Where I grew up, the Puritans were always the good guys in the story. New England Puritans, English Civil War Puritans, Elizabethan Puritans, you name it. They were always good guys. Unlike the wicked corrupt Anglicans who would put them in prison and used their wealth and power to try to trample on them. The Puritans wanted to purge the Church of its papist abuses, and that must be a good thing. They wanted toleration for religious minorities, and that must be a good thing. They opposed the idea of a state church, and wanted the Church to be free to rule itself, and that must be a good thing.
I first sensed that something was amiss with this narrative when I realized (I wouldn’t say “learned” because in all probability I already knew it, it had just never hit home) that the Puritans (loosely defined) had beheaded their Archbishop in 1645. That couldn’t be a good thing. And then when I encountered someone in our circles who wanted to lionize Martin Marprelate, and I started looking at the kind of filthy slander Marprelate had written against his pastors, I knew that something was amiss. And more recently, the truth has been laid bare in all its ugliness–the Elizabethan Puritans, at any rate, were characteristically petty, self-righteous, slanderous, vindictive, theologically naive, and unprincipled, to an extent that almost justifies the authoritarian response of Elizabeth, Whitgift, and Bancroft (which was, in any case, not all that authoritarian by the standards of the day).
But, they were at least in favor of the freedom of the Church from the State, right? For religious freedom, rather than authoritarian conformity? And that’s gotta be a good thing, right?
So I’ve been inclined to think. In reality, though, it’s not at all clear that we can cast the Puritans as the noble fighters for the freedom of the Christian conscience and the freedom of the Church from the State. Both claims are somewhat anachronistic impositions from a later era. In reality, the Puritans were not fighting so much for permission of a righteous minority to pursue its own church polity within the commonwealth, but were fighting for the complete makeover of the commonwealth along the lines demanded by the righteous minority. Neither Puritan or Anglican envisioned religious diversity; they envisioned either a Church of England ruled according to Anglican principles, and nothing else, or a Church of England ruled according to Puritan principles, and nothing else. All minorities want tolerance as long as they’re minorities, but if they can become the majority (or at least the most powerful), few show much interest in tolerance anymore.
The second claim is more interesting. Is it true that the Puritans were fighting for the freedom of the Church from political control? Well, again we might cynically say that this was just a pragmatic stance, and one that they were happy to reverse if they seized political power. However, at the theological level, there was an important sense in which the Puritans were fighting for ecclesial autonomy (though whether they were theologically right is questionable). What’s interesting here is how, for pragmatic purposes, they set aside that principle from the get-go, and were actually, throughout the Elizabethan controversies, the ones trying to manipulate the Church.
See, what’s interesting about the Elizabethan settlement is that it’s not simply the subjection of the Church to the State that we moderns might imagine. On the contrary, political and ecclesial power are set up as separate parallel governments in the Elizabethan constitution, united only in the person of the sovereign. Queen Elizabeth was head of the Church and of the State, but she governed the one through the bishops, and the other through Parliament. For Parliament to seek to govern the Church was, in Elizabeth’s mind, an unacceptable political intervention in the affairs of the Church. Yet it was precisely this that the Puritans sought to effect. Having marked out the bishops as their irreconcilable foes (on the whole, quite unfairly, since most of the Elizabethan bishops were actually quite moderate and reasonable), the Puritans radicalized their position and called for the abolition of the episcopacy. Clearly this was a “reform” that they could not try to pursue through the existing structures of the Church, so they turned to political machinery to accomplish their goal, using Parliament to propose legislation that would remove power from the bishops. And it was this, more than anything, that Queen Elizabeth would not tolerate–the idea that Parliament should be permitted to set ecclesiastical policy, which was the responsibility of the bishops. Hence, she vetoed every bill that came forward, not always on account of their content, but chiefly on account of what she saw as their unconstitutionality.
Throughout the Elizabethan period, the story is the same–the Puritans working for a politically, rather than ecclesiastically, determined government of the Church. So which side was it that stood for the freedom of the Church from political manipulation, from subjection to the State, if this is our ideal? Well, neither really, since our ideals were simply not the ideals of the sixteenth-century, but if one had to pick, one might well say the Anglicans, not the Puritans, and that’s what you call ironic.