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Mayflower lands

The Pilgrim Fathers arrive at Massachusetts

Henry VIII becomes Head of Church in England,

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Last Heretic Burned

The Puritans

To their opponents in the Anglican Church, the Puritans were dissidents and non-conformists. Arising from the doctrinal untidiness of the English Reformation, the Puritans regarded themselves as godly. God’s word was sovereign to their heart. They believed that God had supreme authority over matters on Earth. The Puritan ideals withheld the Bible as God’s word, promoted private study of scripture, and a rigorous examination of one’s moral virtue.
But the term Puritan did not reflect on particular sect of the reformed Christian church. Far from it. The term was a pejorative for any of the English Protestants of the late 16th and 17th Centuries who argued that the Reformation was incomplete. They wanted a more simplified code of worship, and espoused a set of values which did not quite align itself with the doctrine of the Anglican Church. Principally, they opposed the episcopacy, favouring a more Presbyterian church with individual liberty and godliness guiding one’s faith, rather than the rulings of Bishops or ‘high church’. Most certainly they did not believe in the Divine Right Of Kings. This was a belief that placed them in direct opposition to the Royalists during the English Civil War , when a man named Oliver Cromwell furthered his reputation as a firebrand man of God, and a ruthless architect of his own political career.
The Puritans argued that the Reformation was incomplete. When Queen Elizabeth I took the throne there was plenty of religious and political housekeeping to be done in the realm. Since 1543, when King Henry VIII split from the Catholic Church to seek the annulment of his marriage to Anne Boleyn, the Reformation was no stranger to controversy. Henry VIII was a rebellious monarch but essentially a practising Catholic. His son King Edward VI saw the Reformation enter a new phase. Under his rule, Protestantism was given Royal ascent, the dissolution continued. Edward VI’s Protestantism abhorred the vestiges of Rome. The reversal when Queen Mary I took the throne saw reformers burned as heretics as she repaired links with Rome. The Marian Martyrs as they became known, were either exiled in France or suffered the consequences in England. Elizabeth I had her work cut out. But under her rule, England’s Protestantism was consolidated.
With the 1559 Act Of Supremacy, Elizabeth I re-established the Church Of England’s independence from Rome. As Supreme Governor of the Church she placated most of her bishops, and united parliament. The reformed church under the Act Of Supremacy rid itself of most of the icons of the Catholic church; crucifixes, candlesticks and roods were removed. But while this shift to Protestantism continued at pace, for the Puritans, there was a crucial ideological fault. It was being lead from the state down, governed by bishops, with the Book Of Common Prayer dictating the liturgy. This was anathema to the Puritans; their focus on individual and group piety favoured a presbyterian structure, like that of the church in Scotland. With the Marian martyrs returning to England, there was no shortage of religious zeal.
The myriad religious dynamics of the time meant that instability and dissent was unavoidable. Elizabeth I was committed to the Reformation, but she was a moderate in some ways, removing some of the harsher laws on practising Catholics. Every move was loaded with danger in the 16th Century. The Anglican doctrine was still in its infancy. The Elizabethan Settlement, which effectively created the Church Of England, was not a total theological departure from Catholicism. Instead it combined elements of Calvinism and Catholicism, the 39 Articles reprised the Apostolic character of the Catholic church. For the Puritans, this was not the radical departure from a Papal church that they wanted. The Book Of Common Prayer, compiled by the Archbishop Of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer , was another compulsory edict from the state. The unsatisfactory separation of church and state created a political monster which manifested itself in the most ghastly of ways: war.
The road to war was not inevitable. The reign of King James I helped some respects. The Hampton Court Conference of 1604 lead to the publication of the King James Bible in 1611, and helped placate Puritans who had campaigned for accessible worship – after all, how could everybody study the bible if it was in Latin? Another outcome of the Hampton Court Conference was to stop Impropriations. Though James I was committed to stopping the sale of church property for state profit, in practice it was never applied, and remained a source of complaint. The Puritan radical group, Feoffees For Impropriations lead by Suffolk theologian, scholar and Puritan, Richard Sibbes, was shut down in 1633. The year was significant; it was when the Puritans would meet one of their most hated enemies.
William Laud , opponent of radical Puritans everywhere and now Archbishop Of Canterbury, became a crucial figure in the preamble to the Civil War. He wanted to unify the Church Of England, at a time when reformed Christianity was looking increasingly schismatic. Laud was openly derided by Puritans such as William Bridge. And when he was still Bishop Of London, Laud had already grumbled loudly about Sibbes and his ally, William Gouge. In Laud’s first year as Archbishop Of Canterbury he had jailed William Prynne and fined him Ł5000 for seditious libel. It didn’t deter Prynne, and others joined him. In 1637, he, John Bastwick and Henry Burton were found guilty of seditious libel – the latter two for printing and distributing dissenting pamphlets. They had their ears cropped and SL (seditious libel) branded on their cheeks. Prynne wryly noted that the ‘SL’ stood for ‘stigmatis Laudis’. Laud’s power as Archbishop made him a bona fide hate figure. But Oliver Cromwell was rising through the ranks of British politics, and in the impending Civil War Laud would lose his head.
Cromwell was vehemently anti-bishop. He was a staunch Puritan and was a spirited reformer who made himself heard in parliament. When King Charles I recalled parliament in 1640, the constitutional and religious situation had reached a tipping point. Charles I had already alienated much of Scotland, dividing them between Covenanters who sought to repel the Anglican Book Of Cannons and a minority of Royalists. The antipathy between parliamentarians and the King had split England too, and in 1642 there was war.
Cromwell’s military record was nothing short of spectacular. Leading the Roundheads to victory at Newbury , York and Marston Moor . In June, 1645, his troops battered the Royalists into submission at Naseby . His New Model Army were, in his eyes and theirs, fighting for God. This was a holy war of sorts. Charles I was running out of time. His Royalist forces were defeated. The last of them, an alliance of Scottish Highlanders, Irish Guards and mercenaries were crushed in 1648. Charles I was executed after reneging on Cromwell’s settlement. England was a republic and Cromwell was Lord Protector .
The Puritans fight did not end with Charles I’s execution. The English Restoration of 1660 witnessed a constitutional reverse by the Church Of England. The dissenting Puritans were expelled in the Great Ejection. Cromwell, who had died in 1658, was exhumed and beheaded. They would endure suppression until the Toleration Act of 1689 which was passed in the wake of the Glorious Revolution. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, in the Puritan colonies of New England, where ships like the Mayflower ferried hundreds of Puritan families seeking religious freedom, modern American society was being formed. The Puritans’ influence now spanned two continents.

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1 Response to The Puritans

From Ray Tolley - on 25th August 2009
A helpful and concise article but a link to early presbyterianism would help. Secondly, the section on Elizabeth 1st was difficult to read as it lacked linearity. However, do you have any notes on the evolution of church music at this time. I'm trying to understand the 'run-up' to the music of Isaac Watts - he appears not have written music himself and I therefore wonder if there is any extant scores of the times?

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