Christian liberty: the Puritans in Britain and America

IN 1559, a number of clergymen returned to England from exile in Europe. They were members of the Church of England, who had taken refuge there to escape the persecution of Protestants in Queen Mary’s reign. Mary had rejected the reformation of the church that had taken place under her father, Henry VI11. She wanted to restore the English church to the folds of Roman Catholicism, and to enforce her wishes she had burned those people who opposed her. With her death and the ascension to the throne of Elizabeth, a Protestant, many of the exiled clergy returned from their European refuges. They brought with them new patterns of belief which they had learned from their Continental friends, especially John Calvin in Geneva and Martin Bucer in Strasbourg. These emphases distinguished them from the rest of the clergy and became the earliest hallmarks of the Puritan movement.

The word Puritan means ‘would-be reformer'; the returning exiles wanted to see the Church of England thoroughly reformed. Theologically, they would accept nothing as binding on the church that was not proved from the pages of Scripture. What was not demanded by the Bible could not be made mandatory on the conscience of an individual Christian without attacking the idea of Christian liberty.

Politically, the Puritans did not want the reformation of the church to be in the hands of the secular authorities. Instead, they demanded that the sole and final authority for the ordering of the church should be in the hands of the church’s own officers.

Queen Elizabeth was sympathetic to the Protestant cause. Yet she was convinced that she herself must govern the church directly, because it was too powerful an institution to be left in hands that might not support her. And so she forced two Acts of Parliament to be passed. The first was the Act of Supremacy, which established the monarch as the head of the Church of England, and vested in her the power to rule and reform the church. The second was the Act of Uniformity, which required that all Englishmen should give religious obedience to the established Church of England. This obedience involved accepting the ‘episcopal’ form of government (bishops, priests and deacons) and also the set liturgical forms of worship.

The history of the Puritan protest movement falls into three periods, each period with specific demands for change, and each producing its own leaders:

—From Queen Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne until the crushing of the Presbyterian movement in 1593;

—From the revival of the movement in 1593 until 1640, when the Long Parliament was called in Charles I’s time;

—From 1640 through the period of Cromwell and Puritan ascendancy until 1660, with Charles II’s return, the Restoration and the ejection of Puritan clergy from their positions.

The Puritans made an early impact on American history, through the Pilgrim Fathers, who were concerned to set up a godly community under the rule of the Bible.

Not reformed enough

The initial principles of Puritanism were brought from Geneva and Zurich where the majority of the exiles had been given shelter. One of the first things they learned was to disdain the outward show of religion. On their return, the exiles found themselves in bitter opposition to the clergy wearing vestments, especially the surplice. But their objections were much more fundamental than simply refusing to dress up for church services. They were concerned that the reformation within the Church of England had not gone nearly far enough. As they saw it, Elizabeth was not prepared for a really thorough-going reform; she wanted only to preserve her own control of the church.

The University of Cambridge was the focal point of hostility to the Queen’s policy, and it was from there, in 1570, that the first real Puritan leader emerged, with a distinct demand for change within the church. Thomas Cartwright was a young and very brilliant Professor of Divinity at the University. He delivered a series of lectures on the Book of Acts, in which he claimed that the Bible provided the outline for church government, and that this outline was belter expressed in Presbyterian church government than by the system of bishops.

Cartwright called (or bishops to be abolished and fora form of church order to be set up based more on laypeople. He wanted to establish the kingdom of God on earth, and in England. The church was to be independent of the control of rulers: it would be related to the government, but not controlled by it. The first task of the church was to call people to obey God; only then should they be taught their duty to the slate. He firmly maintained that we are all sinners, and that secular power, whoever holds it, is purely a gift from God. Within the church, anybody with the spiritual c]uality, regardless of social position, can be chosen to teach and serve. Along with this, he advocated the Presbyterian idea of church democracy: every congregation should have the right to elect its own elders and ministers, and the national church should be maintained by a series of representative assemblies, at different levels, composed both of clergymen and laypeople.

Cartwright was dismissed from his position of Professor of Divinity at Cambridge by Archbishop Whitgift, who was a firm supporter of the royal control of the church. The archbishop saw in the scheme not only that bishops would have a less important role, but also that the monarch would be less able to control the church’s policy and life.

Cartwright continued to write and lecture. He gained a great following within the established church, but yet none of the reforms he so badly wanted actually came to fruition. This was partly due to a division within the Puritan party itself.

One group rejected the idea that the Presbyterian system was taught in the New Testament. They found in the Bible that each local church was vested with the absolute power to determine its own course of action and its own destiny. They also thought unbiblical the idea of a mixed church, combining devoted Christian people with purely nominal attenders. They wanted to restrict membership of the church to the clearly committed. This approach, often called ‘Independency', is close to the Anabaptist policy, described in God’s left wing. It went against the whole idea of a national or established church to which all members of the nation belonged, and at the same time it imposed a threat to the power that the monarch could influence within the church. It certainly would have reduced the political importance of the church, and the crown would no longer have been able to use the church to affect the life of the people.

Because of this division within his own supporters, Cartwright could not put together a unified opposition to the episcopal structure of the Church of England. He was frustrated not only by those who held independent views, but also by those who, while holding the general spiritual principles of Puritanism, remained loyal to the Church of England and would have no part in the specific demands for reform. With Cartwright dismissed and his attempts to effect a Presbyterian order of church government aborted, the first phase of the Puritan movement was completed.

Making the Bible understood

The group who remained loyal to the Church of England while accepting Cartwrighl’s spiritual leadership included one outstanding figure- William Perkins. He was destined to be one of the most popular and influential of the Puritan leaders. His intellectual achievements in theology gave the movement widespread credibility, and his emphasis on the Christian’s personal devotion became one of the hallmarks of Puritanism.

Perkins had been educated at Christ’s College, Cambridge and had come under the influence of the developing Puritan movement. He was in favour of much of Cartwright’s spiritual teaching, but he rejected his scheme of church government. Like him, he was concerned for an educated ministry. All too often, churches found themselves under the ministry of the youngest sons of nobles, who saw the system of patronage within the church as a lucrative and easy path to advancement. Sometimes these men knew so little that they hired others to say services for them, and the worship became unintelligible.

Again, Perkins recognized the prime place of preaching within worship, and this was another Puritan emphasis. Over many years, preaching had ceased to play a significant part in the church’s worship. All sorts of rituals and ceremonies had been introduced, so that many of the services contained little or no teaching. Perkins, in common with most Puritans, realized the importance of educating the congregations in the truths of the Bible. The Puritans believed that the Bible contained the perfect rule for living, believing and worshipping, and so they strove to make its teaching as widely known and understood as possible. Preaching was seen to be God’s way of educating the people and changing the church.

Perkins had the same beliefs as all Puritans. They were basically those set out by John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, (see Life-bringers). God is sovereign in everything, and people can only find the forgiveness they need through the death of Jesus Christ reconciling them to God.

Together with this intellectual framework, Perkins had the Puritan longing for simplicity in worship, uncluttered by ceremony or ritual. Because of this, there were two attempts to have him removed from his position and ejected from the Church of England. Vet his clear loyalty to the established church, together with the support of some of his influential friends, protected him from being seriously threatened.

His early death in 1602, at the age of forty-four, robbed Puritanism of one of its most influential advocates. He was respected as a prominent churchman, was a popular apologist for Protestantism against Roman Catholicism, and had wide influence through his writings. In these writings he stressed something which was to become one of the key points of Puritan spirituality. Until Perkins, dogmatic or systematic theology had been seen as the major task of a theologian. But he brought a vision of applying the Calvinist system of belief to practical questions. His aim was no less than to make Christian truth relate to people’s lives as well as their minds.

No bishop, no king

When Elizabeth died in 1603, she was succeeded by James VI of Scotland, who had been brought up in a Presbyterian church with a strict discipline, aware of Calvinist theology. The Puritans gained a new hope. Would this new king make their dream of reform a reality?

While on his way to claim the throne, James was met by a delegation of Puritans and asked to reform the church. He agreed to meet with Puritan representatives at a later date, and a meeting was eventually held at Hampton Court Palace. At the conference, the Puritans presented to the King a list of obvious reforms that they felt should be implemented to bring the church in line with the Bible. Their list included the abolition of the bishops, and the restructuring of the church along Presbyterian lines. This reminded James of experiences he wanted to forget. He had grown up with the democratic Presbyterianism of Scotland’s John Knox, where the preacher could rebuke the King in public. This made him determined that, as Ruler of England, he would control the church and never again be subject to the discipline of ministers. He had also come to believe that government by bishops was a means of maintaining the position of the monarch as the supreme earthly governor of the church -a position to which James believed himself divinely appointed. This is why James said to the assembled Puritans his famous ‘no bishops, no king', and tied himself to the traditional episcopal government of the church. Instead of the debate and reform they hoped for, the Puritan party received a crushing blow. They were to be ordered to conform to the King’s wish. In fact, the only one of their proposals that the King accepted, was fora new translation of the Bible in the English language. This gained approval and the Authorized, ‘King James’ Version of the Bible came into being in 1611.

James had become afraid of the growing influence of the Puritans and was determined to drive them out of the church. He deprived them of their livings and, unlike Elizabeth, refused to tolerate their existence within the established church. Although he agreed with them theologically, and even wrote some theological books with a Calvinist position, he was determined to prevent the creation of a church which could in any way challenge the power of the crown.

The agent of persecution was Archbishop Laud, a man whose strong ‘high church’ position had caused many to accuse him of secret sympathy with the Roman Catholic Church. Laud is supposed to have had a list drawn up of all the clergymen in England. Against each of the names heallegedly placed either a P or an 0 - Puritan or Orthodox. He then began to try and drive the Puritans from (heir churches.

At the same time as attacking the Puritan clergy, James and Laud determined to reduce some of the power of the nobility and to frustrate the growing call for democratic rule. Many of the emerging middle class and some nobles joined the Puritan movement as a vehicle for their political opposition to James and the policies of Laud.

The Puritans were driven underground. They began to preach a strong gospel, directing their calls for reform no longer I towards the ruler, but to any or all of the people of God. The preachers fired the people’s political will. People who were searching for salvation should not only trust in Jesus Christ, but also put on the whole armour of God. They preached a gospel which called for strength and action as well as faith. God’s kingdom would only be established in the face of hostility and opposition, and this required strength and discipline and courage. The goal was a land where the authority of the Bible would be paramount, and where the Bible’s teaching would be the legal and moral basis for national life.

Civil war

By 1610, much of the opposition to the policies of James’ house of Stuart found a rallying point in political Puritanism. Within one generation this hostility was to break out in civil war - a war in which the supporters of royal privilege were found opposed to the growing democratic party, whose leadership was solidly Puritan.

The period between James coming to the throne and the eventual triumph of the Puritan party saw the rise of two famous leaders whose names have become synonymous with Puritanism: John Owen and Richard Baxter.

Owen was born and educated in the climate of political and theological controversy created by Stuart policies. He was a staunch supporter of the rights of a democratic Parliament over and against the royal supremacy. He was also an Independent in church government, demanding the right of the local congregation to elect its own leaders and to be accountable to God alone under the Bible. Owen was also a rigid Calvinist in his theological position, and this at a time when the leaders of the Church of England under Laud were quite the opposite-liturgical and idealistic in practice, anti-Calvinist in theology.

Eventually, the rift between Charles and his Parliament became an open civil war, with the vast majority of the Puritan party ranged against the King. Owen became one of the chaplains to the Parliamentary Army and in this capacity exercised great influence and travelled extensively. With the defeat of the King and his eventual execution, the ‘Long Parliament', with its Puritan bias, ruled the country. Among its first acts was one to abolish the Church of England as an episcopal church - no more bishops. This meant that a Parliamentary Committee had to be set up to validate the ordination of those who presented themselves for ministry within churches, and to oversee the transfer of clergy from one church to another.

Owen was not included in this structure, nor was he invited to be a member of the Westminster Assembly of Divines which was convened to produce an alternative basis of faith to the 39 Articles of the old

Church of England. The reason for his exclusion was that he held very firm Independent views, while Parliament was inclined to Presbyterian thought, confirmed by the help the Scots and their Presbyterian army had given in the Civil War.

However, with the growth of Oliver Cromwell’s power, there came an increase in the influence of the Independents, and not least John Owen. Eventually the Long

Parliament was dismissed and Cromwell assumed the rule of the nation as the Lord Protector. Owen was made Chancellor of the University of Oxford, where his outstanding theological intellect earned him an international reputation. At the same time, his influence in matters of government increased, and he is in no small part responsible for the failure to introduce a Presbyterian order to the national church. His belief in Congregationalism, allied to Cromwell’s power, thwarted the Scots’ desire to impose the Presbyterian order.

Owen fell from favour with Cromwell when he opposed the Protector’s wish to become King. Yet he remained one of the most influential of the Puritans until the time of his death. Even under Charles II, his reputation and personal qualities saved him from the persecution which fell on so many others. His stature as thinker and political preacher, his integrity as an honourable man, helped make him one of the most outstanding of Puritans.

By Robert Norris

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #9 in 1984]

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