Laudianism: Definition & Reforms

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Church of England has a long history, and like many religious institutions, this includes plenty of controversy. In this lesson, we'll explore a major attempt to change the Church of England and see how it impacted England and its new empire.

What is Laudianism?

The state religion of England is, and has long been, the aptly named Church of England. This institution has been tremendously important throughout English history, but like all religious bodies, was never without in-fighting. Theological and political debates about the role and future of the Church are also a major part of English history, and at few times was this as true than in the rise of Laudianism, a reform movement of the 17th century. Laudianist policies were influential enough to not only reshape England, but also impact England's young colonies across the seas.


To understand Laudianism, we first need a little background information on the Church of England. In 1533, the English king Henry VIII wanted to divorce his wife, but the Catholic Church wouldn't allow it. So Henry left the Catholic Church and founded his own. The Church of England was a Protestant church, engaging with the Reformation against Catholicism, and so it was defined by its ability to seem as non-Catholic as possible.

For the most part, the Church of England followed a Calvinist theology, which claimed that everyone was predestined to either go to Heaven or Hell and that there was nothing you could do about it. Your best bet was to live piously and hope your soul was destined to be saved. They also believed in focusing on preaching and studying the Bible rather than the ceremonies and rituals of Catholicism.

Rise of Laudianism

Then, in 1625, Charles I became King of England. Charles had different theological views than his father, King James (sponsor of the King James Bible), and found a counterpart in the English bishop William Laud. Laud represented a collection of clerics who opposed many traditions of the Church of England. They wanted to see the Church become more formally organized with a stricter hierarchy of power, they had a fondness for ceremonial ritual, and they disagreed with the Calvinists about their fates. Instead of predestination, they believed that souls could be saved through good works alone.

Archbishop William Laud

In 1633, Charles made Bishop Laud the Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest clerical position in the Church of England. This gave Laud the power he need to carry out massive reforms throughout the Church. He made the clergy more hierarchical and increased their role in the practice of the Anglican Protestant faith.

Many Laudian policies were also focused on the physical churches themselves. Specifically, Laud wanted to move the communion table. Traditionally, Anglican churches kept the communion table in the center of the building, expressing the democracy of communion and its availability to everyone. Laud wanted to move it to the east end of the church and put a rail around it, emphasizing its holiness and the rights of the clergy to access the holy sacraments over the common people.

Laud and the Puritans

If Laud's focus on hierarchy, ceremony, and the need to keep the sacraments out of the hands of common people sounds suspiciously Catholic to you, you're not alone. Laud was fiercely opposed by a group of people who believed that the Church of England needed to be kept pure of Catholic influences. They called themselves the Puritans. The Puritans thought Laudianism was too similar to Catholicism and violated the basic tenets of the Anglican faith, and they fought against his reforms.

Archbishop Laud, however, wasn't interested in discussing the topic. He viciously persecuted the Puritans across England. Some were fired from their positions within the clergy, while others were arrested and even tortured. In the face of this abuse, many Puritans fled England. They went first to the Netherlands, but then decided they'd be better off embracing a life of religious freedom on the furthest outposts of the Empire.

In 1630, a Puritan lawyer named John Winthrop was granted a charter to found England's second major colony in North America. He called it Massachusetts, and it quickly became a refuge for Puritans fleeing Laudian persecution. By the end of the decade, roughly 14,000 Puritans had immigrated to Massachusetts. Their ideas about religious freedom helped define early colonial attitudes, and would later form one of the foundations for the American Revolution.

John Winthrop

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