Followers of a religious movement whose definition and date of origin cannot be given with precision. The movement embodied a wide range of different sects and communities that quarreled over liturgy, dogma, political theory, and social reform both within and without the Church of England. The effective period of Puritan activity covered the span from the Elizabethan Settlement (1559) to the Restoration (1660), by which time the term ceased to be meaningful in its original sense.
Early Development. Puritanism aggravated the English religious controversy between the advocates of a simpler, fundamentalist church rooted in apostolic Christian times and a more formal, ritualistic, authoritarian church developed since that time. More specifically, Puritanism was an attitude toward religion that arose in opposition to the alleged unscriptural, Catholic forms embodied in the Act of UNIFORMITY (1559) and the THIRTY-NINE ARTICLES (1563). The Puritans generally sought to purify the Church of England of these forms, substituting Calvinistic models of ecclesiastical polity and liturgy (see NONCONFORMISTS). Even before the break with Rome (1534), Cambridge scholars lectured and wrote on Continental Reformation ideas, which forced many to take refuge at Geneva and elsewhere upon the accession of MARY TUDOR in 1553. They returned when ELIZABETH I assumed the throne, hoping that she would make sweeping reforms after the Genevan system, but were frustrated at the Crown's moderate Protestant posture and its unwillingness to tolerate dissent or entertain change. Thomas CARTWRIGHT assumed the earliest leadership of one faction, mostly academicians at first, who promoted PRESBYTERIANISM in place of the existing Episcopalian system of church government and who had already found common ground for opposition to Elizabeth's insistence on conformity in the Vestiarian Controversy (1566). This dispute, at first limited to Saint John's and Trinity College, Cambridge, but later involving Puritan-minded clergy in London and elsewhere, arose when Archbishop Matthew PARKER, acting on Elizabeth's order, laid down strict rules governing services and clerical dress. Coercive measures by the Anglican hierarchy followed; Puritan
scholars and clergy were suspended; and a flood of pamphlets appeared to support both sides of the question. An illustration of this opposition to religious uniformity may be seen in the publication of the Marprelate Tracts (1588–89). The invention of several Midland authors who used the pseudonym Martin Marprelate, the tracts railed against the episcopacy. They appeared despite, and perhaps because of, Archbishop John WHITGIFT's order in 1586 that all publications be censored. Several suspected authors were arrested, one of them was executed, and most of their books were burned.
Source of Faith. The Puritans disagreed over dogma, but virtually all of them stressed the Bible as the only true source of faith and conduct. Puritan divines as well as individual members of their congregations read it avidly, interpreted it as they chose, and thereupon quarreled over the form of church government it enjoined. From this Calvinistic conviction of the validity of private interpretation of the Bible grew English Protestant sectarianism.
Variant Systems of Government. By far the largest majority of Puritans went along with the episcopal system, provided the laity could share in the policymaking process and "popish" forms in the liturgy were expunged. This group of moderates retained general control of Puritanism until the Civil War. Other Puritans, led by Thomas Cartwright, advocated a Presbyterian ecclesiastical polity; they were originally few and largely discredited in Elizabeth's reign. With the outbreak of war in 1642 and the parliamentary alliance with the Scots that followed, the Presbyterian Puritans gained temporary ascendancy, controlling, for instance, the Westminster Assembly (1643–49), convened to reform the church. These Puritans invested ecclesiastical sovereignty in four bodies, the Kirk Session, the Presbytery, the Provincial Synod, and the General Assembly. The Separatists (known also as Brownists originally, and as Independents later on) constituted the third broad category of Puritans. As early as the 1550s groups of persons met in separate congregations (conventicles) to conduct services apart from the Established Church. Robert BROWNE, one of the early Separatist leaders, wrote several pamphlets that advocated the independence of each parish congregation from either a parental, hierarchical, or secular political control. Such Puritans professed the autonomy of each congregation under the sole supremacy of Christ and formed self-governing parishes that supposedly operated on a principle of democracy, but often became subject to the dictates of their elected ministers. From this form of
Puritanism evolved Congregationalism, some of whose adherents migrated to Holland and America to escape persecution. But others stayed to reap the rewards of Independency during Oliver CROMWELL's administration.
Doctrine and Behavior. Puritans generally shared a belief in predestination and agreed that the Bible was the sole rule of faith and morals to be interpreted individually. They maintained that one's life should in every way manifest a deep sense of devotion to Christ and to duty, and they severely criticized what they termed idolatrous forms, including vestments, statuary, the sign of the cross, the use of holy water and other sacramentals, and the position of the altar (communion table). Puritans also minimized the intermediary role of ministers and encouraged preaching. Caroline Puritans more than their Elizabethan predecessors emphasized simplicity of dress and hair styles, unostentatious ceremony, and music. They also regarded the Sabbath as a day without work, travel, or recreation that might interfere with worship (see SABBATARIANISM). Aside from these broad maxims of Puritan belief, they agreed upon little else.
Minor Sects. The Independents warrant particular attention if for no other reason than that they illustrate the heterogeneity of Puritanism. The Levellers, led by John Lilburne, were among the most important of the Independents. They exerted strong influence in the parliamentary army between 1647 and 1649 to effect a republican system of government that recognized the equality of all men, universal suffrage, and general religious toleration. One small faction of Social Levellers, the Diggers, directed by Gerrard Winstanley, aroused far more antagonism and put considerably more pressure on the authorities than their numbers would suggest. They preached an equalitarian, agrarian, communistic social order wherein men might put to use whatever common or wasteland lay fallow, regardless of ownership. The Diggers, like the Quakers (see FRIENDS, RELIGIOUS SOCIETY OF), were pacifists and offered no resistance to those who abused them on the common of Saint George's Hill (Surrey) in 1649 when they tried to dig up the ground. Others of the Independents were Millenarians, such as the politically oriented Fifth Monarchy Men and the quietistic communities of SEEKERS. The anarchistic Fifth Monarchists believed that, according to the words of the Prophet Daniel in the Old Testament, four great monarchies (Assyrians; Persians; Greeks; and Romans, who passed on their authority to the Hapsburgs) would be followed by the Second Coming of Christ, who would establish a divine kingdom on earth together with His elect. But they attempted to hurry His conquest by rebellion led by Thomas Venner in 1657 and 1661. The Seekers lived in several communities, principally in Yorkshire, Westmoreland, and Cumberland. They refused to recognize any formal church, set up congregations without any firm leadership, and practiced a pietistic faith essentially similar to that of the Quakers, with whom they had joined almost entirely by 1652. Another parallel of Puritan dissimilarity may be seen in the Family of Love and the Ranters. The former, a very small sect which originated in Flanders, was related to the Anabaptists. They symbolized pacifism and communitarianism in their traditional greeting of a kiss of peace. The Ranters, on the other hand, comprised a wide selection of unorganized Puritans who represented perhaps the most unorthodox elements of the movement. Some of them, such as Lodowick Muggleton, thought themselves sinless Messiahs; others wished to undertake another crusade to the Holy Land. Virtually all of these left wing Puritans suffered persecution and had disappeared by the Restoration, although others managed to survive until the Revolution of 1688.
Opposition from the Crown. No account of the Puritans can ignore their extraordinary role in politics duringPage 839 | Top of Article Elizabethan and early Stuart times or the constitutional changes that resulted from their activity. The Acts of Supremacy (1534, 1559) endowed the English monarch with full authority over the Church of England, and the Act of Uniformity required all Englishmen to conform to it. Since the spiritual sovereignty of the Crown was barely distinguishable from its temporal authority and since the episcopacy supported the Crown, defection from the Anglican Church was a political as well as a religious crime, the more so because of the instability of the Crown in terms of the parliamentary opposition to its prerogatives (see ERASTIANISM). Elizabeth and the first two Stuarts believed that religious uniformity was essential to political stability; so that Puritans and Catholics alike were treated virtually as traitors. Many of the penal laws, especially the Act of 1593 against "sectaries," were directed at the Puritans. Cartwright and Browne both went to prison several times for preaching Puritanism. Puritans hoped that James I would be more sympathetic to their views, for he had been reared a Presbyterian. For this reason a number of Puritan clergy presented the Millenary Petition (1603) soon after he crossed the Tweed from Scotland. This document, which called for moderate ecclesiastical reforms, such as the right of the clergy to choose the garb they would wear at services, the abolition of sacramentals, bowing at the name of Jesus, simplicity of worship, and release of clergymen from the necessity of accepting everything in the Book of Common Prayer so long as they subscribed to the Oath of Supremacy, James allowed to be debated at the Hampton Court Conference (1604). When Dr. Reynolds, one of the Puritan spokesmen, suggested that disputed religious questions might be referred by the bishops to presbyters, James abruptly dismissed the conference, alleging that Puritans meant to subordinate him to a Presbyterian government. The King then deprived about 300 Puritan clergy of their benefices, thereby setting them and their flocks squarely against him. From that time onward neither James nor Charles I saw eye to eye with the Puritans, who had heavy representation in the House of Commons.
Not one Parliament between 1604 and 1640 acquiesced to the royal will; not one failed to introduce legislation, petitions, or remonstrances to block many of the Crown's religious, financial, and foreign policies, or allowed the country to forget Puritan ideals. A constitutional impasse between parliamentary "rights" and royal prerogatives, frequently punctuated by lengthy periods of royal personal rule, pamphleteering, and occasional Puritan outbursts, culminated in the calling of the Long Parliament in 1640. Their series of legislative and governmental reforms caused another impasse that erupted into the Civil War and the execution of the monarch, and the creation under Cromwell of the first republic in English history.
Emigration to America. Stuart absolutism in religion, particularly during the administration of Archbishop William LAUD in the 1630s, was partly responsible for Puritan emigration to America. Laud, favoring High Church ritual and strict uniformity, relentlessly attacked the Puritans, as may easily be seen in the lives of William Prynne, Richard BAXTER, and Henry Burton. This persecution caused some Puritans to despair of ever finding a sympathetic ear in England. Those who founded Virginia in 1607 and settled in some of the Caribbean islands went largely for material gain, land, and adventure, but the Jacobean and Caroline Puritans who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 and Massachusetts Bay in 1628, who were joined by about 20,000 co-religionists during the 1630s, had left England to establish their own Christian commonwealths in the New World. As their towns grew, a Puritan oligarchy grew apace, and the Presbyterian system established in Massachusetts Bay Colony drove out the Antinomian Anne Hutchinson and the Seeker Roger WILLIAMS as quickly and as ruthlessly as Laud had driven the Presbyterians out. Puritanism proved to be as contentious in New England as it had been in England; the differences among Puritans were no less pronounced under Cotton Mather than they had been under Robert Browne or Thomas Cartwright.
A great academic controversy still rages among scholars of American Puritanism over the influence, for good or ill, exerted upon later generations of Americans by their Puritan forefathers. Some historians credit many American virtues to the Puritan colonials, while others speak only of Puritan oppression, intellectual stagnation, and religious intolerance. The question is not easily answered; but there is agreement that Puritanism had a lasting effect upon the moral concepts of American society.
Influence and Significance. What influences did the Puritans of England and New England have upon Anglo-Saxon civilization? Politics certainly commanded much of their attention, both theoretically and practically. Many of the 30,000 political pamphlets published in the 1640s were written by Puritans, not to mention the thousands of broadsides, tracts, and books they wrote on religious issues. Pacifists, Millenarians, republicans, social reformers, and Levellers were Puritans who created a wide literature that their countrymen read at the outset of the Civil War when newspapers were just appearing. Puritan authors contrived every conceivable political system, among them a fresh approach to democracy, which undeniably germinated under the veneer of authoritarianism that characterized the age. Puritan political agitation toppled Charles I's divine right monarchy, reformed Parliament, created a republic and, despite the interlude of the Restoration, helped to bring on the Revolution of 1688, the Bill of Rights, and limited monarchy.
Prose, poetry, and the theater felt the impact of Puritanism. John BUNYAN and John MILTON were giants of the age; William Prynne, when read seriously, could be recognized as a master of satire and a symbol of literary freedom. Conversely, Puritan prose aroused such opposition as that in Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan. Elizabethan drama had been far superior to early Stuart drama, which was generally poor, but the Puritan attitude toward actors and plays did much to kill it, at least temporarily, and to leave a stigma upon the stage that still lingers. Sabbatarianism was rooted in Puritanism, and "blue laws" flourished long after the name Puritan was forgotten. It is true that the Puritans' attitudes toward music and aesthetics have been grossly exaggerated. Moreover, the thesis about the close relationship between Calvinism and capitalism is subject to many reservations; yet there remains much about Puritan thrift, hard work, and devotion to duty that rings true. It is no coincidence that many Puritans belonged to the moneyed mercantile or professional middle class during the 17th century. Social class mobility is also associated with the Puritans. The rise of the gentry in the century from the death of Henry VIII to the outbreak of the Civil War worked its influence upon the rise of the House of Commons as a powerful force against absolutism, played a part in bringing on the Puritan Revolution and in the process narrowed the gap between the higher and lower classes of England.
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[M. J. HAVRAN]