Hughes, Merritt Y., ed. John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose. New York: Macmillan, 1957.
308 "ON THE NEW FORCERS OF CONSCIENCE UNDER THE LONG PARLIAMENT"
"ON THE NEW FORCERS OF CONSCIENCE UNDER THE LONG PARLIAMENT" John Milton (ca. 1646) As is evident by the phrase New Forcers of Conscience in "On the New Forcers of Conscience under the Long Parliament" by John Milton, the poem was written as a protest. Milton wrote against the Parliament that opened on July 1, 1643, and its domination by Presbyterians, or the "great rebukers of non-residence," who made up the Westminster Assembly of Divines. That group convened after the abolition of episcopacy and dictated religious matters in the name of reform, charged by Parliament to do so. The assembly then pressured Parliament to form a national Presbyterian Church, according to Barbara K. Lewalski, which would help the government "suppress heresy, sects, and schisms." The assembly undertook revision of the Thirty-nine Articles in addition to abolishing the Book of Common Prayer, among other actions that infuriated many. Milton's Areopagitica (1644) took on the topic of censorship and contributed to the debate over religious toleration by insisting on a free press and free discussion. However, by February 1645 the assembly recommended that Parliament institute a National Presbyterian Church Government, "with synods, classes and provincial and national assemblies." Parliament passed the recommendations with some amendments to satisfy Independent churches.
During the early years of dictates by the assembly, Milton remained focused on his private study and tutoring, publishing tracts about marriage and divorce. But his growing disillusionment with the Long Parliament and the course that religious and civic reform took moved him to action. He then became publicly involved with the toleration controversy and religious tensions created by the assembly. Parliament at last ordered the assembly's dissolution on February 22, 1649.
Milton describes the assembly's actions in the first two lines as throwing "off your Prelate Lord, / And with stiff Vows renounc'[ing] his Liturgy," his tone becoming virulent in the next two lines when he adds, "To seize the widow'd whore Plurality / From them whose sin ye envied, not abhorr'd." He turns to the true topic of the piece in the next lines, noting the group used the
"Civil Sword / To force our consciences that Christ set free." Milton vilifies the assembly by characterizing it as a group acting contrary to Christ. He later uses a comparison to the Council of Trent, famous for its tendency to compromise, to insult the group further, writing, "Your plots and packing worse than those of Trent."
Milton adopts figurative language in describing members of the assembly as wearing "Phylacteries," a reference to small boxes worn by Jews on their foreheads, an outward sign of their piety; Milton uses the reference to reflect the hypocrisy of the assembly. He writes with hope that Parliament will "clip" the phylacteries, stopping short of clipping the ears of those who wear them. Mosaic law ordered that punishment for priests who broke faith, after which they could no longer serve. Milton concludes his 20-line poem by charging that the "New Presbyter is but Old Priest writ Large." As Merritt Y. Hughes explains, the terms Presbyter and Priest derive from the identical Greek word, although Priest entered the language prior to Presbyter. Milton accuses the Presbyterian leaders of being no better than Catholic priests inflicting Rome upon the English Protestants.
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