THE ENGLISH PURITANS – THE RISE AND FALL OF THE PURITAN MOVEMENT by John Brown.
Published by Christian Heritage. Paperback, 160 pages, £5.99.
Available from the Free Presbyterian Bookroom, 133 Woodlands Road, Glasgow, G3 6LE
JOHN BROWN (1830-1922) was a Congregational minister and the author of a standard biography of John Bunyan. In this book he presents a masterly summary of the rise, development, achievements and decline of Puritanism. His interesting narrative, lucid style, and clear analysis of events, make it an excellent book for anyone who wishes to understand the nature of Puritanism, and its impact even to this day. We commend it.
Brown’s opinion is that the Puritan movement (viewed as political as well as religious) began to take significant shape at the accession of Queen Elizabeth I in 1558, and continued for about a hundred years. The book therefore covers the 45-year reign of Elizabeth, the reign of James I from 1603, and of Charles I from 1625, and the protectorate of Oliver Cromwell from 1649 to 1658.
In the sixteenth century, Puritanism was, to quote from the book, “not so much an organised system as a religious temper and moral force”, and the term Puritan described those men who were “bent on carrying the Protestant Reformation to a further point”. In the seventeenth century the term became “the recognised name of that party in the State which contended for the constitutional rights and liberties of the people against the encroachments of the Crown”. Brown defines the fundamental idea of Puritanism in all its manifestations as “the supreme authority of Scripture brought to bear upon the conscience, as opposed to an unenlightened reliance on the priesthood and the outward ordinances of the Church”. This key concept of Puritanism emerges repeatedly in Brown’s compelling account of the conflict between the Puritans, on one hand, and the monarchy and prelatic powers on the other.
Those in the English Church who had fled to the Continent for refuge from the Marian persecution expressed their hope, on the accession of Elizabeth, that they would return to England to “teach and practise the true knowledge of God’s Word which we have learned in our banishment, and by God’s merciful providence have seen in the best Reformed Churches”. But Elizabeth was of another mind. She was determinedly and constantly opposed to the reforms sought by those Puritans, and imperiously imposed her will on the Church.
Losing hope of achieving their ends through the Queen, the Puritans appealed to Parliament by presenting to it in 1572 their manifesto, known as the First Admonition to Parliament, followed by the Second Admonition a year or two later. The Queen ordered that the authors of those documents be rigorously dealt with. She also commanded that a stop be put to the meetings, established by Puritan ministers in various districts, for instructing the laity and clergy in Scripture doctrine. Archbishop Grindal could not give his assent to the suppression of the meetings and said so to the Queen, but “the proud Tudor spirit of Elizabeth resented” his faithfulness. Grindal was practically deprived of his office and confined to his own house until his death. “The Queen’s despotic treatment of the highest ecclesiastical officer of the State,” says Brown, “is the most striking illustration of that absolute dominion she exercised always over the Church and by which she made it what it is today.”
The Puritans continued their struggle by publishing in 1574, in Latin and English, another manifesto, Ecclesiastice Disciplina, or the Book of Discipline, by Dr Walter Travers – the most memorable book on the Puritan side and the one to which Hooker’s work, Ecclesiastical Polity, was a reply. Travers expounded the Scripture doctrine of the ministry and government of the church, and demonstrated the interdependence of doctrine and discipline, undergirding his whole exposition by the principle that nothing be admitted in the church but what is authorised by the Word of God – the Regulative Principle.
Several Bills for advancing reform were then presented to Parliament, but only two limited measures were passed. The Queen’s great displeasure was especially manifested in her speech in dismissing Parliament at the end of its session. She viewed their Scriptural criticisms of Episcopacy and of the evils in the Church as slander against herself, the Supreme Governor of the Church, and she severely denounced the “presumption” of those who were bent on further reformation. It was “the memory of her interference with the liberties of Parliament,” says Brown, “which led Hume the historian, who had no great liking for the Puritans, to say: So absolute indeed was the authority of the Crown that the precious spark of liberty had been kindled and was preserved by the Puritans alone; and it was to this sect that the English owe the whole freedom of their constitution’.”
Brown goes on to describe how the Puritans, finding that nothing was to be gained from appeals to Parliament, resolved to take steps themselves for a practical carrying out of their church principles. He charts how they set up Presbyterian congregations, and publicised their views by pamphlets and books – activities which brought persecution on many of them. When Charles dissolved Parliament in 1629 and governed England without any Parliament for eleven years, he had Archbishop Laud as his willing and energetic agent in Romanising the Church and persecuting the Puritans. “As a result of Archbishop Laud’s administration,” says Brown, “some 4,000 Puritan families, or an aggregate of over 20,000 persons, went over to New England.” Other Puritans were imprisoned, or banished, and some were even executed.
But the forces of opposition to the king were gaining strength, and so there followed the Long Parliament of 1640, the civil war, and the consequent downfall of Church and King. At the same time, however, there was a widening divergence between Presbyterian Puritans and Independent Puritans. The establishment of England as a commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell, following the execution of Charles in 1649, was the high water mark of Puritanism. When Cromwell died in 1658, “the rule of the Puritan fell with him,” says Brown. However, he adds, “Puritanism, rightly looked at, is not a thing of one time but for all time. It stands for the supremacy of the will of heaven against the passions and clamours of earth. . . Puritan institutions in the seventeenth century fell with Cromwell, but Puritan ideas did not fall with the institutions in which they had been embodied.”
This most useful volume does not focus on the spiritual character of Puritan divines; nor does it deal with their Scriptural theology, great preaching, diligent pastoral labours or rich writings. But it does present to us those men who held firmly to, and fought courageously for, the principle that “Christ is the sole lawgiver in His Church, and such things as are really necessary He Himself has enjoined to be observed to the end of the world”. To them, under the hand of God, this nation is indebted for religious and civil liberty.
When hard-won religious liberties can be lost easily and quickly, it would be our wisdom to lay to heart the lessons for our own age which are found in Brown’s inspiring survey and analysis of Puritanism.