The Hampton Court Conference of 1604
By Chris Richards

This year marks the four hundredth anniversary of the Hampton Court Conference of 1604. There is one benefit of this Conference still enjoyed by countless thousands in the world today. All who are Bible readers have cause to look back to this conference with gratitude.

In the reign of Elizabeth I, the so called Elizabethan settlement of the Church of England was established. Queen Elizabeth sought to put in place a State church established by law. To achieve this the church was made to be as inclusive as possible within reformation principles. The teaching of Anglican and Lutheran Reformers being that unless a practice was condemned by Scripture it was allowable in the Church.

When Elizabeth came to the Throne, Protestants, who had fled during the reign of the persecuting Romanist Mary Tudor, returned. Many had found exile in Geneva and had adopted the teachings of the Calvinistic Reformation known as the “regulative principle.” This teaches that unless Scripture commends a practice it has no place in the Church. Those who held this view and pressed for a further reform of the Church of England became known as “Puritans.” Some realized Elizabeth would not allow any further reforms and started to worship apart from the Church of England. They became known as “Separatists.”

Elizabeth died without an heir so the succession passed to James VI of Scotland who had claim to the English Throne through his great-grandmother, Margaret, daughter of Henry VII. Many sections of society had great hopes when James came to the Throne in 1603.

The Conference is Called
Roman Catholics had hopes that James would favor them as his mother was the Romanist Mary Queen of Scots. They arranged for a petition on their behalf be sent from the King of France to the new English King. The Puritans also had hopes that James would favor a reform of the Church of England for James had been brought up in the Scots kirk (church). James would prove a disappointment to many as he upheld with vigor the Elizabethan settlement.

As James ascended the Throne many pleas and petitions were sent to him. The Puritan Petition, known as the Millenary Petition, was one he could not overlook. It was signed by 10% of all the clergy in England, thus having a thousand signatures and giving the name Millenary to the petition. It urged the King to set the Church in order, to rid the Church of the remnants of popery such as observing holy days, bowings and making the sign of the cross.

King James called for a meeting to discuss these matters. The Puritans were not allowed to send their own spokesman but James summoned four, John Rainolds, Laurence Chaderton, Thomas Sparke, and John Knewstubs. The Conference had to be postponed as the plague broke out in London. However, James summoned the Puritans to a Conference to be held on Monday 14th January, 1604 at Hampton Court Palace. The King and Court were at Hampton Court as it was far enough away from the plague area. They were concluding their Christmas festivities and these gave way to engaging the Puritans in debate.

On the second day of the Conference the Puritans were brought to the King’s chamber. The hostility of the monarch was evident. In support of the Church, as it was, were 50 clergy plus other Deans, Bishops, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Churchmen were dressed in their cleric robes, the Puritans in plain gowns. The Puritans stressed four points -

1) The Doctrine of the Church to be in purity according to God’s Word;
2) Good pastors be planted in churches to preach the same;
3) Church government to be ministered according to God’s Word;
4) The Book of Common Prayer might be suited more to the increase of piety.

The Conference Resolves
As the day progressed the King argued with the Puritans and no agreement was reached. James took up one matter on which he agreed with the Puritan’s opinion, this being on a new translation of the Bible. In home and study Protestants used the Geneva version of the Bible, while in church service lessons were read from the Bishop’s Bible.

Puritan and leading Hebrew scholar, Hugh Broughton, had called for a new translation of the Scriptures. A revision of the Bishop’s Bible which had been translated as recently as 1568 had already been made. James himself disliked the Geneva Bible because of its footnotes which upheld Presbyterian Church government and denied the absolute power of Kings known as the Divine Right of Kings.

The King ordered a new translation of the Scriptures to be made. Although the Puritans left the Conference gaining no reforms of the Church and no doubt somewhat dismayed, what they had gained they could not have foreseen.

The Result of the Conference
The authorization of the King for a translation of the Scriptures brought together around 48 godly scholars in three committees. The committees, meeting at Oxford, Cambridge, and Westminster, each took a section of the Bible. When they had completed their work of making a literal translation their colleagues then reviewed the translation made. Perhaps in no other period have men of such scholarship who were also men of faith been brought together in such a noble cause. The result was the Authorized Version of the Bible. As this version described itself, it was translated out of the original tongues and with the former translations diligently compared and revised by His Majesty’s special command. Countless millions since its publication in 1611 have cause to return thanks for the blessing that came from that Order at Hampton Court, not least we who are alive four hundred years later.

From the Reformer - May/June 2004

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