John Milton and Religion

Pope Benedict XVI conducts the holy mass of Pentecost Sunday in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican

Milton took public stances on a great number of issues, but most important to the reading of Paradise Lost are his positions on religion. In Milton’s time, the Anglican Church, or Church of England, had split into the high Anglican, moderate Anglican, and Puritan or Presbyterian sects. Milton was a Presbyterian. This denomination called for the abolishment of bishops, an office that exists as part of the Catholic and Anglican churches. Milton, however, gradually took his views further, ultimately calling for the removal of all priests, whom he referred to as “hirelings.” Milton despised the corruption he saw in the Catholic Church, repeatedly attacking it both in his poetry and prose. In “Lycidas,” he likens Catholics to hungry wolves leaping into a sheep’s pen, an image similar to his depiction of Satan leaping over the wall of Paradise in Paradise Lost, Book IV. He saw few problems with the division of Protestants into more and smaller denominations. Instead, he thought that the fragmentation of churches was a sign of healthy self-examination, and believed that each individual Christian should be his own church, without any establishment to encumber him. These beliefs, expressed in a great number of pamphlets, prompted his break with the Presbyterians before 1650. From that point on, Milton advocated the complete abolishment of all church establishments, and kept his own private religion, close to the Calvinism practiced by Presbyterians but differing in some ways. Milton’s highly individual view of Christianity makes Paradise Lost simultaneously personal and universal.

In his later years, Milton came to view all organized Christian churches, whether Anglican, Catholic or Presbyterian, as an obstacle to true faith. He felt that the individual and his conscience (or “right reason”) was a much more powerful tool in interpreting the Word of God than the example set by a church. ThroughoutParadise Lost, Milton expresses the idea that Adam and Eve’s fall from grace was actually fortunate, because it gives individual human beings the opportunity to redeem themselves by true repentance and faith. The importance of remaining strong in one’s personal religious convictions, particularly in the face of widespread condemnation, is a major theme in the later Books of Paradise Lost,as Michael shows Adam the vision of Enoch and Noah, two followers of God who risk death to stand up for him.

Paradise Lost also presents a number of Protestant Christian positions: the union of the Old and New Testaments, the unworthiness of mankind, and the importance of Christ’s love in man’s salvation. Nonetheless, the poem does not present a unified, cohesive theory of Christian theology, nor does it attempt to identify disbelievers, redefine Christianity, or replace the Bible. Instead, Milton’s epic stands as a remarkable presentation of biblical stories meant to engage Christian readers and help them to be better Christians.


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