In this episode, we’ll take a look at English Puritanism.
In Episode 96, Title English Candles, we consider the arrival of the Reformation in England and the career of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of the Anglican Church. When Catholic Mary became Queen, she persecuted Protestants. But when Elizabeth ascended the English throne a new day dawned for the Reformation there.
Queen Elizabeth followed an median course between conservatives who sought to retain as much of the ancient practices & beliefs as possible, and the Calvinists who believed the entire life and structure of the church ought to adjust to what they saw as the Biblical norm. During Elizabeth’s reign, that delicate balance was maintained; but tensions surfaced repeatedly. Her strength and decisiveness restrained them, just barely.
Elizabeth left no heir when she died in 1603. But she’d made arrangements for the succession to pass to the son of Mary Stuart, James, who was already king of Scotland. The transition was fairly smooth, bringing the House of Stuart to reign over England. The new king—James VI of Scotland became James I of England. He did not find ruling his new realm and easy matter. The English regarded Jams as a foreigner. His plan to unite both kingdoms earned him numerous opponents on both sides.
Elizabeth’s economic reforms were bearing fruit. So the merchant class, who resented the James’ royalist policies favoring the nobility, became increasingly powerful. But James’s greatest troubles were with those Protestants who wanted the Reformation to go further in altering the English Church. They viewed the king as standing in the way. Scotland had moved further along that Reformation Road under the work of John Knox. English Calvinists felt that the time was ripe for similar changes in their land.
These Reformers didn’t comprise a single group, nor did they agree on all matters. That’s why it’s difficult to describe them in general terms. They were given the name Puritans because they insisted on the need to purify the Church through a return to the pattern the Bible gives. They opposed many of the traditional aspects of worship the Church of England retained; like, the use of the Cross, priestly garments, & the celebration of communion on an altar. They differed over whether there even ought to be an altar; wasn’t a simple table good enough? And if a table, should it be placed so as not to give anyone the idea it WAS an altar. Things like this led to some bitter rows.
Puritans insisted on the need for a sober life, guided by the commands of Scripture, and abstinence from luxury and ostentatious displays of wealth. Since a great deal of the worship of the Church of England appeared to them as needlessly elaborate, this caused further objection to such worship. Many insisted on the need to keep the Lord’s Day sacred, devoting it exclusively to religious exercises and charity. They also rejected the Book of Common Prayer and the use of written prayers in general, declaring such led to insincerity, so that even the Lord’s Prayer, rather than a set of words to be repeated, was to be used as a model for prayer. They weren’t opposed to the use of alcohol, for most of them drank moderately, but they were quite critical of drunkenness. They were also critical of all that they considered licentious; like the theater, because immorality was often depicted & the inherent duplicity in acting. They considered acting a kind of lying because someone pretended to be someone else.
It’s this tone of super-critical Puritanism that would much later move HL Mencken to describe Puritanism as, “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
A precise definition of Puritanism has been a matter much debate. That’s due in part to Puritanism’s multifaceted influence in not only religious & theological matters but in its participation in England’s political and social spheres.
Some of the difficulty in defining Puritanism comes from the many caricatures of it that began all the way back in the 16th C. As with so many of the labels that have been attributed to movements in Church History, the word “Puritan” was originally a slam applied by critics in the 1560s. They considered Puritans to be peevish, censorious, conceited hypocrites. It seems that rep stuck to them, at least in the minds of some, all the way into modern times.
There was a rather surprising diversity among Puritans. They shared a common theological confession, while differing on how the Church itself ought to be organized. Some Puritans thought the existing Anglican hierarchy of bishops was fine while others wanted to restructure the Church along more Presbyterian lines. Still other Puritans embraced a congregational form of government. Some advocated separation from the established church, while others remained. Some were royalist, others revolutionary, even to the point of regicide. While Puritans differed in worship styles & expressions of piety, they ALL wanted the English Church to more closely resemble the Reformed churches on the Continent.
Many Puritans were opposed to bishops. They argued that the highly structure church hierarchy of the Church of England was a late invention, not found in the Bible. They said the Church ought to look to Scripture as its constitution not only for doctrine, but also in its organization and governance. Moderate Puritans responded that the Bible didn’t actually give a pattern for some specific form of Church government. What it had were principles that could be applied in different ways. Others insisted that the New Testament Church was ruled by elders called “presbyters.” Still others claimed each congregation ought to be independent of others. These were dubbed “Independents.”
The Baptists rose mostly among these independents. One of their early leaders was John Smyth, an Anglican priest who decided The Church of England had not gone far enough in reformation. He established an independent, and at that time, illegal, congregation. As it grew, Smyth and his followers fled to Amsterdam. There he continued his study of the Bible, and came to the point of refusing to use translations of the Bible in worship, for only the original text had absolute authority. At church, he would read Scripture in Hebrew or Greek, and translate the text as he preached. Partly through his study of Scripture, and partly through contact with the Mennonites—whose pacifism and refusal to take oaths he adopted—he eventually became convinced that infant baptism was wrong. He then re-baptized himself with a bucket & ladle. Then he baptized his followers.
The move of Smyth and his flock to Holland was financed by a wealthy lawyer named Thomas Helwys, eventually broke with Smyth. The point of contention was over the taking of vows. Smyth rejected any form of vow while, as a lawyer, Helwys considered basic to social order. Helwys and his followers returned to England, where in 1611 they founded the first Baptist Church in England.
Eventually, a disagreement arose among English Baptists over theological issues similar to those that had risen between Calvinists and Arminianists. Those who favored the Arminian slant were called “General Baptists” while Calvinist-leaning Baptists were referred to as “Particular Baptists.”
The balance Elizabeth had managed to maintain in the Church of England began to wobble under James. While its theology was moderately Calvinist, its worship and governance followed the older order. Puritans feared that movement was under way to return to what they called “Romanism.”
Puritans didn’t trust the new king, whose mother was none other than the Catholic Mary Stuart, AKA Mary, Queen of Scots, who’d been executed by Elizabeth on the charge of treason in plotting to assassinate Elizabeth and take her throne. James didn’t favor Catholicism though they assumed he would and hoped to gain concessions. They were repeatedly disappointed. James’ goal was an absolute monarchy as in France. In Scotland, his Presbyterian subjects hadn’t allowed him to reign as he wished. He thought his chances for absolutism were better in the South. To that end he strengthened the bishops of the English Church as a prop to his own power. He declared, “Without bishops, there is no king,” meaning monarchy is better supported by an hierarchical structure for the church.
James’ religious policy was similar to Elizabeth’s. The Anabaptists were persecuted because James was deeply offended by their egalitarianism that threatened to up-end English society. For goodness sake; we can’t have peasants thinking they’re as important as nobles. What a catastrophe if humble commoners mixed with blue bloods. So the Anabaptists with their calling everyone “brother” & “sister” had to be repressed. They were – brutally. And Catholics, who thought James would be their guy, were regarded by him as agents of the Pope, who everyone knew wanted to get rid of James. James said if the pope acknowledged his right to rule & condemned regicide, which a few of the more extreme English Catholics suggested, James would tolerate the presence of Catholics. Presbyterians, whom the king had come to hate in Scotland, were barely tolerated in England, James even granting them minor concessions, but only to keep them from making trouble.
Tension between Anglican bishops and Puritans grew to a boil during James’s reign. In 1604, Richard Bancroft, archbishop of Canterbury, had a series of canons approved affirming that episcopal hierarchy as an institution of divine origin, and that without it there could be no true church. This rejected many Protestant churches in Europe that had no bishops. Puritans saw it as provoking a showdown between themselves and the Church of England. Some took it even further – as a preparation by the Church of England to reunite with Rome. Several other canons were clearly directed against Puritans.
James called Parliament to sit for the approval of new taxes to complete some of England’s projects. The House of Commons included many Puritans who joined others in an appeal to the king against Bancroft’s canons. James convened a committee at Hampton Court to consider the canons, over which he presided. When one of the Puritans made reference to the church being governed by a “presbytery,” James announced there would be no closer connection between the monarchy and a presbytery than there COULD be between God and the Devil. All attempts at compromise failed. The only result of meeting was that a new translation of the Bible was approved. It appeared in 1611 and is known today as the KJV. Produced at the high point of the English language, along with the Book of Common Prayer—it became a classic that profoundly influenced later English literature.
This all marks the beginning of a growing hostility between the House of Commons and the bishops of the Church of England.
Late in 1605, what’s known as the Gunpowder Plot was discovered. A repressive law against Catholics was issued the previous year on the pretext they were loyal to the pope rather than the king. The real purpose of the law was to collect funds. Authorities used it to impose heavy fines and confiscate property. Many Catholics came to the conclusion the solution was to be rid of the king. A property was rented whose cellars extended below the room where Parliament met. Several wine barrels were filled with gunpowder & set under the room. The plan was to detonate them as the king opened Parliament. This would rid England of James & many Puritans leaders. The plot was discovered; the conspirators executed. This unleashed a wave of anti-catholic sentiment in England that saw many of them arrested and imprisoned. James used the whole affairs a way to lay heavy fines on Catholics and confiscate more property.
After those first years of his reign, James tried to rule without Parliament. But it was needed in English law to impose new taxes. So in 1614, when his finances were desperate, James relented and again convened Parliament. New elections brought in a House of Commons even more stubborn than the previous. So James dissolved it and again tried to rule without it. He turned to the few tariffs he could levy without Parliament’s approval. He borrowed from bishops and nobility.
Then the Thirty Years’ War broke out. Frederick, King of Bohemia, was James’s son-in-law. But James offered no support. English Protestants charged James a traitor & coward. James replied that he WANTED to help, but that the Puritans held the purse and war is expensive! Finally, in 1621, James re-convened Parliament, hoping the House of Commons would agree to new taxes with the proviso some, at least, of the revenue would support German Protestants in the war. But it was discovered James planned to marry his son and the heir to England’s throne to a Spanish princess, a Catholic Hapsburg! Such an alliance was regarded by the Puritans as an abomination! So James once again dissolved the House of Commons and arrested several of its leaders. The marriage plans were abandoned for other reasons, and in 1624 James once again called a meeting of Parliament, only to dissolve it anew without obtaining the funds he required. Shortly thereafter, the king died, and was succeeded by his son Charles, who seems to have been a good student of his father’s routine with Parliament.
English Puritans welcomed King Charles I to his throne with less enthusiasm than they had his father. Charles said that kings are “little Gods on Earth.” Puritans knew this didn’t bode well for their future relations with him. Nor did it help that Charles immediately married a Roman Catholic princess, Henrietta-Marie de Bourbon. This raised the specter of a Catholic heir to the English throne.
The relationship between the Crown and the mostly Puritan Parliament went from bad to worse. Puritan antagonism toward the King rose in 1633 when the King appointed William Laud as archbishop of Canterbury. Laud embarked on a policy of High Anglicanism with a strong sacramentalism & a theological slant toward Arminianism that tweaked the Calvinist Puritans.
In what proved his undoing, Charles tried to impose on the Scottish Church the Anglican Book of Common Prayer in 1637, which one Scot called the “vomit of Romish superstition.” When marketplace grocer named Jenny Geddes heard the dean of St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh read from the new prayer book, she stood up and threw her stool at him, yelling, “Devil cause you colic in your stomach, false thief: dare you say the Mass in my ear?”
Yep – them Scots! Peaceful lot they are. Which, I get to say, because I am one.
Jenny’s reaction was a foretaste of a brewing rebellion. Riots broke out in Edinburgh, and in early 1638, the Scottish formalized their opposition to King Charles innovation by establishing the National Covenant. Many signed it in their own blood, making it clear they’d die before submitting to Laud’s Anglicanism. Charles led 2 military campaigns, known as the Bishops’ Wars (1639–40), in an effort to quell the Scottish rebellion. Both were turned back.
The Scottish army then occupied northern England and threatened to march south. In November 1640 King Charles HAD to once again convene Parliament. Never had there been a body more hostile to the king. They immediately passed a law forbidding him to dissolve it without its consent. This came to be known as the “Long Parliament,” since it stayed in session for 20 yrs.
Archbishop Laud was charged with treason & imprisoned in the Tower of London.
The conflict between King and Parliament reached a boiling point. Charles was convinced Puritan members of Parliament had committed treason by conspiring with the Scots to invade England. Charles, accompanied by 400 soldiers, burst into the House of Commons in January 1642, planning to dramatically arrest them. But the men had been warned & fled. This attack on Parliament by armed troops was an egregious violation of British rights. Charles realized his error and a few days later, fearing now for his own safety, fled London.
We’ll pick it up at this point in our next Episode.