June 2, 2008
âHe could not keep the Ten Commandments, but he kept the ten thousand commandments.â?
(G. K. Chesterton,
Twelve Types: a Book of Essays)
by Pastor George Van Alstine
The English literary giant of the early Twentieth Century, G. K. Chesterton, wrote these words about King Charles II, who ruled England, Scotland and Wales from 1660 to 1685. In order to understand what Chesterton meant, you have to review a little English history.
Some of us are a bit familiar with the Tudor period because its colorful central figures make good Hollywood drama. Henry the Eighth and his six wives have been the subject of popular television series. The characters who populated Henryâs courtâCardinal Woolsey, Thomas More, Thomas Cranmer, etc.âwere important figures in the English Reformation, which led to the break of the Church of England from Rome. Henryâs daughter became Englandâs Queen Elizabeth I during the height of the nationâs empire building, ruling from 1558 to 1603. Henryâs other daughter, âBloody Mary,â? was her rival during the earlier part of her reign. Maryâs son ruled after Elizabeth, as James I, and he was the James who caused the âKing James Versionâ? of the Bible to be written.
The politics of these times were turbulent, and many English aristocrats with royal blood lost their heads. Since the political struggles had deep religious implications, it can be argued (and is, by both sides) that many also lost their souls.
The religious/political battles reached a climax in the English Civil War, which led in 1650 to the overthrow of the Monarchy and establishment of republican rule for ten years during the Commonwealth period. The key leader during this era was the Puritan Oliver Cromwell. This decade was a time of austere morality inspired by strong Calvinistic Reformation teaching. Under Cromwell and his fellow-Puritans, the people of England began to think the Monarchy was not all that bad. Which brings us to Charles II and the period known as the Restoration.
Charles was born and raised to be king. During the Commonwealth years, he lived a pampered life in exile, indulged by the courts of France and Holland. He was cultured and genteel. He knew the proper way to act in all situations. But, ironically, he had no moral compass. Caught between those who wanted a return to the Roman Catholic Church, loyalists to the Church of England and the Puritan radical reformers, Charles chose ânone-of-the-above.â? In the words of Chesterton, he âlet himself float upon this new tide of politeness.â?
During his reign, Charles was surprisingly tolerant. He took no vengeance on those who had beheaded his father, King Charles I. He tried to affirm the right of every religious expression to worship freely. His was not so much a noble tolerance as it was a lazy tolerance. He took the easy road.
The moral austerity of the Commonwealth period was replaced by an âanything goesâ? permissive atmosphere. His courtiers were characterized by hedonistic excesses following the example of their King, who had twelve illegitimate children. Theaters were opened where the common folk could experience bawdy ârestoration comedies.â? Charles was popularly known as âthe Merrie Monarchâ? for the lightheartedness he brought to the Kingdom.
On his deathbed, Charles II finally got religion. He was baptized as a Roman Catholic after disrespecting that religious tradition all his life. It was a pathetic last act by this leader who kept ten thousand social etiquette commandments but ignored the Ten that really mattered.
Jesus criticized the leaders of another time and place, saying that they
â… tithe mint, dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faith.â? (Matthew 23:23)
What are the âten thousand commandmentsâ? you manage to keep so that you donât have to face âthe weightier matters of the lawâ??