Noll, Ch. 8: The English Act of Supremacy (1534 CE)

This chapter’s topic is the English Act of Supremacy in 1534, that Parliamentary action by which the English church and Henry VIII “officially” broke away from the Roman patriarchy of the Catholic Church.  As Noll effectively shows at the beginning of the chapter, this action was not in isolation from other things happening during this time. Rather, there was quite a bit of continuity from the “pre-Reformation times” with those that came during and after.

Also, Noll does a good job describing the different ways that Protestantism developed in the 16th century. It is easy for us to think of the Protestant movement as one “thing,” flowing directly from Martin Luther. But as Noll explains and shows, it really did vary quite a bit, depending on where one lived. Those differences are not the direct cause of our modern denominational situation, but they did play a part in it, and the various doctrinal and practical particularities do often still exist in our various churches today.

One other note, specifically for American readers: on p. 170, Noll says that the “general effect on Christendom” came through its effect on England, namely, the emergence of “self-consciously local, particular, and national forms of Christianity.” I would argue that there might be a second effect, one that came through England’s effect on the future United States. As many of you know, part of (but not all of) what drove some settlers to what became the English colonies in the “New World” was the promise of religious freedom. It’s hard to miss in that desire for freedom from overbearing superiors an echo of Henry’s push to be free from Rome. Is it possible that some of the seeds for the American Revolution were sown by an English king’s actions nearly 250 years before?

If you’d like to see more of what emerged from the Reformation in England, see the Thirty-Nine Articles of Queen Elizabeth I:  (Note: this text illustrates well the variety within Protestantism that Noll describes at the end of the chapter. For example:

  • articles 1-5 represent classic Christian orthodoxy
  • article 6 sounds quite Protestant, generally speaking
  • articles 11 and 17 take up issues dear to the hearts of Luther and Calvin, respectively
  • article 28 seems to reflect the Catholic doctrine of the real presence of Christ in Communion [although transubstantiation is repudiated]
  • article 39 seems to interact with Anabaptist teaching on oaths)

Here are some questions for everyone to discuss (international readers: feel free to adapt these to your native situation):

  1. Imagine the possibility of our President serving as the “Supreme Head of the Church of the United States.”  Aside from political concerns — where you may agree or disagree with the current President about this or that issue — how might that affect church life in America?  What are the possibilities?
  2. Noll notes that “worldly preoccupations” often entangled church leaders in the 15th and 16th centuries; further, the English Act of Supremacy was clearly as much about political as religious freedom.  Where do you see “worldly preoccupations” besetting modern American Christians?  Are we too involved in politics, or not enough?  Why?
  3. The English Act of Supremacy and its effects demonstrate how, when a specific church is “established” by the state, minority religions (and even expressions of the same faith) can be persecuted. Does knowing this history affect the way you think about the idea of a “separation between church and state”? How? Does it matter if one is a part of the dominant religious tradition, or one of those on the fringe?
  4. Late in the chapter, Noll describes conflicts that took place between the various state churches and the Christians called “Anabaptists.” As you read these sections, where did you find your sympathies? Were they with the radical, persecuted Anabaptists? Or with the more traditional, more prominent state churches? How do you think your religious background or present faith commitments shape your viewpoint?
  5. A recurring theme of the chapter is how Reformation Christianity preserved much from the late medieval period, while also striking out in new ways.  Imagine what Christianity in America will be like in 50 years — toward the end of your lifetime.  What will still be in place, in terms of church and spiritual life?  What do you think will/must change?
  6. Optional: Noll’s chapter describes two different types of humor being employed by Christians in this era: first, religious satire by Desiderius Erasmus, and then second, the sadistic “black humor” of those who drowned Anabaptists as a response to their desire for adult baptism. This intersection of religion and humor continues today on websites like (non-Christians poking fun at everyone, including religious people) and (Christians poking fun at themselves). When and how is humor appropriate in discussions of religious matters? When is it not?  (Side note: if you want some reactions to the site, see these two Christianity Today stories from years past:)

Image credits for Joos van Cleve’s portrait of Henry VIII and Henry A. Bacon’s The Landing of the Pilgrims and

Suggested next click: Chapter 9

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