Puritanism: A Guide for the Perplexed

Readers of this blog hear a lot about Puritanism, most of it bad.  But what on earth is Puritanism?  What do we mean by the term?  It means a dozens of different things to different people, and in fact always has.  In hopes of helping clear the waters a bit and establishing the context for my own use of the term (which I am toying of discarding in favor of “precisianism,” for reasons you will see below), I’ve adapted the following introductory discussion from my chapter draft on Puritanism, and I hope it is of some use and interest to those who have been scratching their heads all this time:

Between 1567 and 1572, the Elizabethan Church enters upon a decisive new stage, engendering a movement which was to leave a wide and lasting legacy on the Reformed world, particularly in Britain and America, over succeeding centuries, a movement traditionally known as “Puritanism.”  Although a number of scholars have quite helpfully traced lines of development for the Puritan movement back to the Marian exile, or the Edwardian reform, or even the Henrician period, there is wisdom in the preference among contemporary scholars to confine the term to the Elizabethan era and beyond.  While the Elizabethan Vestiarian controversy is quite frequently narrated as the first chapter in this new movement, and is undoubtedly central to its development (as recognized in the previous chapter), there are good reasons for drawing a caesura between its conclusion in 1567 and the outbreak of the Admonition Controversy in 1572, when young radicals John Field and Thomas Wilcox, frustrated by the lack of official response to Puritan complains, published and disseminated a scandalously rancorous Admonition to Parliament.  

The document, clearly intended (despite its name) as a piece of public propaganda, ignited a firestorm of controversy: Field and Wilcox were imprisoned, an official Answere by John Whitgift was commissioned, and battle lines were drawn as pamphlets and counter-pamphlets, treatises and counter-treatises, began to multiply.  The immediate literary controversy, in which Whitgift emerged as the spokesman for the establishment, and Thomas Cartwright as the spokesman for the Puritans, lasted until 1577, but the movement that the Admonition called into being lasted in organized form until the early 1590s, when it had grown so militant that dramatic steps were taken by the bishops and Elizabeth’s Privy Council to quash it.  The personnel of this new movement, however, were rarely the same as those who had fought it out with the bishops over vestments in 1565-67, most of whom had grudgingly submitted when it was clear the policy was inflexible.  Of the twenty scrupulous Protestants who presented a supplication to the bishops over vestments in 1565, only three, says Patrick Collinson, “remained staunch to the radical cause until their deaths,” and most “at once dissociated themselves from the new extremism.”  So much so, in fact, that from 1572 on, “we are evidently witnessing the beginnings of a new movement rather than the conversion of the old.”

And indeed, the issues at stake in the Admonition Controversy are far different, and broader, than those in the Vestiarian.  No longer is the question one of the legitimate scope for resisting imposition of certain ceremonies that troubled scrupulous consciences, a dispute on the margins of the Elizabethan settlement, but it concerns the basic validity of that settlement across the board.  “We in England are so far off from having a church rightly reformed, according to the precscript of God’s word, that as yet we are not come to the outward face of the same,” the Admonition fulminates, throwing down a gauntlet to the bishops and the government.  At stake now is not whether the bishops should enforce strict conformity, but whether the bishops have power to govern the church at all; not whether civil law should presume to bind ministers to wear the cap and surplice, but whether civil authority has any place in the church.  A fundamental platform of the Admonition is the presbyterian doctrine of church government, which, aside from a general sense that lower clergy ought to have more authority in determining church affairs, had been nowhere on the radar in the earlier controversy.  This system of polity is not presented as a suggestion, as that best suited to the edification and good government of the churches, but as a biblical requirement.  This emphasis reflects a shift in attitudes toward adiaphora across the board, with the new Admonitionists suggesting not so much that indifferent ceremonies were being used unedifyingly, but that they were not indifferent in the first place.  As Collinson puts it, the “presbyterians replaced pragmatism with dogma.”  Earlier protests against tyranny in adiaphora, and suggestions that only Scripture could guide us to their right use, hardly seem to provide a basis for these aggressive new claims.

The reasons for such a dramatic shift in the tenor of protest, it must be confessed, remain something of a mystery.  The faultlines in the doctrines of adiaphora and Christian liberty, as we have argued in the previous chapter and shall explore further here, lead rather naturally to the biblicist mutation we find in the Admonition.  The adoption of Presbyterianism, however, appears more surprising, though it can be largely explained by two factors.  The first was the bishops’ complete loss of credibility during the Vestiarian controversy.  While in fact most of them were sympathetic to the concerns of scrupulous ministers, they were called upon to act as enforcers of a policy demanded by their sovereign, who discreetly recused herself from controversy, refusing to lend any official support, or civil enforcement, to the policy she had asked Archbishop Parker to promulgate.  Parker and his colleagues, then, were left in the unenviable position of justifying a policy which they had not crafted, unable to appeal to the sovereign for backing, and thus sure to appear to their opponents like arbitrary, power-hungry clerical tyrants of the sort that the Reformation had meant to rid England.  This, and the passionate attachment of most Englishmen to their sovereign, led those unsatisfied with the resolution of the controversy to focus their animus on the bishops, and begin calling into question the validity of the office in the first place, given its obviously (to them) tyrannical tendencies.  Second, the fact that Beza in Geneva had written sympathetically on behalf of the anti-Vestiarians, while Bullinger in Zurich had sided largely with the bishops meant that dissidents (many of whom had been exiles in Geneva under Mary), began to look exclusively to Geneva to find resources for their cause.  Beza’s presbyterian doctrine, a hardened and doctrinaire version of that which Calvin had pioneered, was taken up by some of these dissidents, particularly Thomas Cartwright, who made a name for himself by expounding the Presbyterian system in a series of lectures on Acts at Cambridge in 1570.  However, it is not enough to explain Cartwright’s Presbyterianism simply as the application of Genevan ideas to England, as has been customary among many historians.  On the contrary, with Cartwright and his associate Walter Travers, we find a systematic development of Presbyterianism, along with a distinctive version of the two-kingdoms doctrine, that went beyond anything Beza had yet articulated and indeed likely exerted an influence on his own crystallization of Presbyterian doctrine.  Certainly, Cartwright’s views on adiaphora, law in Scripture, and the two kingdoms go well beyond those of his hero Calvin, with whom he has too often been simply equated.


Of course, it will not do to let Cartwright speak for all so-called Puritans.  When Collinson speaks of a new movement beginning with the Admonition, he does not intend by this to imply the extinguishment of the old.  On the contrary, the more moderate style of nonconformity, and the more measured calls for the reform of obvious abuses in the administration and preaching ministry of the church, continued well beyond the Admonition Controversy, and indeed outlasted the demise of the hard-line Presbyterian movement in the 1590s.  Collinson and Peter Lake have succeeded in the last few decades in reconfiguring our concept of Puritanismso that no longer is the extreme rhetoric of the Admonition Controversy normative in defining the movement.  Rather, the moderate noncomformity and zealous Protestantism of a Laurence Chaderton (the Master of Emmanuel College at Cambridge from 1584 to 1622), they have argued, is more representative of the ethos of Puritanism, which is thus close to the mainstream, rather than on the dissident fringe, of Elizabethan and Jacobean Puritanism.  

This study can thus not avoid the extraordinarily vexed question of defining “Puritanism,” a question disputed for four centuries and now it appears further from resolution than ever.  Contemporary historians have vied with one another in expressing frustration with the elusiveness of the concept.  Patrick Collinson likens it to an elephant whose shape and attributes are debated by a group of blindfolded men, Christopher Hill to a “dragon in the path of every student of the period,” and W.J. Sheils to a “protean beast.”  If I might add my own metaphor to the discussion, we might say that Puritanismis like an impressionist painting, which appears luminous and distinct from a distance, but dissolves into a chaos of incongruous colors upon closer inspection. 

This ambiguity is perhaps not surprising in view of the fact that the term “puritan” originated as a term of abuse by its conformist opponents, and thus it was naturally long before any puritan acknowledged the term for himself.  As is usual with protest movements, puritanism had far more unity in the eyes of its opponents than of its various advocates, who quarrelled with one another, each denouncing others as either extremists or time-servers, and claiming his own platform as a moderate middle ground.  Elizabethan puritanism combined conformist, reformist, and separatist impulses, which created faultlines not merely between different “puritans” but often within one and the same puritan leader.  So it is that at different points in his career, we find Thomas Cartwright denouncing the Church in England as one that can scarcely lay claim to the title, having denied the kingship of Christ over it, and defending it against Rome as a true and pure church, authentically reformed; Presbyterianism is presented at times as a sine qua non for a church of Christ, at times merely as a desirable ornament.   Peter Lake has thus sought to undermine any attempt to draw a clear and fixed dividing line between “moderate” and “radical” Puritanism, mere conscientious nonconformity and Presbyterianism.  Amid the shifting rhetorical contexts in which Puritan principles were advocated, and the at times turtuous attempts of Puritan leaders to resolve the warring impulses within their own platform, it is no wonder that many modern historians have thrown up their hands in resignation at the attempt to describe a coherent theological or practical agenda for the movement.

A number of a generalizations attempting to define the heart of Puritan doctrine, many rooted in the earliest conformist polemics, have been offered, refuted, and counter-offered in variant forms.  For instance, it has been common to summarize the essence of Puritanism as biblicism; as Christopher Durston and Jacqueline Eales put it, “for the puritan the Bible was elevated to the status of the sole and complete repository of doctrinal and moral truth.”  They go on to quote William Bradshaw that Scripture was “the sole canon and rule of all matters” and Jacobean Puritan Robert Harley’s description of a Puritan as “one that dares do nothing in the worship of God or course of his life but what God’s word warrants him, and dares not leave undone anything that the word commands him.”  Of course, as others have pointed out, a high view of Scripture was not at all unique to Puritans, but was shared by their conformist adversaries; the difference, then, can be identified when it comes to the question of adiaphora.  Puritanism, it has been declared, consists in the rejection of the concept of adiaphora: “the Puritans’ extreme reliance on scripture led them . . . to denounce the whole idea that certain religious observances were ‘adiaphora’—‘things indifferent’—and that the leaders of the church and government had the right to decide whether they were valid and binding.”  Yet this stereotype has been categorically denied by John S. Coolidge in his detailed study of Puritanism and adiaphora, The Pauline Renaissance in England: “The Puritan categorically denies that he means what Conformists nevertheless persist in suspecting that he means: ‘to exact at our hands for every action the knowledge of some place of Scripture out of which we stand bound to deduce it . . .’ .  On the contrary, Puritans sometimes make a point of insisting that there is no precise scriptural directive for Church ceremonies, and that these should therefore not be the same in all times and places.”  And indeed, Peter Lake’s study Moderate Puritans in the Elizabethan Church not only reveals moderates like Chaderton extensively employing the adiaphora concept, but even Thomas Cartwright himself in his critiques of separatism during the 1580s.  Indeed, even in the Admonition Controversy, Cartwright repeatedly grants the validity of the concept, and either contends simply that a particular matter under dispute (e.g., Presbyterian church government) does not happen to be an adiaphoron, or else falls back upon the earlier insistence that adiaphora must be used to edification.  On this basis, Lake and others have denied that a rejection of adiaphora should be understood as part of even the Puritan platform.  Stephen Brachlow, on the other hand, cautions against disposing too readily of this stereotype, noting that harder-line Puritans were subject to intense cross-pressures when it came to this question, unable to do away with the adiaphora concept in certain settings, but hardly comfortable with it.

Another common but unstable stereotype is the idea, loudly and frequently repeated by their conformist opponents, that Puritans were seditious, against the royal supremacy over the Church, ready to “spoil him [the magistrate] of the one half of his jurisdiction.”  Puritan opposition to the royal supremacy, and indeed revolutionary tendencies more broadly, has been a popular subject among modern historians, always eager to find political implications to old theological controversies.  And yet here too the “protean beast” proves elusive, with Puritans of all stripes vying with one another in the fervency with which they affirm their loyalty to the Queen and even her supremacy over the Church.  John Penry, a radical if there ever was one, executed for sedition in 1593, calls the charge “plaine slandering” and protests “Looke whatsoever prerogative in ecclesiastical or civil causes hee or any man livinge can truly attribut unto the civil magistrate, wee do the same.”  Cartwright also never loses an opportunity, in his interchange with Whitgift, to denounce Whitgift’s charges on this score, and insists that on the Presbyterian platform, the Queen would still have wide jurisdiction over religious matters.  Confronted with these protestations of innocence, some historians have suggested that this is a point which tends to divide Presbyterians, who still favor an established church, from separatists, who seek a “reformation without tarrying for the magistrate.”  Yet as the example of Penry, on the verge of separatism when he wrote the tract quoted above, shows, this generalization too falters.  Brachlow’s treatment of the issue in Communion of Saints conclusively shows even hardened separatists doing homage to the concept of the royal supremacy.  Again, however, he suggests that this does not mean that the stereotype is altogether wrong; instead, we find strong cross-pressures which led more radical Puritans to continue making affirmations that they had great difficulty squaring with their doctrine.  Certainly it was the opinion of many conformists at the time, such as Whitgift and Bancroft, that puritans affirmations of loyalty were mere lip-service, and the true thrust of their platform, intentional or not, was destructive to the Queen’s jurisdiction. 

The distinction of Presbyterians and separatists, just mentioned, is another way in which historians have attempted to make sense of the various threads within the Puritan movement.  The former still wanted an established church, legally imposed on the nation as a whole, with a unified institutional apparatus, while the latter argued for individual voluntary congregations of the faithful, free from the coercion of the magistrate or of clerocratic Presbyterian synods.  Certainly this divergence loomed large in the 1640s and 1650s, once Puritans were given the opportunity to put their program into practice, but as Brachlow has convincingly shown, it is somewhat anachronistic five decades earlier, in which any line the historian draws between the two camps dissolves on closer inspection.  Again, he argues, all Puritans were cross-pressured by the desire on the one hand to maintain unity with the national church and the inability to imagine a plurality of “churches” within the same land, and on the other hand, their strong emphasis on the need for “visible saints,” for the church to become in reality the pure community of the “godly” that God had called it to be, and to exclude the lukewarm from its midst.


Given the evident difficulty of drawing stable generalizations about Puritanismas either a theology or as a political-ecclesiastical program, and yet the seemingly indispensable value of the concept, there has been a notable shift among historians in recent years toward thinking and speaking of Puritanismas a “culture,” an “ethos,” or a “mentalité.”  Durston and Eales capture the new emphasis well in their statement “Above all else, puritanism was a movement grounded in a highly distinctive cast of mind—or to use a more fashionable term, mentalité—which displayed itself in the individual puritan as a peculiarly severe yet vibrant spirituality, and within groups of puritans as a unique and dynamic religious culture.”  Along with this has gone a tendency to rely less and less on polemical portrayals of puritanismby its opponents, given the obvious difficulty of mapping their stereotypes onto the messy reality, and more on more on the internal dynamics of Puritanismin its various manifestations, as attested by its adherents and the products of its practical piety.  Moreover, by focusing less on attempts to draw strict dividing lines  between “Puritan” and “Anglican,” contemporary scholarship has been able to recognize much more clearly the extent to which aspects of Puritan theology and culture permeated the Elizabethan and Jacobean churches.  Accordingly, it seems that recent studies have grown increasingly tired of the tendency to rely on the “canonical texts” of Puritanism—the writings of Thomas Cartwright and his close allies during and immediately following the Admonition Controversy—for an understanding the movement, deeming them to have been mined to depletion by now, unlikely to yield much fresh insight.

Unquestionably, the recent flowering of scholarship along these lines has fostered an abundance of new understanding, shattering sterile stereotypes and paving the way for fresh consideration of aspects of Puritan life and piety, and lesser-known Puritan figures that have been previously marginalized.  What it has gained in breadth, though, it may be fair to say, some of the recent scholarship has sacrificed in depth.  That is to say, by adopting a posture of skeptical detachment from the sharp dichotomies drawn by the preeminent theological interlocutors of the period—Cartwright and Travers on the one hand, Whitgift and later Hooker on the other—scholars have perhaps missed opportunities to clearly discern the genuine theological commitments that were at stake and their relation to the received principles and tensions of the magisterial Reformation. If we conclude too hastily that conformist allegations of Puritan “popery” or “Anabaptistry” are mere stock-in-trade polemical jabs, without asking why these identifications were significant to the interlocutors, we will miss substantive emerging differences in ecclesiology and the theology of law and authority.  Given the remarks above about the elusiveness of pinning down Puritan convictions, it goes without saying that many of the theological faultlines are implicit, and take the form of divergent emphases rather than fundamentally contradictory claims.  We must resist the temptation to impute directly to any of these theologians the apparent logical conclusions of his claims, but we must equally resist the temptation to say nothing about those underlying trajectories.  

If we confine ourselves to the period 1570-1593, and to the more “radical puritans” of this period, those determined to erect a Presbyterian discipline, we might do well to jettison the slippery terminology of “puritan” and adopt instead what was in fact the designation of choice in this early period, “precisian.”  This too, of course, was a pejorative term adopted by conformist adversaries, rather than a self-label, but it captures perhaps more clearly the aspects of the presbyterian movement that will dominate my discussion here, and that dominated Whitgift, Bancroft, and Hooker’s critiques of the movement.  

In this, I am following the lead of Dwight Bozeman, who in his recent book The Precisianist Strain: Disciplinary Religion and Antinomian Backlash in Puritanismto 1638, identifies the theme of “preciseness,” a “zest for regulation,” as lying at the heart of both Puritan theology and piety.  “A primary attribute of the deity they served, ‘exact precise severitie’ was equally a habit and credential of his people.  ‘Walke precisely, or exactly, or strictly in all things,’ enjoined John Preston in a sermon, ‘Exact Walking’ . . . . To ‘walk exactly,’ this eminent preacher and college head explained, is to ‘goe to the extremity.’  It is ‘so to keepe the commandements . . . that a man goes to the utmost of them, . . . lookeing to every particle of them.”  It is clear from this description that by speaking of Puritan “preciseness” Bozeman does not mean to resurrect the stereotype of Puritan as mere nitpicker, preoccupied by a merely negative agenda of removing offenses that trouble his trivial scruples.  John Coolidge, echoed by Peter Lake, has rightly attacked this image, emphasising the very positive vision of reform that drove precisians of all stripes.  But contrary to Coolidge’s sometimes rosy-spectacled revisionism, this positive reform was to be conducted at every point according to strictly predefined rules, under the watchful eye of a rule-loving God.  At the heart of this outlook was the urge to leave as little undetermined as possible, and the conviction that failures to conform to these determinations were punished severely.  

It is not at all hard to see how such an outlook was bound to create deep theological rifts in a church formed by the Protestant spirit of adiaphorism, which contended both that a great deal of the Christian life was left undetermined—or at least underdetermined—by God’s commandments, and that, by virtue of the doctrine of justification by faith, failures to walk exactly were readily pardonable.  The doctrine of Christian liberty, with which the Puritan protest began, is at risk of being lost in a thicket of legalism.

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