Puritans; Puritanism

Initially a movement within the English Church during the reign of Elizabeth I,* whose general aim was to implement a full Calvinistic reformation in England, Puritanism later also became a way of life, an interpretation of the Christian pilgrimage in terms of an emphasis upon personal regeneration and sanctification, household prayers, and strict morality.

The Bible, interpreted in the spirit of the early continental Reformers (e.g., Bullinger* and Beza*), was held by Puritans to be the only valid source from which doctrine, liturgy, church polity, and personal religion should be constructed. The spread of biblical theology was seen as the only way to halt the advance of Antichrist (Roman Catholicism). Bible reading in the homes from the annotated Geneva Bible* was encouraged. So also was regular biblical preaching from parish pulpits and weekly catechizing of parishioners in their homes. Various schemes were put forward and executed to train more preaching ministers (e.g., the founding of Emmanuel College, Cambridge).

The history of Puritanism may be divided into three periods: (1) from the accession of Queen Elizabeth to the crushing of the Presbyterian movement by her in 1593; (2) from 1593 to the calling of the Long Parliament in 1640; and (3) from 1640 to the restoration of Charles II* in 1660.

From 1559 to 1593 the governing classes became Protestant, the House of Commons created a Protestant National Church, and the queen decided in favor of a traditional diocesan episcopate rather than a Reformed episcopate favored by some of her subjects. Returning from exile in the Rhineland and Switzerland from 1558 onward, convinced Protestants had great hope for the Elizabethan church, but they were disappointed with the Settlement of Religion (1559) and what followed it, since they felt that too many relics of Roman Catholicism were preserved. They and their friends in Parliament pressed for further reformation according to the Word of God and the example of the best Reformed churches. Some people called them “Puritans,” since they wanted to purify the church of all ceremonies, vestments, and customs inherited from the medieval church. Certain clerical Puritans also wanted to reform the polity of the church along presbyterian lines, but Elizabeth would have none of this.

After James I* (VI of Scotland) made it clear at the Hampton Court Conference* (1604) that he did not intend to make any important changes in the church, Puritans-especially ministers-faced real problems. Many compromised to the extent that they gave a minimum conformity and then used the parish as a center of evangelism by means of preaching and catechizing. Others became lecturers and preached on market days and other agreed times, being financially supported by voluntary gifts, not tithes. Yet others became Separatists* and of these some went to Holland and New England (e.g., the Pilgrim Fathers). After 1630 there was a large exodus of Puritans to Massachusetts, where they sought to create a purified Church of England, as an example to the homeland.

In 1640 Puritans were united in their desire to purify the national church and remove prelacy. Thus they were the religious force behind Parliament in the civil wars. They preached and fought for the opportunity to create a godly nation before the last days of the age dawned. However, the atmosphere of freedom that war brought led to open divisions in the Puritan movement. With the execution of Charles I and the advent of the Commonwealth and Protectorate, the Puritans became divided and opposed to each other. Cromwell in his liberally conceived national church sought to unite them, but it was not possible. Henceforth there were Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers, and other groups; the Clarendon Code* of the Cavalier Parliament ensured that the former Puritans remained outside the church. Thus Nonconformity was born. The Puritan spirit continued in various ways—e.g., in the emphasis on practical divinity and on sabbatarianism-but the Puritan ideal of the Reformed nation and church was gone forever.

P. Miller, Orthodoxy in Massachusetts (1933); W. Haller, The Rise of Puritanism (1938); C. Hill, Society and Puritanism (1964); P. Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement (1967); P. Toon, Puritans and Calvinism (1973).