It may have been a marginal incident but it was in many ways a central and symbolic moment in the history of the English Reformation and of Jacobean England. Reduced to essentials, the struggle at the heart of the European Reformation had been the conflicting claims of word and of ceremony, of the verbal and the visual, of a naked and direct relationship to God through scripture against a mediated, elaborated and socialised approach through an ancient church, guided by tradition. And that was precisely the conflict that was in play at Scrooby. Surplices, the cross, bishops, authority, kneeling and all the elaboration of a symbolic religion were rejected in favour of the word. It was the word that drove them into prison, near-shipwreck, exile, and later, for many of them, struggle and an early death in the New World. The sheer wordiness of the Separatists' religion was extra-ordinary. In each four-hour service, several passages would be read from the Geneva Bible and then long, analytical expla-nations given of what they meant. Before any psalms were sung (without accompaniment) they too would be explained. Prose expanded to fill the time. After the psalms and after the readings, members of the congregation would then give their own in-terpretation of what the texts meant. All this was done standing up, after the practice of the primitive church. Very occasionally, a simplified form of communion and of adult baptism for new members of the church would be enacted but no Separatist was ever married in church, because there is no hint of a marriage ceremony in scripture and the primitive church had not con-sidered marriage a sacrament before AD 537.
The words of scripture, and an intellectual consideration of them, were the essence of Separatist Christianity and in many ways of Protestant Christianity itself. Some Separatist pastors took this one step further: if the Bible was the word of God, it was intended to be conveyed to men in its original languages. Every translation, however good, was bound to contain errors and so by definition could not be used. If God had spoken in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, then those were the languages in which he should be heard. John Smyth, originally from Gains-borough, but by 16o8 pastor of the Brethren of the Separation of the Second English Church at Amsterdam, its congregation made up of Lincolnshire farmers, decided that they needed to hear the scriptures in the original. One can only imagine the effect on the poor exiles from Gainsborough: hour on hour of Smyth reading out passages of Hebrew and Greek of which they had not the faintest understanding, desperately looking for the sanctity in this. Smyth was an eccentric — after realising that no other ecclesi-astical authority could be as pure as himself, he dunked himself in holy water and became famous as the Se-Baptizer or Self-Baptist — but his position is only a distortion and exaggeration of what everyone in Protestant Europe believed. John Reynolds, the moderate Oxford Puritan, had encouraged his students to read 'the Worde of God, and that, if it may be, ovt of the uerie well-spring, not out of the brookes of translacyons'. But even in translation, the word ruled. In early seventeenth-century Eng-land, endlessly and repetitively, the word of God was preached in the 8,000 or so pulpits across England. It was the ocean in which everyone swam. Attendance at sermons was compulsory. Many people would hear two or three on a Sunday in which every last echo of meaning would be squeezed from the words of the Bible.