Basilicon Doron

I’ve been reading a lot of King James lately.  He’s been the vicitim of some pretty nasty characterizations over the years, and I’m sure he had his faults, but what is becoming increasingly clear is that the fact and sincerity of his religion was not one of those faults.  Indeed, he is clearly an Evangelical who takes his duty before God very seriously.  Here are a few selections from his Basilicon Doron, a book meant to instruct his son on how to govern the kingdom he would inherit.

He notes the sections of his book, especially those pertaining to his own faith:

To come then particularly to the matter of my Booke, there are two speciall great points, which (as I am informed) the malicious sort of men have detracted therein; and some of the honest sort have seemed a little to mistake: whereof the first and greatest is, that some sentences therein should seeme to furnish grounds to men, to doubt of my sinceritie in that Religion, which I have ever constantly professed… (King James VI and I Selected Writings. ed. Neil Rhodes et. al., 203)

Some of the more extreme preachers in James’s day had begun circulating the rumor that he was not actually a Christian.  His response is clear:

The first calumnie (most grievous indeed) is grounded upon the sharpe and bitter wordes, that therein are used in the description of the humors of Puritanes, and rash-headie Preachers, that thinke it their honour to contend with Kings, and perturbe whole kingdoms… (204)

James further explains his attitude towards the Puritans:

So as if there were no more to be looked into, but the very methode and order of the booke, it will sufficiently cleare me of that first and grievousest imputation, in the point of Religion: since in the first part, where Religion is onely treated of, I speake so plainely. And what in other parts I speake of Puritanes, it is onely of their morall faults, in that part where I speake of Policie: declaring when they contemne the Law and sovereigne authoritie, what exemplare punishment they deserve for the same. And now as to the matter it selfe whereupon this scandal is taken, that I may sufficiently satisfie all honest men, and by a just Apologie raise up a brasen wall or bulwarke against all the darts of the envious, I will the more narrowly rip up the words, whereat they seeme to be somewhat stomacked. (204)

Notice that James does not disagree with the Puritans’ theology in general.  He does not single out their soteriology or views of sacramental efficacy.  There’s no mention of predestination or justification.  James says that the Puritans have moral failings.  They break the law and reject the authorities.

James also considers the Puritans to be practical anabaptists.  They teach the same relationship of church and state, and they advocate rebellion against the civil authorities:

First then, as to the name of Puritanes, I am not ignorant that the style thereof doeth properly belong onely to that vile sect amongst the Anabaptists, called the Family of love; because they thinke themselves onely pure, and in a manner without sinne, the onely trew Church, and onely worthy to be participant of the Sacraments, and all the rest of the world to be but abomination in the sight of God. Of this speciall sect I principally meane, when I speake of Puritans; divers of them, as Browne, Penry and others, having at sundrie times come into Scotland, to sow their popple amongst us (and from my heart I wish, that they had left no schollers behinde them, who by their fruits will in the owne time be manifested) and partly indeede, I give this style to such brain-sicke and headie Preachers their disciples and followers, as refusing to be called of that sect, yet participate too much with their humours, in maintaining the above-mentioned errours; not onely agreeing with the generall rule of all Anabaptists, in the contempt of the civill Magistrate, and in leaning to their own dreams and revelations; but particularly with this sect, in accounting all men profane that sweare not to all their fantasies, in making for every particular question of the policie of the Church, as great commotion, as if the article of the Trinitie were called in controversie, in making the scriptures to be ruled by their conscience, and not their conscience by the Scripture; and he that denies the least jote of their grounds, sit tibi tanquam ethnicus & publicanus, not worthy to enjoy the benefitie of breathing, much less to participate with them of the Sacraments: and before that any of their grounds be impugned, let King, people, Law and all be trode underfoote: Such holy warres are to be preferred to an ungodly peace: no, in such cases Christian Princes are not onely to be resisted unto, but not to be prayed for, for prayer must come of Faith; and it is revealed to their consciences, that GOD will heare no prayers for such a Prince. Judge then, Christian Reader, if I wrong this sort of people, in giving them the stile of that sect, whose errours they imitate: and since they are contented to weare their liverie, let them not be ashamed to borrow also their name. It is onely of this kinde of men that in this booke I write so sharply; and whom I wish my Sonne to punish, in-case they refuse to obey the Law, and will not cease to sturre up a rebellion: Whom against I have written the more bitterly, in respect of divers famous libels, and injurious speaches spred by some of them, not onely dishonourably invective against all Christian Princes, but even reprochfull to our profession and Religion, in respect they are come out under coulour thereof: and yet were never answered but by Papists, who generally medle aswell against them, as the religion it selfe; whereby the skandale was rather doubled, than taken away. (204-206)

James is quick to point out that he does not have a quarrell with those who might hold the same worship and liturgical views of the Puritans, but do so privately and without sedition.  He allows for adiaphora:

But on the other part, I protest upon mine honour, I meane it not generally of all Preachers, or others, that like better of the single forme of policie in our Chruch, than of the many Ceremonies in the Church of England; that are perswaded, that their Bishops smell of a Papall supremacie, that the Surplise, the cornerd cap, and such like, are the outward badges of Popish errours. No, I am so farre from being contentious in these things (which for my owne part I ever esteemed as indifferent) as I doe equally love and honour the learned and grave men of either of these opinions. It can no ways become me to pronounce so lightly a sentence, in so old a controversie. Wee all (god be praised_ doe agree in the grounds; and the bitternesse of men upon such questions, doeth but trouble the peace of the Church; and gives advantage and entry to the Papists by our division: But towards them, I onely use this provision, that where the Law is otherwayes, they ay content themselves soberly and quietly with their owne opinions, not resisting to the authoritie, nor breaking the Law of the Countrey; neither above all, sturring any rebellion or schisme: but possessing their soules in peace, let them preasse by patience, and well grounded reasons, either to perswade all the rest to like of their judgments; or where they see better grounds on the other part, not to bee ashamed peaceably to incline thereunto, laying aside all praeoccupied opinions…(206)

Now this is James’s basic political disposition.  He detests both Papists and Puritans, for both taught that it was allowable, in certain circumstances, to rebel against political rulers, even to the point of advocating regicide.

James’s personal theology also comes out in the Basilicon Doron.  He believes that a king needs to be a Christian in order to govern best, and he points his son to the Holy Scriptures for his instruction:

As he cannot be thought worthy to rule and command others, that cannot rule and dantone his owne proper affections and unreasonable appetites, so can hee not be thought worthie to governe a Christian people, knowing and fearing God, that in his owne person and heart, feareth not and loveth not the Divine Majestie. Neither can any thing in his government succeed well with him, (devise and labour as he list) as coming from a filthie spring, if his person be unsanctified: for (as that royal Prophet saith) Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vaine that build it: except the Lord keepe the City, the keepers watch it in vaine: in respect to the blessing of God hath onely power to give the successe thereunto: and as Paul saith, he planteth, Apollos watereth; but it is God onely that giveth the increase. Therefore (my Sonne) first of all things, learne to know and love that God, whom-to ye have a double obligation; first, for that he made you a man; and next, for that he made you a little GOD to sit on his Throne, and rule over other men. Remember, that as in dignitie hee hat erected you above others, so ought ye in thankfulnesse towards him, goe as farre beyond all others. A moate in anothers eye, is a beame into yours: a blemish in another, is a leprouse byle into you: and a veniall sinne (as the Papists call it) in another, is a great crime into you… (210-211)

James is hermeneutically self-conscious as well, no doubt because of what he saw among the Puritans.  He warns his son:

Now, the onely way to bring you to this knowledge, is diligently to reade his worde, and earnestly to pray for the right understanding thereof… But above all, beware ye wrest not the worde to your owne appetite, as over many doe, making it like a belle to sound as ye please to interprete: but by the contrary, frame all your affections, to follow precisely the rule there set downe. (212)

James comments on the Scriptures. listing the books of the canon.  It is clear that he is not a Roman Catholic when he rejects the apochrypha:

As to the Apocyphe bookes, I omit them, because I am no Papist, as I said before; and indeed some of them are no wayes like the dytement of the Spirit of God.(213)

Finally James gives us his views on faith and salvation:

But because no man was able to keepe the Law, nor any part thereof, it pleased God of his infinite wisedome and goodnesse, to incarnate his only Sonne in our nature, for satisfaction of his justice in his suffering for us; that since we could not be saved by doing, we might at least, bee saved by believing.(213)

Now, as to Faith, which is the nourisher and quickner of Religion, as I have already said, It is a sure perswasion and apprehension of the promises of God, applying them to your soule: and therefore may it justly be called the golden chaine that linketh the faithfulle soule to Christ: And because it groweth not in our garden, but is the free gift of God, as the same Apostle saith, it must be nourished by prayer, Which is nothing else, but a friendly talkingwith God. (214)

Such a confession is wholly consistent with the magisterial Reformers.  James is clearly evangelical.

He also tells his son to read the Psalms, learning them carefully, and to pray regularly.  Regular piety is essential for the King’s personal religion and public ability.

This entry was posted in King James by Steven Wedgeworth. Bookmark the permalink.

About Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

2 thoughts on “Basilicon Doron

  1. An excellent selection, Steven. Thanks! Currently, I’m reading C. V. Wedgwood’s Trial of Charles I and am gratified to find that most Presbyterians remained loyal to their earthly sovereign. If only there had been less rigidity on the part of Archbishop Laud and more accomodation to key “low church” parties, there might still be godly monarchs like James today. I’m wondering, however, if there was some “original sin” that doomed such efforts from the beginning.

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