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  • Writer's pictureObbie Tyler Todd

Who was the last Puritan?

What does it mean to be a “Puritan”? In the sixteenth century, under Queen Elizabeth, the word was actually a term of opprobrium. Criticism of Puritans was often so harsh that scholars have identified a strain of “anti-Puritanism” that thrived for multiple generations. Puritans were those who believed the English Reformation under Henry VIII had not gone far enough. In 1581 Percival Wilburn provided one of the best-known definitions of this zealous group when he labeled Puritans that “hotter sort” of Protestant. The vestiges of Catholicism still lingered in the Church of England, and Puritans were those Christians who wished to see their beloved church conform completely to the precepts of Scripture and with the Continental Reformation in Germany and Switzerland. After the short reign of Edward VI, his half-sister Mary I sought to erase the religious memories of the past twenty-five years and restore the Church to the condition she enjoyed in her youth: Catholicism. The ensuing persecution of Protestants under Mary was so vigorous that over eight hundred souls fled to the Continent to escape her Catholic tyranny, which lasted only six years. It was here that many of the leaders of the Elizabethan Puritan movement were educated in cities like Frankfurt and Geneva under Continental Reformers such as Martin Bucer, John Calvin, or Heinrich Bullinger.

Today the word “Puritan” is understood in a much broader sense. For example, Jonathan Edwards is often designated as the Connecticut River Puritan, despite the fact that he wasn’t a member of the Church of England. He was an American Congregationalist. Therefore, in its original sense, Edwards was not a Puritan because he was obviously not attempting to “purify” the Church of England. Those Separatists who ventured to the New World in the hopes of establishing colonies founded upon Scripture also do not qualify as “Puritan” in the original sense. Due to their hatred for schism, seventeenth century Puritans loathed Separatists like Baptist John Smyth and Presbyterian Robert Browne just as intensely as they did Roman Catholics. After all, a “Puritan” was loyal to the Church of England…hence the purifying. The principle here is not unlike Martin Luther’s quest to “reform” the Catholic Church. The Wittenberg Reformer viciously denounced the Anabaptists because of their schism from the Catholic Church (amongst other reasons). Likewise, Puritans were English Reformers in every sense.

Due to the elastic nature of the word “Puritan,” however, many evangelicals today feel the liberty to superimpose their own struggles and goals upon the history of Puritanism, essentially claiming it as their own. For example, when a Reformed thinker fondly refers to J.I. Packer as “the last Puritan,” what is inferred is not so much his commitment to proper ecclesiology but to Reformed soteriology. However, the original Puritan movement did not see a legitimate Arminian foe until the reign of Charles I with the Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud, the figure often viewed as the greatest Puritan nemesis. It was actually Laud’s suppression of church lecturers that precipitated, for example, Thomas Hooker’s emigration to the Netherlands and eventually to America. Ironically, so many of the journeys to the New World were set in motion by an Arminian autocrat who eventually convinced hundreds of Calvinist Puritans that the orthodox church they had fought so hard to purify was now lost to heresy.

Before William Laud, however, most English Archbishops unkind to Puritans were still themselves Calvinists. John Whitgift, who succeeded Puritan Edmund Grindal at Canterbury in 1583 and had no tolerance for Protestant nonconformity, once cited John Calvin to support his own policies! The 39 Articles, for example, was a specifically Calvinist document agreed upon by Puritans and non-Puritans alike. While Calvinism was sine qua non with English and Scottish Puritanism, for generations it was by no means its most distinguishing doctrine. Instead, Puritanism began as a movement over liturgy and church government. For Puritans, soteriology was inextricable from ecclesiology. For martyrs like Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, and Thomas Cranmer (“The Oxford Martyrs”), the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the mass, transubstantiation, and the propitiatory merit of the mass were completely unbiblical and could not be reconciled with the Christian conscience.

Still, aside from the murderous reign of “Bloody Mary,” the Puritan cause remained largely over issues concerning prayer books and the apparel worn by Anglican priests. For example, during the reign of Edward VI, Puritans introduced a First then a Second Prayer Book that (1) instituted congregational communion instead of a sacrificial Mass, (2) dispensed with the very word Mass, (3) and prescribed ministers to officiate in a surplice rather than in the former mass vestments. The Second Act of Uniformity gave approval to this Second Prayer Book. Unfortunately, less than a year after the Second Prayer Book was approved, the death of the King signaled a restoration of Catholicism between 1553-1558. Mary withdrew authorization for both the Second and the more conservative First Prayer Book, essentially reverting the state back to the age of Henry VIII. Soon after the accession of Mary, the future leader of the Scotland Reformation John Knox emigrated to the Continent where he eventually landed in Geneva, a city he would use as his model for reformation in Scotland. However, Knox only arrived in Geneva after being banished from Frankfurt, Germany due to a clash with other exiled Puritans over whether to use the Genevan prayer book or the Edwardian prayer book. Liturgy was important for Puritans.

To American evangelicals, such a dispute might sound trivial, but such a dispute clearly demonstrates the importance of biblical worship that Puritans ascribed to their church and how this “regulative principle” was to be applied. When Queen Elizabeth ascended the throne, she passed both an Act of Supremacy recognizing herself as the supreme governor (not “Head”) over the Church and allowing communion to be celebrated in both kinds. The second piece of legislation was known as the Act of Uniformity, which, among other things, affirmed the Second (and less conservative) Edwardian Prayer Book but with the important addition of sentences at the communion service which would allow for a more commemorative interpretation of the sacrament, and with the equally important deletion of the “black rubric” (a clause which explained why the communicants should kneel during the offering of the Eucharist). It also prescribed that ministers should wear those vestments that had been worn in the second year of Edward VI, not during the reign of Mary I. Again, liturgy was important. However, church government was also.

While Elizabeth signaled a “Protestant” transition in the land, England was very much still an Erastian kingdom (i.e. the state was superior in authority in ecclesiastical matters). Therefore episcopacy was still the law of the land. Much to the chagrin of most Puritans, bishops usually served as pawns for the political action of the Queen instead of ministers for the edification of the Church. For this reason, the Presbyterian movement fostered by men like Thomas Cartwright was squashed with the fury of Elizabeth because its equality of ministers pitted itself against her especially autocratic style of rule. Puritans fought for Presbyterianism not simply because they saw it prescribed in Scripture; they also believed it was a thoroughly pastoral polity. In other words, Puritans were anti-episcopal because they believed elders and teachers shouldn't be distanced from their flocks. Ecclesiology is soteriology.

The history of Puritanism serves a number of noble purposes for the modern church today, among them an appreciation for our Protestant forbears, martyrs, and soldiers of the faith who contended for orthodoxy in a time when it was deadly to do so. However, Puritanism also points us to the importance of liturgy and ecclesiology in the life of the church itself. These were, according to the Puritans, not adiaphorous, or nonessential issues. Long before Puritans fought for the Calvinism of the church, they first contended for proper forms of worship and government, things they saw as integral to spiritual flourishing. We should follow their cue in examining the how and the why of our own church life. Perhaps why the name of Puritan has endured for so long in our own age is partially due to the seeming theological demise and moral collapse of the Church of England. Many evangelicals on both sides of the Atlantic today can attest to the lines from George Herbert’s poem written during the oppression of William Laud: “Religion stands on tiptoe in our land, Ready to pass to the American strand.” With the modern assault upon English orthodoxy on all levels, it now seems that American evangelicals have now, in some ways, picked up the Puritan mantle to continue pure and undefiled religion in the face of the Babylonian state. Therefore it seems, at least for now, that the epithet of Puritan will endure, however with a few more modifications.

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