Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Stephen Nichols’ The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World (Crossway, 2007).
Men in Black Part One: The Puritans and the British Reformation
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. – Matthew 5:8
Few groups have been treated worse by historical memory than the Puritans. Even the word puritanical is an insult directed to a prudish, if not hypocritical, person. In a British context, the Puritans were seen as the ones who closed down the theaters—and this fresh on the heels of Shakespeare—instituted curfews, regulated dress, and demanded church attendance. The Puritans haven’t fared much better in American contexts either. Most Americans have come to know everything they know about the Puritans through three literary vehicles: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850); Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible (1953), retelling the Salem witch trials in the frenzy of McCarthyism; and Jonathan Edwards’s consummate Puritan sermon and high-school American literature survey text, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
The Puritans were fine purveyors of hypocrisy, rigidity, misogyny, and patriarchal-dominated hierarchy, not to mention gloom and doom, hellfire and brimstone. They were downright mean-spirited holier-thanthous. Or so the caricature goes. But Hawthorne’s book and Miller’s play are as close to the real thing as a picture in a magazine of a Hawaiian vacation is to a few weeks in the islands themselves. There are some vague connections between the picture and the vacation itself, but the real thing far outstrips any picture. So it is also with Edwards’s sermon. He, along with the other Puritans, never shrank from preaching on hell and the realities of judgment, of exclaiming God’s wrath on sin and sinners. The famous “Sinners” sermon, however, is literally one straw of a whole heap of writings that he left behind. His lexicon overflows with the words beauty and harmony, joy and pleasure, delight and love. He could talk about sin and sorrow with the best of them, but he could also top just about anyone when it comes to grace and joy. We need, in other words, to get beyond the caricatures of the Puritans or we will never appreciate them for who they were and will never appreciate their rich legacy for us today.1
WHO ARE THE PURITANS?
The term Puritan was first a term of derision, devised by their opponents. Those who bore the label Puritan sought a pure church and a pure life, going against the grain of the moral and religious status quo. They took holiness seriously, both for the individual and for the redeemed community of the church. They were also called Non-conformists, which reveals a crucial piece of their identity. They refused to conform to the state church, to Anglicanism. This further earned them the title of Dissenters or Separatists, dissenting and separating from the national church. In reality, there were both Separatist and Non-Separatist Puritans. The Separatists viewed the Anglican Church as apostate, advocating utter separation from it. The Non-Separatists, while affirming that the true church is comprised of true saints, avoided taking such a hard line against the Anglicans. In fact, some Anglicans, even some bishops, were quite Puritan in their theology and outlook.
The Puritans’ roots extend to the early days of the Reformation in England, as we saw in Chapter Six, and to the other Reformation movements. The date of their true birth, however, came about during the reign of Elizabeth I and her passing of the Law of Conformity in 1559, privileging the Anglican Church. The Puritans lasted until the 1660s, giving them a full century of life—in England, that is. In America they lasted a bit longer, stretching into the early decades of the eighteenth century. There were many of them, and they certainly liked to write (and write and write). Consequently, we have a rather eventful one hundred years and an immense literary legacy to consider.
The reforms in Britain, stemming from Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth I, did not go far or deep enough for the Puritans. They were after something more, a truly theological reformation. Elizabeth I was followed by King James I, of the Bible version’s fame. He didn’t think much of the Puritans, exclaiming, “I shall make them conform themselves or I shall harry them out of the land.” Since conforming wasn’t an option, a group of Puritans in Scooby set sail for a place where they could have more religious liberties. They first stayed in the Netherlands, then embarked again to the New World where they could have freedom. They arrived at Plymouth Rock in what would become the colony and then the state of Massachusetts. Their charter gave them land in the “Northern parts” of Virginia—geography was much simpler before the fifty states.
For those Puritans who remained, things went from tolerable to worse under Charles I, who came to the throne in 1625 following James I’s death. The real nightmare for the Puritans was Charles’s ecclesiastical henchman, Archbishop William Laud. Charles I was, by just about all accounts, an inept ruler. A case in point was the upward trajectory of Laud. Laud was unpopular with his subordinates and colleagues, and yet at every opportunity Charles moved him up the ranks to the top seat in the Anglican Church. Laud saw to it that the laws on the books against the Non-Conformists were more than words on paper. He wanted them enforced, and he had a few new laws added as well. Once again Puritans left for the Netherlands or set sail for the New World, John Winthrop leading a group in 1630. The Puritans who stayed behind were ousted from their pulpits and from their positions in England’s universities.
Laud’s hard and fast reign over the church came to an end in the 1640s. Charles I’s ineptitude caught up with him, plunging the nation into civil war. Parliament took on more power, and by 1641 boatloads of Puritan exiles crossed the North Sea and returned to England from the Netherlands. During the 1640s Parliament commissioned a rather large group of theologians to write creedal documents reflecting Reformed and Puritan theology and church polity or government. Meeting mostly in the Jerusalem Chamber of Westminster Abbey, this group of British and Scottish theologians and pastors eventually produced the Westminster Standards, the doctrinal statements for a number of denominations to this day.
If the 1640s were a good time to be a Puritan, then the 1650s were even better, especially for the Independents and the Baptists. The Parliamentary forces were finally able to rout Charles I and his army, leaving Oliver Cromwell to be named Lord Protectorate, the first time in centuries that England was not ruled by a monarch. Cromwell was a Puritan through and through. Under him and the Puritan-controlled Parliament, laws reflecting Puritan beliefs and values were enacted, and Puritan ministers could preach freely. But then Cromwell died. After a failed attempt to put his son in the position of Lord Protectorate—even a number of Puritans, especially the Presbyterians, were concerned that this was going the way of another monarchy-by-birthright route—Charles II came to the throne, bringing his program of Restoration along with him.
Historians refer to Charles II’s time as the Restoration because during it the monarchy and Parliament were restored to their rightful place (from the monarchy’s perspective, of course) and the Church of England was restored to its rightful place, supplanting Puritanism’s brief reign. The theaters were reopened, and civil life returned to its pre-Puritan days. Another law of conformity was passed, leaving many Puritans to once again flee their beloved England or find themselves in jail.
One such Puritan was John Bunyan. He was arrested for holding an illegal religious meeting and was originally sentenced to three months in jail. Since he refused to stipulate that he would not preach again upon release, his three-month sentence turned into twelve very long years. He figured out a way to pass the time, however—making a flute out of a four-legged stool—three legs work just as fine—and writing. He wrote many books in his lifetime, but none more famous than his allegory about a man who dreamed about a man with a burden on his back and a book in his hand. Bunyan called his main character Christian, and he titled his book Pilgrim’s Progress. It is a classic of Puritan literature.2
When Charles II died, he was followed briefly by James II, who was Roman Catholic. This just wouldn’t do since it had been more than a century since a Catholic was on the throne.3 James II was rather peacefully sent into exile, and he was followed by the reign of William and Mary. The powers of the monarchy were greatly limited at this time, which historians refer to as the “bloodless revolution.” The previous conformity laws were overturned, granting religious freedom. This was sealed in 1689 with the Act of Toleration. Puritanism was legislated both into and out of existence.
TASTING THE GOOD LIFE: PURITAN BELIEFS AND PRACTICES
During their hundred years, the Puritans engaged in one primary activity—preaching. All of the Reformers agreed that the marks of the true church could be boiled down to one: the preaching of the Word. Luther said time and time again, “We can spare everything, except the Word.” Unlike the great cathedrals with the pulpit to the side and the altar at the center, the Puritans put the pulpit in the middle, high and lifted up—as much for acoustics as for emphasis. The church, they believed, is about the preaching of the gospel. They had Paul’s exhortation to Timothy ringing in their ears: Above all, preach the Word, preach the Word, preach the Word (2 Timothy 4:2).
As preachers, they not only preached a great deal (and long sermons at that), they also wrote. There are not too many modern-day counterparts to John Owen’s magisterial eight- or four-volume, depending on how it gets packaged, commentary on Hebrews. These volumes were first preached as sermons. But lest we think of the Puritans as preachers and hearers of the Word only, they also were doers of the Word. Puritanism was a lived religion that permeated every area of life, every relationship, and every activity. Puritans endeavored to preach and live the Word of God by the grace of God for the glory of God. For them this was the good life.
If you were living in England and you wanted to be a Puritan, you would have done no better than to enroll at Emmanuel College, Cambridge University. This was the hotbed of Puritanism. For proof, just about all of the original male founders of New England were Emmanuel alumni. As a student there, your first assignment would be to memorize William Ames’s The Marrow of Theology, in its original Latin of course.4
From the very first page we can see what the Puritans were up to. Ames says theology is “the doctrine or teaching of living to God.” To put it more succinctly, theology is the Godward life. Studying the art of living, he further tells us, is our most noble pursuit, and since living for God is the highest form of living, studying the Godward life is the noblest of all pursuits. He declares, “Theology is better defined as that good life whereby we live to God.” These days a number of advertisements touting the good life sell everything from furniture to cars. Ames tells us that the real thing is theology, the good life is the Godward life, and the Godward life is the theological life. It is a life of knowing God, seeing God, walking with God. The Puritans not only told us that we should live theologically—they also showed us how to do it. A convenient frame for living theologically, and for getting at the heart of Puritan beliefs, is found in the last few phrases of the Apostles’ Creed.
“ I believe in . . . the holy catholic [universal] church, the communion of saints.” Puritanism was forged in the context of Roman Catholicism and of burgeoning Anglicanism. Being a member of the church was a matter of one’s birth, one’s national identity. Prior to 1534, anyone who was a citizen of the Holy Roman Empire living in England and had been baptized as an infant was automatically a member of the Roman Catholic Church. After 1534 the same qualifications fit one for membership in the Anglican Church. The Puritans couldn’t go along with that. While most of them held to infant baptism, there were Puritans who held to believer’s baptism. But all of the Puritans, infant and believer’s baptism adherents alike, firmly believed that one must “own the covenant.”
This last phrase, used so often by the Puritans, means that one becomes a member of the true church by confessing the work of Christ on the cross and clinging to the merits of his righteousness. The Puritans spoke of “visible sainthood,” referring to the idea that the church is to be made up of true saints who profess Christ and seek to live for him. The Puritans believed wholeheartedly in the holy, catholic (universal) church, and only those who believe in Christ can be members of this church. Being taken to the baptismal font as an infant is no guarantee of entrance into the church. This marked the Puritans off from Roman Catholics and Anglicans.
Then there’s the phrase “the communion of the saints.” Again this stresses the distinctly Puritan view of the church. Church is not a social club but a group of people brought together by a truly common union in Jesus Christ and in one’s common standing at the foot of the cross. The Puritan understanding of the church as a communion of saints led them to take church discipline seriously. But there’s also a positive side. The Puritans suffered persecution, sometimes finding themselves in jail and more often than not finding themselves on the margins of society. During these tough times they savored the communion of saints. They found courage in corporate worship, comfort in the Lord’s Supper, and solace in the preaching of the Word of God. It was Bunyan, while in prison, who wrote of the church as “the house built by the Lord of the Hill . . . for the relief and security of pilgrims” in Pilgrim’s Progress. The Puritans knew by firsthand experience the sweetness of these words.
“I believe in . . . the forgiveness of sins.” The Puritans understood what it means to be holy and to be a saint because they understood sin. In fact, they could only understand holiness because they understood sin. They didn’t fixate on sin due to some psychological hang-up, despite what Hawthorne might have thought. They weren’t prudes and killjoys. They did know, however, the condition of their hearts. Hawthorne invites us to mock sin and the concepts of guilt and shame that come with it as he unfolds the tumult in the life of Hester Prynne, his novel’s heroine. Against Hawthorne, the Puritans remind us that sin and its attendant guilt and shame are all too real. They didn’t invent sin or guilt or shame as mere cultural conventions to keep control of the group. They knew the power of sin, guilt, and shame to wreak havoc in their own lives and in the lives of those they loved.
They didn’t merely believe in sin, however. They believed in the forgiveness of sin. Guilt is real, but so is grace. Read anywhere in the Puritan writings, and you will bump into the ugliness of sin. Keep reading, and you will see the beauty of grace and the power of God in his mercy to wipe sinful hearts clean through the merits of Christ. They knew sin to be powerful, but they knew the gospel to be more so. They knew the damage sin brings, and they knew the restoration that grace brings. They knew that humanity lost a great deal in the Fall, but they also knew, along with Paul, that humanity gained much more through Christ in redemption. For more, read John Owen’s On the Mortification of Sin or the great epic poems of John Milton, Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. Milton captures the Puritan view of sin and redemption well in the opening lines of Paradise Lost:
Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain that blissful seat.
1. For more on Edwards and his sermons, see Stephen J. Nichols, Jonathan Edwards: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2001).
2. See Stephen J. Nichols, Pages from Church History: A Guided Tour of Christian Classics (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2006).
3. There were suspicions that Charles II was a closet Roman Catholic. His wife was Catholic and had a great influence on him in that direction.
4. William Ames, The Marrow of Theology, trans. John Dykstra Eusden (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1997).