Who were the Puritans?

One thing that history tells us about the Puritans is that a small group set sail from England aboard the Mayflower in search of a New World. Their main goal was to escape the absolutism that was subtly rising in England in favor of a country with more civil and religious liberty.

Today the word Puritan is almost the equivalent of a swear word. To be called a Puritan or described as Puritanical is meant to come across as an insult and not a compliment.  Puritans are considered to have been the acerbic conservatives of their day, bleached to a pale shade of lemon and self-righteously policing the slightest hint of what they considered sin. To the average Elizabethan Englishman, being Puritan was almost as bad as being Catholic and the general population wanted to have nothing to do with either extreme. 

However, much of this caricaturing had little to do with actual reality. Puritans liked to dress well, eat well and socialize as much as their Elizabethan peers but what set them apart was their deep commitment to the Word of God. In the mind of the Puritan, the most paramount thing in life was to live in complete submission to the will of God as revealed in the Bible. Nothing else mattered and they wanted the church and society as a whole to embrace this principle and organize their lives accordingly.  They were by no means a well-oiled machine of clogs and wheels ticking in unison. On the contrary, they came in different shapes, sizes, and theological leanings but what united them was the Bible and their belief in Civil and Religious liberty.

How did Puritanism Rise in England?

When Mary Tudor became Queen of England in 1553 her reign became a game changer in the religious affiliations of the nation. She hated Protestantism and she was determined to cleanse England of the heresy which she did with fire and brimstone.

Protestants fled to Geneva in droves and were welcomed with open arms by others who had suffered the same kind of fate in countries like France. Geneva was also a model city, the kind of Protestant haven that showcased the power of the gospel not just in people’s individual lives but also in society as a whole. Many of the Marian exiles were deeply inspired by their time in Geneva and it made a lasting impression on their minds. If Geneva could flourish so amazingly under the principles of the Reformation then what of their beloved England? It was a stirring thought.

Elizabeth I and The Puritans

When Mary died of cancer and Elizabeth took her place the exiles returned home in full force, hopeful to see the kind of transformation they had witnessed in Geneva take place throughout England. But the virgin Queen had other ideas. Elizabeth was clearly Protestant but she wanted the kind of Protestantism that wouldn’t create too many waves and lead to the outbreak of war. She favored political correctness over radical transformation and the path of least resistance to the path of revolutionary change.

The returning Protestant exiles were disappointed, then disgusted and finally frustrated. They had imagined that when Protestantism was restored to England it would be the kind of Protestantism they had seen in Geneva but instead what they were presented with fell far short of every scenario they could imagine. The Protestant Queen had, to some extent, not delivered the changes that many felt England so desperately needed.

Many of the Puritans also belonged to the gentry, a class of society that was fast gaining both social and political influence in England. The social and political weight the Puritans had, began to add to the friction that was already at boiling point. The Puritan campaign for change led to tension with the Church of England because it called for a radical change of the governance structure of the church. It also called for the abolition of Bishops and the installation of Elders in their place. By the 1590s however, the exasperated Queen had managed to put enough pressure in the right places to squash the semi-organized movement of Puritanism and stop it in its tracks.

What did the Puritans Believe?

The focal point of the Puritan faith was entire submission to the will of God in every area of life. It was a simple, yet powerful antidote that Engish society needed. But not everyone wanted radical change in their lives, they were content with a form of godliness that gave them license to do what they wanted and in return they were happy enough to reject the Pope, go to a Protestant church service and engage in the cursory reading of the Bible.

One thing the Puritans loved more than anything else was to spend time studying and discussing the Bible. They hosted meetings that they named “prophesyings” and at these meetings, preachers would take turns preaching from various portions of Scripture. After everyone had spoken they would all sit down and dissect each sermon trying to glean as much as they could from it.

The Puritans saw this as a powerful gathering of like-minded believers but Elizabeth and the government saw it as a potential breeding ground for anarchy. The most powerful thing about the Prophesyings was that instead of receiving the truth from a priest or Bishop, like-minded peers had the opportunity to discuss the word of God for themselves. It was probably this aspect of the meetings that provided the strongest incentive for attendance.

However one of the dangers of the Prophesyings was that they were prone to extremism in some cases. For example, some Puritans believed that there should be two church services because there were two burnt offerings on Sabbath. Others believed that the proper way to preach was while standing in one place because Peter stood in once place while preaching. It had real potential to lead people in all kinds of directions.

The Rise of Militant Puritanism

The younger generation of Puritans began to get impatient with the restraints that the Queen and her advisors kept placing on them and many of them decided to act. The Queen didn’t really take kindly to Puritan militancy.  She was intent on keeping England from erupting into flames because of religiopolitical war and Puritanism was the kind of loose cannon that could strike a match to an already volatile domestic and international situation.

Her crackdown was not appreciated and in 1588 a series of pro puritan, anti-bishop tracts were produced. It was the kind of foolishness that was on par with the affair of the placards in France. An unproductive spate of mud-slinging Puritan rhetoric that was viewed by the Queen and her Parliament as bordering on anarchy. The hunt then began for the discovery of the secret press that had produced the tracts and those who were its authors.

In 1593 the parliament issued the Parliamentary Act against Puritans which clamped down on the entire movement more firmly.

William Shakespeare and the Puritans

The best way to describe the relationship between the Puritans and the Playwrights was mutual animosity. The Puritans viewed the theatre as a seedbed of the worst kind of immorality and the playwrights were the minions that fuelled its machinery. Geneva under Calvin had shut down every single playhouse and left playwrights unemployed. Elizabeth, on the other hand, entertained them at Whitehall regularly.

Playhouses in Elizabethan England functioned as brothels and since no female actors were allowed to perform they also showcased cross-dressing as well. One Puritan summed up the general Puritan consensus by calling a famous playwrights works “the very pomps of the devil”. Not the kind of words to stir up warm fuzzy feelings about anyone.

Shakespeare, in particular, liked to parody Puritans in his plays. One of the more notable instances being Malvolio in

The Twelfth Night”, which portrays Puritans as gnarled old ascetics who were out of touch with reality and mildly hypocritical as well.

The Dangers of Puritan Theology

Because it placed so much emphasis on holy living Puritan theology was in danger of emphasizing works to the point that it almost obscured the role Jesus played in producing those works. These exhortations to righteous living would then be accompanied by graphic portrayals of eternal damnation and hellfire which would leave anyone shaking in their boots. In many ways, these things revealed how dangerously close to Catholicism, Puritanism could get

But in the midst of all the fury, God still raised up a group of amazing preachers to help steer a healthy middle course. Men like John Owens, Richard Sibbs, and others helped to refocus the minds of people on Jesus not only as their sin-bearer but also as the one whose grace was sufficient to help them to obey. They portrayed victory over sin as the result of the union between a man and his savior as opposed to being the result of a man’s hard work. It was a much-needed breath of fresh air to many.

Puritanism Under James I and Charles I

When Elizabeth died in 1603 without an heir all Puritan eyes turned to James VI of Scotland as the champion of a truly reformed faith. James, however, had other plans in mind. He had his eyes set on broadening his power base as a monarch and saw some of the Puritan ideals in much the same way as Elizabeth had.

He vetoed their ideas for reform and clamped down on them in much the same way the Queen before him had done. Disappointed and disgusted many Puritans left for America while those who stayed pinned their hopes on a political solution to the problem. Many of the Puritans had gained significant influence and power in the Parliment and they began to fight the King in the political arena.

The King pushed back against it but he died before the affair could ripen into active revolt. His successor Charles, however, had to bear the brunt of the explosion that had been a long time coming. 

The fact that Puritanism had also managed to entangle itself in Civil liberty in an age of absolutism did little to help the situation. The stand-off between the King and his largely Puritan Parliament morphed into a Civil War that was slugged out over a period of 5 years. It ended with the revolutionary style execution of the King and the immediate take over of the Parliment by Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans.

Oliver Cromwell and The Protectorate

Cromwell tried to push for Civil and Religious liberty but the Parliament considered the move too radical for their tastes. Frustrated at their unwillingness to play ball Cromwell dissolved the Parliament and decided to rule the country on his own with the help of 11 generals. He named the new governance model a Protectorate and christened himself as Lord Protector ruling England until his death in 1659.

Ultimately Cromwell became the embodiment of everything he had fought against and the transformation took place under the guise of religious liberty and reform.

Puritanism and The Restoration

After Cromwell’s death leading members of Parliament met and decided that England needed the stability that only a monarch could provide. They invited Charles I’s son, who was in exile in France, to come back to England and become King.

Charles II ascended the throne quite happily and undid all the social reforms that Cromwell had put in place. He also administered an immediate and severe crackdown on radical Puritanism.

Puritanism as a movement was never completely snuffed out in England. It just evolved through the many tragedies and triumphs it encountered to become perhaps less militant. The essence of Puritanism though is something that we can all embrace, the power of the gospel to transform a human heart into the likeness of Jesus. Distilled to its most basic element that is what Puritanism stood for and if that is the case then all Christians could easily embrace Puritanism.