1559 by Royal and Episcopal authority. These were of a simple and practical type, accepting Holy Scripture as the basis of faith and the Creeds as its interpretation, asserting the authority of the Church and the Royal Supremacy, maintaining the Prayer Book, rejecting Private Masses, the Veneration of Images and Relics, and restoring the Cup to the Laity.

THE THIRTY-NINE ARTICLES. Meanwhile the revision of the Forty-two Articles was carried on, mainly under the direction of Archbishop Parker, who, like the Queen herself, was bent on preserving as far as possible the old basis, as against the more revolutionary ideas of the growing Calvinistic party. The Confession of Wurtemburg (1552), a revised and enlarged edition of the Confession of Augsburg, was clearly studied by the revisers. The revised Articles were submitted to Convocation, and passed with alterations reducing them to Thirty-nine in 1563. It was intended that they should be promulgated only by Royal authority. But Parliament claimed a right to discuss them, which was ultimately conceded, and finally subscription to them was enforced by Act of Parliament in 1571. They were put out both in Latin and in English. It is doubtful whether the Latin or English version is to be considered as original; but it appears that the two are substantially of coordinate authority, and may be used with great advantage to elucidate and interpret each other.

Of the alterations made in the Forty-two Articles, which are numerous, the chief are the following:

(a) Some Articles were added or enlarged, evidently for the sake of completeness. Thus Art. ii., On the Son of God, was enlarged ; Art. v., On the Holy Ghost, was inserted; in Art. vi. were added a list of Canonical Books, and a definition of the position of the Apocrypha; Art. xii., On Good Works, was inserted. Arts. xxix. and xxx., on the Holy Communion, were also added. These alterations all show the desire of a fuller and more definite settlement of doctrine.

(b) On the other hand, some Articles were omitted, either as now obsolete, or from a desire to refrain from pronouncing authoritative opinion on the subjects dealt with. Such were the old Article x. on the limits of the action of Grace; the old Article xvi. on Blasphemy against the Holy Ghost; and the last Four Articles (the old xxxix., xl., xli., xlii.) condemning the belief that the Resurrection is past (being only a spiritual Resurrection), and that the souls of the departed die with the body or sleep idly, the fable of Heretics called Millenarii, and the opinion that all men, be they never so ungodly, shall be saved at the last.

(c) On two points there is some historical doubt.

In Art. xx. the celebrated clause, The Church hath power to decree rites and ceremonies and authority in controversies of faith, was certainly not in Parker’s original draft, nor was it inserted in Convocation. In all probability it was inserted by the Council at the instance of the Queen, and afterwards accepted by Convocation and Parliament.

Art. xxix., on the other hand, which was in the original, was omitted in the Authorized Latin Edition published in 1563 by Royal Command, but restored in 1571. In this case also probably the change was made at the instance of the Queen; but the change so made was not accepted.

The Articles thus completed were put forth as agreed upon by the Archbishops and Bishops of both Provinces and the whole Clergy, in the Convocation holden in London in the year 1562, for the avoiding of Diversities of opinion and for the establishing consent touching true Religion. The title shews the claim for them of a greater comprehensiveness and completeness than was advanced in 1552; but at the same time declares the object to be, as before, the settlement of controversy and union of all on a general basis of agreement. Subscription to them was required not only from clergy, but from all persons taking degrees at the Universities. Even in 1688 the Toleration Act required from Dissenting Ministers subscription to all, except xxxiv., xxxv., xxxvi., and parts of xx. and xxvii. The first of these obligations alone remains at the present moment.

THE LAMBETH ARTICLES. The Articles thus drawn up in 1562 have remained unchanged till the present time. The history, however, would be incomplete without a brief reference to the attempt to supplement them in 1595 by the addition of the well-known Lambeth Articles. This attempt marks the temporary dominance of the Calvinistic theology, under the influence of the great Puritan party, in the reign of Elizabeth. It arose, indeed, out of a Sermon at Cambridge, which was denounced as heretical, because it ventured to question some of the primary points of the Calvinistic system. There the Articles were drawn up by the theological Professors, and accepted with some modifications by Archbishop Whitgift, and certain other Bishops and Divines with whom he took counsel. They expressed in the most uncompromising and terrible form the main points of the Calvinistic theology; declaring, for example, that:

(a) God from all eternity has predestinated some to life; some He hath reprobated to death.

(b) The moving cause of Predestination to life is not prevision of faith, or perseverance, or good works, or of anything which may be in the persons predestinated, but only the will of the good pleasure of God.

(c) A true justifying faith and the Spirit of God sanctifying is not extinguished, doth not fall away, doth, not vanish, in the elect, either finally or totally.

(d) Saving grace is not given to all men, by which they may be saved if they will.

Happily, however, these Articles were strongly reprobated by the Queen and her advisers, and therefore failed to become in any sense authoritative; and a subsequent petition by the Puritan party at the Hampton Court Conference for their adoption was formally refused. But both the attempt to introduce them and its failure are significant. The attempt shews a conviction on the part of the Calvinistic party that the distinctive tenets of Calvinism are not embodied in the Articles; and that this conviction is well founded will be seen by contrasting the Lambeth Articles with Arts. xv., xvi., of our Thirty-nine Articles. The failure shews that, when formally submitted, these tenets were refused deliberately, and that they therefore form no part of the theology of the Church of England.