Religious Liberty, the Legacy of Henry VIII

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Religious Liberty, the Legacy of Henry VIII

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This month marks the 500th anniversary of England's most famous monarch's ascension to the throne.

Henry VIII became king on April 21st, 1509, succeeding his father, Henry VII, who was the first of the Tudor dynasty. The dynasty ended with the death of Henry's daughter Elizabeth I, arguably England's greatest monarch.

He was most famous for having six wives. When European leaders met in Henry's Hampton Court Palace some time ago, the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair welcomed them all with the introductory remark: "As Henry VIII said to his six wives, 'I won't keep you long!'"

But his reign was far from humorous. And its significance continues to this day throughout the English speaking world. For without Henry (and his daughter Elizabeth I), we might never have had religious freedom.

Henry's reign coincided with the Protestant Reformation, led by Martin Luther. Henry was appalled at Luther's criticisms of the church. He quickly came to the defense of the Papacy, publishing a book on the Sacraments that criticized Luther. For this he was awarded the title: "Defender of the Faith."

It wasn't long, though, before Henry himself clashed with Rome. Married to Catherine of Aragon, Henry had no male heir, for which he blamed his wife. He petitioned the pope for a divorce but was refused, mostly because the pope was a virtual prisoner of Catherine's nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Since Henry could not get his own way, he had himself proclaimed the head of the Church of England which eventually led to a total severing of the tie with Rome.

Henry did finally have a son by his third wife, Jane Seymour. Edward VI became king in 1547 at the age of 10 but died at 16 and was succeeded by his stepsister Mary, a Catholic zealot who persecuted Protestants. Mary died in 1558 and was succeeded by her stepsister Elizabeth, a Protestant who stood up to Rome and secured the Protestant Reformation. Realizing the need for England to turn its back on the continent of Europe, Elizabeth laid the foundation of the British Empire.

Thanks to her and her father, the English speaking world has known religious freedom for as long as anybody can remember.

Fearful of losing religious freedom, colonial America was "Protestant and virulently anti-Catholic" wrote American historian Brendan McConville in The King's Three Faces (page 7).
Historic fears of Catholicism led to anti-Catholic riots in Philadelphia in 1844.

Anti-Catholic sentiment continued until fairly recent times. John Kennedy's Catholicism was a major issue in the election of 1960 with many fearful that he would take his orders from Rome. President Carter refused to address the Pope as "His Holiness" when the latter visited the United States in 1979.

So it's indeed ironic that today we see so many intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic converting to the Church of Rome. The latest two famous converts are England's Tony Blair and U.S. Congressman Newt Gingrich. This trend is highlighted in the latest issue of the Catholic intellectual magazine Faith and Reason.

Reasons for changing allegiance are not difficult to fathom. Many Protestant churches are largely in disarray, unsure of what they believe. So many conservatives are looking elsewhere.

Attitudes toward Rome have changed substantially in the United States, Britain and Australia in the last few decades. In the 1950s there was great distrust of Rome, as many considered Pope Pius XII (1939-58) a Nazi collaborator. It would have been unthinkable then that 5 out of 9 U.S. Supreme Court justices today would be Catholics, including the Chief Justice. Even in England, five centuries after Henry there are moves to allow a Catholic to once again sit on the throne.

Returning to Rome could have significant political consequences just as great as Henry's severance of allegiance toward the Eternal City. The revival of the Church of Rome at this time seems of particular interest in light of biblical prophecies about an end-time revival of the Roman Empire led by a political "Beast" and a spiritual "False Prophet."

The 17th chapter of Revelation is a prophetic account of a church-state relationship that will lead to a modern restoration of the Roman Empire's model of governing. It explicitly states: "The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits" (verse 9).

This church-state relationship is described in verse 2 as one of "fornication" in which the church (the woman) plays a major role in this end time prophecy. The final revival of this religious-political system is set to take place immediately before Christ's return (verses 10-14).

For a fuller explanation of how these events will affect your life simply download or request our free booklet, The Book of Revelation Unveiled.