The mixing of politics and spirituality can be explosive for a head of state or the head of a church—and especially when both heads occupy one set of shoulders.

The English Reformation occurred when divorce-prone King Henry VIII declared himself head of the Anglican church, replacing the pope. But it didn’t satisfy those desiring genuine renewal. The Puritans didn’t feel Henry went far enough in purifying the church from the “rags of popery” and returning it to the Scriptures.

Henry’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, opposed the Puritans. Her successor, King James I, threatened at the Hampton Court Conference to “harry them out of the kingdom.” But it was James’s son, Charles I, who lost his head over them.

Charles was born in 1600 and assumed the throne 25 years later. He was deeply religious and morally unsullied, a perfect family man. He was an obstinate monarch, however, and committed to the divine right of kings. He took a Catholic wife and appointed a Catholic-leaning archbishop of Canterbury. He oppressed the Puritans, and thousands of them fled to America; the rest stayed and simmered.

Charles ruled long without a Parliament, but when he tried to force changes in the Scottish church, his northern kingdom revolted. Needing money and arms, Charles at last summoned Parliament. But it proved even more opposed to Charles than the Scots, and when Charles attempted to arrest its leaders, civil war erupted. Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan forces, aided by the Scots, defeated the king’s supporters in 1645.

On January 19, 1649, King Charles was placed on trial. The judges sat on a raised dais at one end of Westminster Hall, soldiers stood at the other end, and Charles sat alone in the center. The drama gripped the nation, and in the end the king, condemned, went to the scaffold calmly. His head was severed with one swing of the ax while a groan rose from the horrified crowd. If he could have governed his kingdom as he had cared for his family, they said, he would have been among England’s greatest monarchs. He didn’t, and the head of the head of the Anglican church was lost.

We humans make plans, but the Lord has the final word. We may think we know what is right, but the Lord is the judge of our motives. (Proverbs 16:1,2)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Jan. 19.

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