Puritanism refers to the 16th- and 17th-century religious movement in England and Scotland that was based on the doctrines of French theologian John Calvin and adapted by the radical Scottish reformer John Knox. The movement attempted to reform Christianity and simplify church government along lines perceived to be in stricter conformity with biblical texts and the original teachings of Christ. Without Pope or prelates, Puritans expected, like other Protestants, to rely on the authority of scripture and the direct experience of grace. Their project was a part of the larger Reformation movement taking place in Europe under Martin Luther. Puritanism had far-reaching consequences for both the United Kingdom and North America. It was the driving force behind the English Revolution and Civil War of 1642–1649, and it formed part of the motivation for the settlement of New England in the New World as Puritans fleeing persecution sought to create a model Christian community free of external intimidation and internal dissent. As a political and institutional movement, Puritanism grew out of two initially separate developments in England and Scotland.
In the early 16th century, Henry VIII initiated the schism between his kingdom and the Roman Church for purely personal and practical considerations. The Pope not only refused to approve Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, but the papacy stood as a challenge to Henry’s assertion of independent regal authority. To effectuate this institutional maneuvering, however, he had to avail himself of support from a movement that was already gaining strength in the kingdom. Indeed, throughout the borderlands of the north and in the Scottish lowlands, itinerant preachers, heavily indebted to Calvin, had already made deep inroads, structuring their congregations on lines closer to Presbyterianism with a greater degree of decentralization. The official split with Rome merely widened the gap as calls for reform and greater freedom of worship increased. With Mary Tudor’s ascension in 1553, draconian measures were employed to return the English Church to the Catholic fold, but the ultimate effect was to harden Protestant resolve. Reformers interpreted Mary’s brutal reign as divine punishment for their failing to take reforms far enough, but with her death and the reign of her sister Elizabeth, the Reformation was once again ascendant.
Over this same period, John Knox in Scotland championed the doctrines of Calvin in support of a decentralized Church authority and adherence to practices founded on scripture rather than papal authority. With the expulsion and eventual execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth’s cousin and a confirmed Catholic, Presbyterianism was given official recognition throughout Scotland, paving the way for the later unification of the two kingdoms under the English monarchy. Elizabeth was initially heralded by all Protestants as the defender of the faith. However, the independent Church of England was showing signs of strain.
Presbyterians clashed with conservative Anglicans who sought to preserve the hierarchy of bishops, priests, and deacons, much like the old Roman organization. Presbyterians supported more independent congregations, with organization and worship determined by local councils of laity and clergy. In England, these Presbyters differed not only over the question of church organization, but also on clerical vestments and liturgy. As a consequence, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker, attempted to enforce uniformity in dress and worship, but many refused and came to be called Puritans for their stubbornness on what were thought by the Anglicans to be minor issues. Eventually, a sort of uneasy compromise was reached where large numbers of Puritans practiced “Presbyterianism in episcopacy,” which amounted to unofficial bible studies composed of laity and sympathetic clergy. Elizabeth grew increasingly suspicious of these groups, however, correctly suspecting that they had close ties with certain members of Parliament critical of the monarchy. With Elizabeth’s death, James VI of Scotland became James I of England and the first monarch to rule over a united kingdom. However, new tensions quickly surfaced.
While preserving the independence of the English Church, James admired Rome’s structured hierarchy and cultivated financial assistance from the Pope’s leading supporter, Spain. James favored the more bureaucratized and regulatory governments of the Counter Reformation countries, which put him at odds with the rising number of Puritans in Parliament. Separatists, Congregationalists, and Independents especially (i.e., those Puritans who had given up on the idea that the Church of England could be reformed from within and insisted on gathering and worshipping separately and according to their own lights) were targeted for persecution. Many of these people fled to the Netherlands, which had instituted religious toleration in the 16th century. Some of these people journeyed to the New World aboard the Mayflower in 1620, forming a community that would become a beachhead for the settlement of Massachusetts and other New England colonies.
Conditions in England, however, did not reach a boiling point until Charles I ascended the throne. His intransigence eventually led to the English Civil War, the Westminster Assembly, the execution of the King, and the dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell. These developments profoundly shaped the English understanding of sovereignty, the rights of subjects, and the nature of constitutional government, paving the way for the Glorious Revolution at the end of the century. They also revealed the profound differences among Puritan factions with respect to religious freedom, toleration, and political government. Most Puritans continued to support a church establishment, but of a reformed, Presbyterian sort. Although Puritans in England called for toleration of their own beliefs, these demands were made on prudential grounds, as opposed to a principled adherence to religious liberty. Given the power of their opponents in the established church, toleration was a reasonable strategy for survival. In America, however, where Puritan divines felt safe from immediate threat by English authorities, they had little patience for dissenting opinions. The formation of Rhode Island can be seen, in large measure, as the result of New England intolerance. In both Old and New England, only a small group of radicals embraced disestablishment and freedom of conscience. Most of these people were drawn from the ranks of the Separatists and Enthusiasts and had support from the lower ranks of army officers and regular troops. Men such as William Walwyn, a wealthy merchant, and John Lilburne, the pamphleteer, produced powerful arguments for equal rights, free trade, republican government, and church disestablishment. They were often designated Levellers because they championed equality before the law of all citizens and an end to aristocratic privileges.
Ahlstrom, Sydney E. A Religious History of the American People. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972.
Haller, William. The Rise of Puritanism. New York: HarperTorch Books, 1957.
Lutz, Donald S., ed. Colonial Origins of the American Constitution: A Documentary History. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1998.
Richardson, Glen. Renaissance Monarchy: The Reigns of Henry VIII, Francis I and Charles V. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Simpson, Alan. Puritanism in Old and New England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955.
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Trevor-Roper, Hugh. The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century: Religion, the Reformation, and Social Change. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1967.
Walwyn, William. The Writings of William Walwyn. Jack R. McMichael and Barbara Taft, eds. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989.
Originally published .