June 2, 2008

“He 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 Henry’s court—Cardinal Woolsey, Thomas More, Thomas Cranmer, etc.—were important figures in the English Reformation, which led to the break of the Church of England from Rome. Henry’s daughter became England’s Queen Elizabeth I during the height of the nation’s empire building, ruling from 1558 to 1603. Henry’s other daughter, “Bloody Mary,â€? was her rival during the earlier part of her reign. Mary’s son ruled after Elizabeth, as James I, and he was the James who caused the “King 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 “none-of-the-above.â€? In the words of Chesterton, he “let 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 “anything 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 “restoration comedies.â€? Charles was popularly known as “the 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
“… 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 “ten thousand commandmentsâ€? you manage to keep so that you don’t have to face “the weightier matters of the lawâ€??