An Introduction to the Idea and History of Puritanism
For the Christian, the study of Church History remains an absolute necessity. Historical ignorance is a deadly plague that has infected modern Christianity. When our pastors reference Edwards, Lewis, Whitfield, Augustine, and Calvin, do we really even know them? Do we understand what these theological giants stood for?
The acceptable answer is, sadly, no. Therefore, it proves our duty, as learned Christians, to expel historical myths and delve deep into the study of the past. Our first order of business concerns the commonly misconstrued concept of Puritanism and its stark contrast to the statutory authority of seventeenth-century Anglicanism.
In this series, we will dive deep into defining the doctrinal tenets of Puritanism and their impact on both old and new societies as well as students looking to understand the ideas today. The contents of this series will, in no way, look to accept or reject the theological precepts of Puritanism. Rather, we will embark on a journey to discuss the historical nature of an idea that has impacted millions. The following essays will seek out the application in Puritanism. Through this series, we will look to best understand why such an old concept should mean anything to our twenty-first-century minds.
Nathaniel Hawthrone’s antagonistic approach to the societal vices of Puritan New England — seen in his fictional romance, The Scarlet Letter, along with a brief reading in Jonathan Edwards Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God — probably does not help our comprehension regarding the historical validity of Puritanism. A shallow and uncontextualized understanding of these documents will, in turn, generate a negative response to the entire idea of Puritanism. On the other hand, many fellow Protestants have gone to the other extreme by glorifying the works of the Puritans while remaining ignorant to the historical reality of their sociological, ecclesiological, and political plights.
What is Puritanism?
In rightfully defining and understanding the nature of Puritanism, we must first define a few important terms.
During the latter half of the sixteenth century, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, increased skepticism arose regarding the necessity of what many believed to be the “non-essentials” of the Christian liturgy and mode of worship. This fight is best understood under the notion of “adiaphora.” Rightfully defined, an adiaphorism is any practice deemed “indifferent” or apart of the “non-essentials” of the Christian faith. Furthermore, an adiaphorism is simply any theological opinion, liturgical practice, or religious affair that is a matter of “indifference” because it is neither instructed nor prohibited by the Scriptures.
Prior to this newfangled conflict in England, the old model for understanding the non-essentials was a commitment to the idea that any Christian may indulge themselves in the indifferent practices of the faith. In other words, if anyone disagreed with a particular, non-essential, church practice, yet this specific believer was commanded to follow through with the practice, they could go through with the practice without it having a stain on their conscience due to its indifference.
Models of Adiaphoric Philosophy
The old model of adiaphoric philosophy encouraged obedience and wider acceptance of church practices rather than promoting the freedom of conscience, which would encourage many to stand in rejection of the things they believed to be unnecessary. This was the exact shift that occurred under the reign of Elizabeth. Puritans, under the command to proceed in adiaphoric liturgical practices, found themselves strongly convicted of abstaining from those proceedings entirely.
The new model of adiaphoric philosophy stemmed from the influence of the Puritans. This model hinged entirely on the rationale that no man should be obligated to practice any ritual that was not explicitly commanded by the Scriptures. Examples of these adiaphoric practices included the wearing of vestments, kneeling during communion, and the artful depiction of biblical events. These depictions, such as Michaelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, were viewed as idolatrous images that, in the Puritan worldview, obscured the reality of an exact event. A majority, if not all, of those in the petition of these church practices, found them to be lingering aspects of Catholicism and thus wished them expelled.
Nonconformity to the Crown
Those who considered themselves Puritans were also nonconformists. Simply, Puritans were considered nonconformists because they did not adhere to the standard of the Church of England. The Act of Uniformity of 1558 commanded that all persons must attend church at least once a week or be fined. This Elizabethan act also stated that all churches and persons must follow the order of prayer present within the English Book of Common Prayer which was protested vehemently by the majority of those who considered themselves Puritans.
Thus, the English Crown dubbed anyone in protest of the Act of Uniformity of 1558 and its subsequent legal counterpart as a “nonconformist.” Furthermore, nonconformity, in reference to Anglicanism, was not synonymous with total separation from the local church. Many found themselves still involved in weekly services, most likely because they did not want to receive a fine for not attending.
Nonconformists were subject to some scrutiny such as public shaming or forcibly paying a fine due to their nonconformity but they were not treated as harshly as many have imagined. Nonconformists were granted conditional freedom to worship under the Toleration Act of 1668. Many scholars, who generally favor the theology of the Puritans, have falsely represented them as a theologically homogeneous group of highly persecuted dissenters fleeing the tyranny of the English Crown. This perspective has assuredly been blown out of proportion.
Large Puritan congregations were most susceptible to legal scrutiny and put themselves at greater risk for imprisonment. This was certainly true of John Bunyan and his congregation. Although, most nonconformist Puritan groups met in small numbers and away from any possibility of the government finding them. It was this latter group of people that the Crown found herself tolerating more frequently. In short, those causing a ruckus and openly acting against the government were continually sought out for their vices while those meeting in secret were, more often than not, tolerated. All this to say, nonconformity was treated differently depending on its context.
Many Puritans sought to be a shining example to those who they considered drowning in the ecclesiological waters of Anglicanism. Historians have coined the term “Separatist” to refer to those who wished to separate themselves entirely from the Church of England, and subsequently acted upon their desires.
Separatists did not flee simply because of persecution or governmental malice, but a whole myriad of reasons. A large majority of Separatists fled in hopes of establishing their own analogous cultural and theological utopia that would reign free from the social dominion of Anglicanism. A fruitless pursuit that would eventually fail in both the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies and can only truly come into fruition amidst Christ’s Millennial Kingdom.
In conclusion, the idea and historical reality of Puritanism remains one of the most misunderstood concepts in Christian scholarship. Puritanism, rightfully defined, was a trans-Atlantic theological movement that was spurred into fruition through the influence of a unified frustration for the old model of adiaphoric philosophy. In the following article, we will look to understand the collective theological tenets of Puritanism and their implications upon society.