Thursday, March 06, 2008

Puritans - Who are they?

I have to say that the Puritans are a fascinating bunch of guys, but exactly which group of guys they are is a matter of some historical debate. Usually in Reformed circles and especially in Presbyterian circles Puritan is a good thing and thus Puritans are anyone who agrees with you that ever lived in England or New England. Joel Beeke has a book out called Meet the Puritans. I have not bought this book out of protest. Beeke, who is interested in the Puritans because of their influence on the Further Reformation in Holland, does not seem to have a good definition of Puritans. He does not include John Dod, who has to be labeled a Puritan, but is not known because nothing of his work is currently reprinted. John Dod is included in the The Puritan Bookshelf collection, but so is Samuel Rutherford who is a Scottish Presbyterian and should not be considered a Puritan in anyway. Just in case you doubt the wide range of the Puritan Bookshelf they also have Theodore Beza, who I am pretty sure never set foot in England. Fire and Ice, an internet site dedicated to Puritan and Reformed writings, has a Puritan Quote of the Week. This ‘Puritan Quote’ can come from Jonathan Edwards, a New England Congregationalist, Ralph Erskine, a Scottish Presbyterian, or Thomas Watson an English non-conformist during the Civil War. Quite a range.

The problem comes in trying to define what is a Puritan or what are the fundamental beliefs that make one a Puritan. This is something not enough people wrestle with and it leads to the wide broad strokes that is used for Puritan today. In the next few posts I want to try and define this term. The term Puritan does not really appear until the reign of Elizabeth, and thus it seems odd to think of Puritans existing prior to Elizabeth. Even Bishop Hooper, who began the first controversy which the Puritans would take up, the Vestments, should probably only be considered a pre-Puritan. The main tenant of Puritanism has to be the desire for a pure worship and making the Church of England Scripturally pure. Thus, to be a true Puritan one must be a member of the Church of England. They begin in earnest with the Elizabethan Act of Uniformity in 1559 that required the wearing of the vestments and several other things that Puritans found offensive. The Puritans continue as members of the Church of England until Archbishop Laud right before the English Civil War forces them out. Puritanism has to be said to end on St. Bartholomew’s Day 1662 when the Act of Uniformity that had been passed in May went into effect. Over 2,000 ministers left the Church of England and the idea of purifying the church from within ended.

Thus, I think we can lay down a few ground rules for who is a Puritan and who is not. First, there is the time constraint. It has to be between the ascension of Queen Elizabeth in 1558 and the Act of Uniformity of 1662. They have to either be members of the Church of England or forcibly removed from the Church of England. In other words those who are separatists should not be considered Puritans because they do not wish to Purify the Church of England. Americans should be a category unto themselves. Presbyterians should also not be considered Puritans because of the inherent conflicts between Presbyterian Polity and the Episcopal system. This will be explored further at a later time. No real theological test should be applied as some Puritans may favor the Queen as the head of the church and some may oppose it. Some may be strict Calvinists and others favor universal atonement. The only unifying theological theme is the opposition to unscriptural traditions within the Church of England. Usually this revolves around vestments, the Book of Common Prayer, kneeling, and occasionally authority and other such things.

In the end this means the majority of people usually associated with Puritanism should not be considered Puritans at all. I will give a quick list and this too can be discussed further in the future.

Fits my conditions to be a Puritan:
William Perkins
William Ames – was removed, but only by royal decree.
John Dod
Laurence Chaterdon
Archbishop Grindal
Richard Baxter – he seemed to favor presbyterianism, but always appeared ready to accept Episcopalianism
Joseph Hall

Do not fit my conditions to be a Puritan:
Thomas Goodwin
John Owen
Thomas Cartwright
Thomas Watson
Jonathan Edwards

I hope to have more discussion on the reasons for my qualifications up soon.


Anonymous said...

Hi Lee,

Interesting topic. I do disagree a bit and would point to a modern example. Think about how the definition of a conservative works today. In the future, one might draw the circle so tight as to exculde everybody who doesn't agree with say what you read in Chronicles. I think from one perspective doing so might be defensible, but the result would a major misreading of the facts on the ground today. In other words, a narrow definition of "conservative" might include Thomas Fleming and exclude David Brooks, but by forcing such a narrow definiation on the word, we really misrepresent the way in which the term conservative is used in the marketplace today.

I think the better question would be were Thomas Watson, John Cotton, Thomas Hooker and John Owen viewed by their general society as "Puritans"?


Lee said...

Thanks for the comment and you make an interesting point. The problem is that Elizabeth viewed everyone who opposed her (that was not a papist) as a Puritan. She took a low view of them all because of her intense dislike of Geneva and just labeled all people Puritans. Thus, in trying to find out who the Puritans are in their own general society you run into the slander of their opponents who understood them not. I believe a similar problem can be found in France with the Huguenots.

The other reason is because Puritanism started with a goal: Reform the Church of England and purge it of its superstitions. Men like John Owen, Thomas Cartwright and others did not have that goal. They wanted rather to replace the Church of England completely with something different. Congregationalism and Presbyterianism respectively. Despite the Anglicans calling everyone else a Puritan, I do not think it was a correct view.

I fully agree that this is not the way Puritan is used in the marketplace today. However, I think the way the word is used in the marketplace today is wrong and makes the word worthless.

Andrew Duggan said...

Isn't the fact that the term Puritan was used as epitaph/slur against those who disagreed with Her Majesty the Head of the Church of England, (QE I) with respect to the polity and practice of the Church one of the main reasons for the squishiness of the definition of the term?

I don't think it's altogether without merit to allow the term to be applied to any minister in England at the time that was trying to apply the ideas of the protestant Reformation to the ecclesiastical situation in England in reaction to the civil root of the reformation in England and the resulting state control of the church. Did the Puritans start off as a self concious group or party? Or, rather, did the group and the movement ebb, flow and coalesce and then fall apart? Was being an Erastian a condition for being a Puritan?

Just like people today, some Puritans had more of a focus on purifying worship, and others on purifying polity. I think to excise the independents like Owen or the presbyterians is to miss the point of what Puritans were doing, especially at their zenith during the English Civil war (1640s). Part of the trouble is there has never been a good separation of Church and State in England, since Henry VIII.

Is it really fair to lump all the English presbyterians of that age together like that? I've never gotten the impression that that Puritan presbyterians were trying to do away with the CoE, but rather wanted to make the CoE presbyterian like the CoS to the north. Wasn't that one of the intents of the Solemn League and Covenant (at least from the English side)?

On the other hand, I agree - that today in reformed circles, people like to using the term as a marketing gimmick, and I couldn't agree more that associating Beza as a Puritan is absurd.