Introduction/disclaimer: It is very difficult to pin down the Puritans. They are not a monolithic movement. They are diverse and have diverse motivations. It is hard to find people who agree about when they started and when they finished and what they believed exactly. I have done my best to paint an accurate picture of them – but you could probably talk about them for an age. Probably the best way to get to know the Puritans is just to read a book written by one of them – I will talk more about that later.
Puritans in popular culture
Nathanial Hawthorn – depicts Puritanism as characterized by cruelty and intolerance. His writing is fuelled by his complicated relationship with his own family.
William Hathorne, the author's great-great-great-grandfather, was a Puritan and the first of the family to emigrate from England. He settled in Dorchester, Massachusetts, before moving to Salem. There he became an important member of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and held many political positions, including magistrate and judge, becoming infamous for his harsh sentencing. William's son and the author's great-great-grandfather John Hathorne was one of the judges who oversaw the Salem witch trials. (a series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft. More than two hundred people were accused. Thirty were found guilty, nineteen of whom were executed by hanging (fourteen women and five men).)
The Scarlet Letter – a woman (Hester) commits adultery – has a child with an unknown man. She is imprisoned and must wear a Scarlet A for the remainder of her life. Lots of his work shows hypocritical or cruel church clergy, a legalistic focus and general rule of terror by the church. This idea of the Puritans has permeated through our culture – many must read The Scarlet Letter in schools, where there is little dispute that Puritans were pretty much the worst.
A more modern example can be seen in the Wolfwalkers, recent Irish animated movie by Cartoon Saloon in Kilkenny. It shows a very Puritan looking & sounding ‘Lord Protector’ who is determined to destroy all wolves in the area, at whatever cost, with the strong conviction that he is doing the will of God, and bears God’s authoritative stamp of approval on all his acts of destruction.
Even the kindest pop culture ideas of the Puritans represent them as a bit stuffy at best. They are holy, pious, pray a lot and don’t really do much else.
A quote I found while researching from H. L. Mencken : “ Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
2) Who were the Puritans?
So, who were the Puritans, really?
As I have mentioned, they can be a little difficult to pin down, particularly as the Puritans did not typically use this term to describe themselves.
J. I. Packer defines Puritanism as the movement in 16th and 17th century England which sought further reformation and renewal in the Church of England than the current government (Elizabethan) allowed. The word ‘Puritan’ was a term of contemptuous abuse used between 1564 and 1642. It implied peevishness, a desire to censor, conceit, hypocrisy and religious discontent. It applied to five different groups of people:
1) clergy who were concerned by some Prayer Book ceremonies and phrasing (Church of England practices)
2) advocates of the Presbyterian reform programme by Thomas Cartwright
3) clergy and laity who practiced serious Calvinist piety
4) ‘rigid Calvinists’ who applauded the Synod of Dort and were called doctrinal Puritans by other Anglicans who did not
(Synod of Dort, assembly of the Reformed Church of the Netherlands that met at Dort (in full Dordrecht) from Nov. 13, 1618, to May 9, 1619. The synod tried to settle disputes concerning Arminianism (belief that humanity has the will to choose God). The doctrines affirmed were that predestination is not conditional on belief; that Christ did not die for all; the total depravity of man; the irresistible grace of God; and the impossibility of falling from grace.)
5) MPs, (politicians) JPs (justices of the peace), and other gentry who showed respect for the things of God, the laws of England and the rights of subjects.
Puritans called themselves: "the godly", "saints", "professors", or "God's children" (not Puritans)
The basic issue Puritans had with the Church (of England) was that the reformation hadn’t gone far enough. They wanted to “purify” the Church of England of remnants of the Roman Catholic “popery” that the Puritans claimed had been retained. By doing so, they hoped to realise a New Testament based true and authentic church. They wanted to reshape Anglican worship, introduce effective church discipline, establish righteousness in the political, domestic and socio-economic fields and to convert all English men to a vigorous evangelical faith.
But what was the problem with the Anglican church?
Ten years after the conclusion of the English Reformation the church was in a bad way. (The conclusion was called the Elizabethan Settlement, the name for the religious and political arrangements made for England during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558–1603)) The church lacked money & men.
Ignorance of mid 16th century clergy:
Bishop Hooper’s enquiry into his dioceses in 1551:
1) How many commandments are there?
2) Where are they to be found?
3) Repeat them.
4) What are the articles of the Christian faith?
5) Prove them from Scripture?
6) Repeat the Lord’s Prayer.
7) How do you know it is the Lord’s?
8) Where is it to be found?
311 examined. Only 50 could answer these questions, 19 of them did poorly. Ten did not know the Lord’s prayer and 8 didn’t answer a single question.
The way the Puritans saw it, England professed a Reformed Protestant Religion and came obediently to church on Sundays (it was illegal not to) but England was not yet converted.
Campaigners wanted to remove 4 ceremonies from the prayer book:
- Clergymans surplice (priest’s tunic/white dress)
- Wedding ring
- Tracing the cross on the forehead in baptism
- Kneeling at holy communion
- Endorsed medieval superstitions that clergy are mediating priests: Puritan preachers preferred black academic attire
- Reinforced that Marriage is a sacrament (not true a la puritan)
- Reinforced that Baptism is magic
- Asserted that Transubstantiation is true
Many Puritans also felt that what England needed was pastoral care, someone to teach the flock and evangelise with compassion.
Now, some Puritans felt the best way to serve God was to leave England altogether; these became the US Puritans.
These Puritans left for New England, particularly from 1629 to 1640, supporting the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and other settlements among the northern colonies. The large-scale Puritan immigration to New England stopped by 1641, with around 21,000 having moved across the Atlantic. Although many returned to England shortly after arriving on the continent, these immigrants produced more than 16 million descendants.
The New England Puritans created their new society according to the framework of the church. Only the elect could vote and rule. When this raised problems for second-generation residents, they adopted the Half-Way Covenant, which permitted baptized, moral, and orthodox persons to share the privileges of church membership. This sort of thinking led to the kinds of problems which sparked Nathaniel Hawthorne’s contempt.
3) What did they believe?
According to those more sympathetic to the Puritans than Nathaniel Hawthorn, Puritanism was at heart a spiritual movement that was passionately concerned with God and godliness.
Some say it began in England with Willian Tyndale the Bible translator, Luther’s contemporary, a generation before the term ‘Puritan’ was coined and continued until the end of the 17th century, some decades after the term had gone out of use.
It was a movement for church reform, but also pastoral renewal and revival, evangelism and spiritual revival.
Since we have not covered Tyndale so far, I will go through a brief overview as he is an important figure and helpful to understanding the Puritan way of thinking.
William Tyndale: born c. 1490–94, near Gloucestershire, England
Tyndale was educated at the University of Oxford and became an instructor at the University of Cambridge. He was a gifted linguist and became fluent over the years in French, Greek, Hebrew, German, Italian, Latin, and Spanish, in addition to English.
He is reported to have had an argument with a "learned but blasphemous clergyman", who allegedly asserted: "We had better be without God's laws than the Pope's.", to which Tyndale responded: "I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!
In 1521 Tyndale became convinced that the Bible alone should determine the practices and doctrines of the church and that every believer should be able to read the Bible in his own language.
He left for London in 1523 to seek permission to translate the Bible into English: no luck.
He went to Germany in 1524, receiving financial support from wealthy London merchants. His New Testament translation was completed in July 1525 and printed at Cologne and then, when Catholic authorities suppressed it, at Worms. The first copies reached England in 1526. Tyndale then began work on an Old Testament translation but was captured in Antwerp before it was completed.
He was held prisoner in Belgium, tried on a charge of heresy in 1536 and was found guilty and condemned to be strangled to death and then burned at the stake.
About 3,000 copies of his NT were in circulation at the time of his death. Some copies were smuggled into England and sold there, but owning a copy of Tyndale’s New Testament still attracted the death penalty. Most copies were therefore destroyed by the authorities, who regarded the distribution of the New Testament in English as a danger to the established Church. Today, only three copies of this 1526 edition of Tyndale’s New Testament are known to survive.
His later edition of the NT was designed to make it easier to conceal for transport from Germany to England and for people to carry around with them. For the first time, large numbers of ordinary people were given access to the New Testament in simple everyday language.
When Tyndale translated the Bible, he was keen to use a language that everyone in society could understand and thus he constructed very vivid sentences using active language. The impact of his translation has been lasting, and some of the phrases Tyndale coined are still in use today in our everyday language, such as ‘the powers that be’, ‘eat, drink and be merry’, ‘the spirit is willing’ or ‘fight the good fight’. Most people, however, don’t realise that these phrases come from Tyndale.
Without the introduction of printing with moveable type (the printing press) in the Western world by Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz in the 1450s, Tyndale’s work would not have spread so quickly.
Once the floodgates had been opened and people had become used to hearing the Word of God in English, the authorities realised that there was no going back and began to publish authorised editions.
As the first vernacular English text of any part of the Bible to be published, Tyndale’s version became the basis for most subsequent English translations, including the King James Version of 1611.
How is this relevant to the Puritans?
Tyndale is sometimes called ‘the first Puritan’ because he was the first person to disobey the British crown for the advancement of English Protestantism.
It is probably more accurate to call him an ancestor of the Puritans, though – and a man who helped to shape the thought of the Puritans as someone who believed every man should be able to read and understand the Bible for himself.
In his 1530 prologue to Genesis he wrote:
“The Scripture is a light, and sheweth us the true way, both what to do and what to hope for; and a defence from all error, and a comfort in adversity that we despair not, and feareth us in prosperity that we sin not.”
The Puritans too were very concerned that the every day man should know God, and be taught well. They believed firmly in the importance of scripture over Church tradition.
Theologically, the Puritans followed Calvin: preaching human depravity, divine sovereignty and predestination. Calvinism provided the lens through which most Puritans read the Bible and understood the Lord’s will.
However, Puritanism is not completely monolithic theologically – it is better to take one Puritan and a time.
Some argue that it is better to understand Puritanism as a moral force rather than a theological one: such as regular church attendance, sexual propriety, rejection of gambling and profanity. But again, hold this lightly.
The moral and religious earnestness that was characteristic of Puritans was combined with the doctrine of predestination inherited from Calvinism to produce a “covenant theology,” a sense of themselves as the elect chosen by God to live godly lives both as individuals and as a community. (This is the ‘elect’ who were given voting rights in the US colonies.)
I think, however, the best way to understand the spirit of the Puritans is to take a closer look at one.
Richard Sibbes (or Sibbs) (1577–1635)
was an Anglican theologian and is known as a representative of what has been called "main-line" Puritanism because he remained in the Church of England and worshiped according to the Book of Common Prayer.
- SCHOLAR: Many of the Puritans prized education and were themselves highly educated. They also educated their children to a higher level than their peers. (particularly the Puritans who moved to America) They wanted their children to be able to read the Bible themselves, and interpret it themselves.
- The Puritans in the Colonies almost immediately after arriving in 1630, set up schools for their sons. They also set up what were called dame schools for their daughters, and in other cases taught their daughters at home how to read. As a result, Puritans were one of the most literate societies in the world.
- The Puritans also set up Harvard University only six years after arriving in the United States.
Sibbes attended St John's College, Cambridge from 1595. He was lecturer at Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge. He was then preacher at Gray's Inn, London, from 1617, returning to Cambridge as Master of Catherine Hall in 1626, without giving up the London position.
- PREACHER: As part of the reform Puritans wanted to see, they wanted better preaching – preaching the gospel. In place of Anglican rituals, the Puritans emphasized preaching that drew on images from scripture and from everyday experience. (a reaction against the lack of knowledge displayed by our aforementioned clergy)
In 1626, the support group known as the Feoffees for Impropriations was set up, and Sibbes was a founding member. Through this group, he worked with others to fund and provide platforms for preachers. This allowed Puritan nominees to take over ministerial and lecturing positions. (basically – providing funding to Puritan preachers and speakers). Sibbes was one of four ministers, the other members being chosen as four lawyers and four laymen.
Feoffees: a trustee invested with a freehold estate to hold in possession for a purpose, typically a charitable one.
- WRITER: Puritans wrote. Lots. Most of their writings are sermons expounding Scripture by the characteristic Puritan method of ‘doctrine, reason and use’. They are called ‘affectionate’ and ‘practical’ because they intended not just to inform, but to make men feel the force of truth and show them how to respond to it. They are known as ‘physicians of the soul’. They worked diligently to ensure that their ministry would be fruitful.
Sibbes was the author of several devotional works – The Saint's Cordial (1629), The Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax (1631, exegesis of Isaiah 42:3), The Soules Conflict (1635). He is known as the sweet dropper because he has a gift for dropping little pearls of wisdom into his works.
The Bruised Reed is his most famous. It is an exploration of Isaiah 42:3 – “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” – a prophesy about Jesus.
In Sibbes book, we are the bruised reeds and smoldering wicks, and Christ will neither break us nor snuff us out, but instead he will breathe grace into us. This beautiful image is elaborated on over the course of the book. Here are some excepts for a flavour:
“There is more mercy in Christ than sin in us.”
“Physicians, though they put their patients to much pain, will not destroy their nature, but will raise it up by degrees. Surgeons will pierce and cut but not mutilate. A mother who has a sick and self-willed child will not cast it away for this reason. And shall there be more mercy in the stream than there is in the spring? Shall we think there is more mercy in ourselves than in God, who plants the feeling of mercy in us?”
“Here see the opposite disposition between the holy nature of Christ, and the impure nature of man. Man for a little smoke will quench the light; Christ ever we see cherisheth even the least beginnings. How bare he with the many imperfections of his poor disciples. If he did sharply check them, it was in love, and that they might shine the brighter. Can we have a better pattern to follow than this of him by whom we hope to be saved?”
Throughout his book, Sibbes shows us a very strong and powerful view of grace. And I think that is the best way to think of the Puritans. His writing is humble, yet speaks with authority. He is preaching Christ, showing us how great Christ’s love is and how deep his grace. Man for a little smoke will quench the light, but Christ cherishes us no matter how tiny our faith.
4) So why did they get a bad rep?
Unfortunately, when Puritans got involved in politics, their grace did not extend to everyone.
By the late 1630s, Puritans were in alliance with the growing commercial world, with the parliamentary opposition to the royal prerogative, and with the Scottish Presbyterians with whom they had much in common.
Consequently, they became a major political force in England and came to power as a result of the First English Civil War (1642–1646).
From 1649 to 1660, Puritans in the Commonwealth of England were allied to the state power held by the military regime, headed by Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell until his death in 1658. (remember him from Wolfwalkers?)
Oliver Cromwell was often described as an ‘advocate for religious liberty’ unless of course you were a Catholic. This was because there was no longer a legal requirement to attend the parish church on Sundays (for both Protestants and Catholics). In 1653, responsibility for recording births, marriages and deaths was transferred from the church to a civil registrar. As we have spoken about in previous weeks, combining state records with church records caused difficulties for those who did not believe in baptism at birth, for example. Cromwell’s religious liberty allowed greater freedom for several groups of Christians.
However, if any of you went to school in Ireland you will be well schooled in Cromwell’s less celebrated side. He legacy is summed up by James Joyce in his question: “What about sanctimonious Cromwell and his ironsides that put the women and children of Drogheda to the sword with the Bible text "God is love" pasted round the mouth of his cannon?”, referring to a massacre of civilians ordered by Cromwell in Ireland, after which Cromwell wrote: “I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches.”
His legacy has lived on in Ireland for many years since his death.
On a less sombre note:
A fun fact about the Puritans is that they did indeed Ban Christmas.
Anything that wasn’t explicitly in the Bible was out. Holy days, Christmas included were associated with paganism and idolatry – drunkenness, revelry and fulfilling carnal desires. So they banned it in England under Puritan rule, and enforced it using the army.
It did not go quite to plan, as you can imagine! People rioted and there was general chaos. But they did try!
Christmas celebrations were also illegal in New England (US) during parts of the 17th century, and were culturally taboo or rare in former Puritan colonies from foundation until the mid-18th century.
In reality, the Puritans had blind spots when it came to religious and civil liberty. John Bunyan, for example, went to jail for refusing to recognise the king’s authority in religious matters, yet prayed earnestly for a king who would use political might for the Puritan’s goals. Liberty was FOR the Puritan, and not for others who had theological differences.
When it comes to summing up the Puritans, it is difficult because on one hand, when we think of the Puritans, we think about the wrongful treatment of those who are different or suspect: such as the RCs in Ireland, or victims of the witch trials in Salem. On the other hand, though, we have a host of dedicated, faithful ministers and preachers who worked hard to bring the gospel to their neighbours and families.
Overall, I think, the Puritans are a helpful resource for us as Christians. Their writings contain a great deal of wisdom and are well seasoned with grace. Here is a list of writers that you may find interesting: it is better to read about the Puritans views directly.