Melanchthon and Anglicanism

I spent an interesting twenty minutes on Monday reading an article entitled, “The Anglican Appeal to Lutheran Sources: Philipp Melanchthon’s Reputation in 17th Century England” by Dewey D. Wallace Jr., which first appeared in the Journal of the Historical Society of the PEC in 1983. In it, Wallace outlines the Philippist influence on the English Reformation both in the initial stages and again in the Elizabethan Settlement, and the resurgence in the influence of Philippism at the end of the century as push back against the rigid Calvinism of the Divinity faculties at Oxford and Cambridge. Dewey raises two important points. First, that Melanchthon’s theology, through the “Loci Communes” was the first widely studied Protestant text[1] in England, and second, that his peaceful, moderate, and irenic spirit appealed to a certain type of English theologian – generally men of the third generation, such as Lancelot Andrewes, and Richard Hooker, who in turn influenced the rising generation under James I. The third point that Dewey makes is that Melanchthon’s influence was often indirect.

British historians dealing with the English Reformation tend to reflect the concerns of their own time. Thus, the historians of the late-1800s and the early-1900s tended to emphasize the uniqueness of British (usually English) institutions, though Heppe[2] in Germany, and Henry Jacobs[3] in the USA both made positive assessments of the Luther contribution to the English Reformation. By the late-1960s, the influence of the Swiss Reformers had been rediscovered through the work of, among others, Patrick Collinson. This coincided with the greater involvement of the United Kingdom in Europe post-World War II. The Collinson school predominated until the late 1990s, when scholars in America and Germany, and a little later in the UK began to reevaluate the German influences on the English Reformation. For example, Anthony Milton’s work on the use of the Heidelberg Catechism[4] in the Elizabethan and early Stuart Church, and Hirofumi Hori’s paper[5] on Elizabeth I’s contacts with Württemberg and Saxony began to focus attention back on the German side of the English Reformation. What is emerging from this contemporary re-examination of the Primary and early Secondary Sources is a picture of the English Reformation as an extremely complex phenomenon displaying a good deal of independence of thought and action whilst still being closely related to, and informed by contemporary trends in the German lands, and Switzerland.

Although the English Reformation was never in the narrow sense, Lutheran, there is no ignoring the influence that Melanchthon had in the reign of Henry VIII, and on Elizabeth I. The Ten Articles of 1536, and the unpublished Thirteen Articles of 1538 both show the influence of Melanchthon in both their humanistic tone, and their position on matters adiaphora. Cranmer recycled these early drafts into the Forty-Two Articles of 1553, and whilst this is a (moderate) Reformed Confession, it retains a Melanchthonian cast to its theological language. The fact that Butzer[6] and Bullinger[7] were the main Reformed influences in England in the 1540s and 1550s tended to redirect the influence of Melanchthon rather than diminish it. Butzer had worked with Melanchthon on the draft Church Order for the Reformation of the Diocese of Köln in 1543, which also proved influential in England. The two of them represented the unionistic or ecumenical side of the Reformation, and Cranmer shared their concern for the unity of the Protestant churches. Bullinger too shared Melanchthon’s humanistic outlook and concern for Protestant unity, though he was much more suspicious of Luther than Butzer. He had used the Loci Communes as his textbook when reaching theology at Kappel, and it seems to have left a permanent mark on his thinking. For example, his advice to the English Church during the Vestarian Controversies surround the consecration of Hooper in 1551, and during the 1560s smacks of Melanchthon’s position on matters adiaphora.

The other influential Melanchthon fan was Elizabeth I herself. Not only did she comment at the time of her coronation that she inclined to the Augsburg religion, but she had memorized large chunks of Melanchthon’s ‘Loci.’ Recent scholarship has tended to emphasize that Elizabeth’s Protestantism against earlier theories that she was either a Catholic sympathizer or else indifferent to religion. The theory that has gained currency in the last 10 to 15 years is that Elizabeth’s Protestantism was that of her stepmother Catherine Parr, the Evangelicals of Henry VIII’s court, and the Edwardine moderates – humanistic, unionistic, courtly. This certainly comports with the way in which she dealt with the Edwardine Settlement where all the modifications made to the 1552 Book of Common Prayer were in a conservative direction suggesting that those behind them were, at the very least, keen to reconcile conservative opinion. This put Elizabeth behind the curve as far as the development of English Protestantism was concerned. Much of the leadership had spent the previous reign in exile in Frankfurt, Strassburg, Zurich, Emden, and even Geneva and had become acquainted with a ‘hotter sort of Protestantism’ than the Evangelical Humanism of Elizabeth.[8] To their great chagrin, they found that Elizabeth was only prepared to make the smallest of concessions to them. She grudgingly allowed the bishops to give ground on vestments so that, outside of the Royal Court, the more elaborate vesture of the First BCP demanded by the Ornaments Rubric rapidly fell into disuse. She eventually authorized the Articles of Religion, but had the initial version of 1563 toned down to accommodate Philippist opinion – as evidenced by the suppression of Article 29, and an addition to Article 20 defending the authority of the Church to regulate rites and ceremonies.[9] It was only after the Revolt of the Northern Earls, and her excommunication by Pope Pius V, that Elizabeth allowed publication of Article 29, and required subscription not just from the clergy, but also from schoolmasters, and university graduates.

During the middle part of her reign – 1570 to 1590 – the influence of Ursinus and the Heidelberg Catechism, and Calvin was felt in the English Church. Ursinus, a disciple of Melanchthon and Bullinger, was widely read in the English Church. His humanistic spirit, and emphasis on Christ as the comfort of Christians made him a good fit for an English Church that had been influenced by Melanchthon, Butzer, and Bullinger. Calvin had finally attained “theological rock star” status in the late-1550s and his influence was certainly felt in the theological faculties in Oxford and Cambridge, but in terms of what was printed, and presumably purchased and read by the clergy both Bullinger’s ‘Decades’ and Ursinus’ ‘Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism’ outsold Calvin’s Institutes. By the late-1580s, there was a growing opposition to Calvinism among some of the younger academics in Cambridge. This opposition was centred on Peter Baro, a French theologian who had trained under Calvin in Geneva who had come to reject the more rigid interpretations of Predestination in favour of a position, like Melanchthon’s, which emphasized the role of God’s foreknowledge in Predestination. He also corresponded with Niels Hemmingsen,[10] the former Professor of Divinity at Copenhagen University, who had been fired for Philippism in 1579, and several other disciples of Melanchthon. Similar views were expressed by Lancelot Andrewes, John Overall, and others, formed the nucleus of the Anti-Calvinist party that emerged in the reign of James I. Similar views emerged among Oxford men such as Thomas Bilson, who advocated the Lutheran view of the Descensus, and defended Episcopacy in the 1580s and 1590s. Dewey points to the fact that throughout the 1600s Laudians, and later Latitudinarians – figures such as Peter Heylin, Herbert Thorndike, George Bull, and Simon Patrick – all evoke the moderate, judicious, irenic spirit of Melanchthon to both justify their own views as non-Calvinists, and to emphasize that they had not departed from Protestantism.

The divisions in English Protestantism in the reigns of Elizabeth I, James I, and Charles I reflect not a division between Reformed and Non-Reformed, but the three-way split within the English Reformed tradition between those who continue to be indirectly influenced by Melanchthon, those who embraced a developed Reformed theology, usually Calvinism, and those who embraced both Calvinism and Presbyterian government. The major bones of contention – predestination, the descensus, ceremonies, and church government – reflected internal Reformed tensions stemming from the ongoing influence of older more moderate (or if you prefer, less developed) forms of Reformed theology continuing to exert an influence during a period when Calvinism was first in the ascendent (1570-1610) and then significantly challenged (1610-1660). The Westminster Assembly of 1644 represents the belated victory of Anglo-Scottish Calvinism, but as far as the Church of England was concerned it was to prove a Pyrrhic victory. The changing academic climate in the English Universities brought a sharp decline in the influence of Calvinism after 1650, and the Restoration of the Monarchy and Episcopacy accelerated that decline. Coupled with a renewed emphasis on Reason in the 1660s and 1670s meant that by 1689 Calvinism was a minority position among senior Anglican clergy, and probably among the English clergy as a whole, though it did not disappear from the English Church altogether as the Calvinistic strain within eighteenth-century Anglican Evangelicalism demonstrates.


  1. Melanchthon’s Loci first appears in the English curriculum at Cambridge in 1535.
  2. Heinrich Heppe (1820-1879) has been described as a Melanchthonian liberal among nineteenth century Reformed theologians. He maintained in his account of the origins of the German Reformed tradition that it was an outgrowth of Philippism, rather than an import from the Swiss Confederation.
  3. see Henry Jacobs, “The Lutheran Movement in England” (1891)
  4. see Anthony Milton, “A missing dimension of European Influence on English Protestantism: The Heidelberg Catechism and the Church of England 1563-1663” (Reformation and Renaissance Review, 2018)
  5. Hirofumi Horie, “The Lutheran Influence on the Elizabethan Settlement, 1559-1563” (The Historical Journal, Vol. 34, No. 3, Cambridge, 1991)
  6. Martin Butzer (1491-1551) usually rendered Bucer in English. Born in Alsace and educated at Heidelberg. Was briefly a Dominican friar before embracing the Reformation first through the influence of Luther, then Zwingli and Oecelampadius. Settled in Strassburg 1524. After the Colloquy of Marburg, he attempted to find a way of reconciling the Lutheran and Reformed views on the Eucharist, and in the process developed the doctrine of the real, spiritual presence which finds its way into the English formularies, and the writings of Calvin. Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge 1549-51. Melanchthon was invited to be his successor at Cambridge.
  7. Heinrich Bullinger (1504-75,) Antistes of the Church of Zurich 1532-75. Came under Humanist influences at the University of Köln and was influenced by Luther and Melanchthon before aligning with Zwingli. Never a slavish follower of Zwingli, it was he, rather than his predecessor, who gave the Zurich Reformation its enduring form. Zurich was one of the cities of refuge for English Protestants under Mary I, and several prominent Elizabethan bishops, including John Jewel, came under Bullinger’s direct influence.
  8. Matthew Parker seems to have favoured a full reintroduction of the Edwardine Settlement, but his attempts to move in that direction in the 1563 Convocation were blocked through Court influence.
  9. The first clause of Article 20 appears in the English text of 1563, but not the Latin suggesting it originates in Court circles, not Convocation.
  10. Niels Hemmingsen (1513-1600) was a Danish priest educated at Wittenberg who came very much under the influence of Melanchthon. By the time Hemmingsen was appointed as a professor in the mid-1550s, the University of Copenhagen had been reformed along humanist lines, and the influence of Melanchthon, mediated through Bugenhagen and Peter Palladius, the Bishop of Sjaelland, was dominant, and was to remain so into the seventeenth century, although Philippist theology declined after Hemmingsen’s dismissal in 1579.


Peter D. Robinson

The Most Rev. Peter D. Robinson is the Presiding Bishop of the United Episcopal Church. He also serves as ordinary of the Missionary Diocese of the East and vicar of Good Shepherd Anglican Church in Waynesboro, Virginia.

'Melanchthon and Anglicanism' have 3 comments

  1. January 10, 2024 @ 12:52 am Wesley Mcgranor

    There you manipulative egg heads go again; with ignorant bookchins eager to be misinformed. Anglicanism was never Lutheran!


  2. January 12, 2024 @ 5:12 am Everyone

    Please make this site a +Peter Robinson stan account.


  3. January 12, 2024 @ 12:10 pm Seth Snyder

    Melanchthon’s thought and irenic spirit are an under-appreciated but valuable part of our Anglican heritage. Avante-garde conformism, Caroline divinity, and the non-jurors all owe a great deal to the learning, moderation, and piety of this great and humble Reformer. My thanks, Rev. Robinson, for drawing our attention to his worthy contribution to our tradition.


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