What exactly is a Puritan? Elizabethan Puritanism was a watershed time in religious history. It is what I like to call, “The Golden Age of extra-biblical Christianity.” The Reformation had birthed a soundness of doctrine that had been unparalleled since the time of the early church Fathers, such as Augustine and Irenaeus, and certain men throughout history at scattered times and places, like Gottshalk of Orbis, John Wickliffe or John Hus.
At this time, Queen Elizabeth desired a restricted clergy (a prelacy) and a non-thinking religious laity who simply followed her lead as the inaugurator of the Church of England. An educated laity would spell trouble for her reign and cause a number of political problems. She could not have the people thinking for themselves, but simply wanted them following her dictates through the Church of England. Protestant Clergy, who were undoubtedly educated and skilled in the Scriptures in the powerhouse schools of Oxford and Cambridge, turned to becoming second and third generation reformers toward this Mother Church of England, and desired its purification. So, though the name “Puritan” was an insulting term used of those beginning with men like Cartwright and Hooper, it was finally accepted as the slang term for Reformed Protestant Calvinistic clergy who desired the purification of the church before God for the glory of Jesus Christ.
These labeled clergy did, at first, find this term derogatory, and desired its termination. However, after time, it began to be used as a positive description of those members of a 16th and 17th century Protestant group in England opposing as unscriptural the ceremonial worship and the prelacy of the Church of England. A Puritan was regarded as one who practiced or preached a more rigorous or professedly purer moral code than that which prevailed in the day. They were followers of the Bible and the Reformation, especially of the articles of religion penned under the Calvinistic system of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, as well as the favorable outcome of the party of Predestinarians during the Synod of Dordt that condemned Arminianism as heresy. They were also overwhelmingly Presbyterian in their form of church polity and ridiculed every form of prelacy that was current in its day. Though the adjective “Puritan” became commonly used, especially by those in opposition to the Reformation party, it was simply a derivation of a more commonly used term by Bishop Laud and his minions as these Protestant clergy began to write vehemently as Doctrinal Puritans. “Puritan” is a word that is really an afterthought to the instrumental means by which these clergy opposed the state.
Puritans differed from New England Pilgrims. Pilgrims left England in search of religious liberty in the Americas. But Pilgrims are not Puritans, though they may hold to certain foundational Christian-Puritan doctrines and beliefs. Puritans wanted to remain in England and purify the church. Pilgrims left England thinking the Church of England was too far gone to be recovered.
The Character of an Old English Puritan, or Non-Conformist
By John Geree, M.A.
…a Preacher of the Word sometime at, Tewksbury,but now at St. Albons. Published according to order London, Printed by W. Wilson for Christopher Meredith at the Crane in Paul’s Church-yard. Originally published in 1646.
When one asks, “What was a Puritan?” You could do no better than to send them to this article by Geree. John Geree was a contemporary of Puritanism that explained some of the details of what a Puritan was. Geree (1601?–1649) was an English Puritan minister of the Gospel. He was born in Yorkshire. In 1615, aged 14, he became either batler or servitor of Magdalen Hall, Oxford. He graduated with a B.A. on January 27, 1619, and an M.A. on June 12, 1621.
Having taken orders he obtained the living of Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire. For not conforming to the ceremonies he was silenced (after 1624) by Godfrey Goodman, bishop of Gloucester, and reduced to live on charity In 1641 he was restored to his cure by the committee for plundered ministers, and remained there till, on March 14, 1646, he was appointed to the rectory of St Albans, Hertfordshire. Here he engaged in a controversy with John Tombes, the baptist, who had been his fellow-student at Oxford.
He left St. Albans in 1647, having been appointed preacher at St. Faith’s, under St Paul’s Cathedral in London. His residence in February 1648 was in Ivy Lane, Paternoster Row. In London, as elsewhere, his sermons were largely attended by Puritans. He was strongly averse to episcopacy, and published his Case of Conscience, 1646, to prove that the king might consent to its abolition without breaking his coronation oath. Geree died in February 1649.
The Character of an Old English Puritan, or Non-Conformist
The Old English Puritan was such an one, that honored God above all, and under God gave every one his due. His first care was to serve God, and therein he did not what was good in his own, but in God’s sight, making the word of God the rule of his worship. He highly esteemed order in the House of God: but would not under color of that submit to superstitious rites, which are superfluous, and perish in their use. He reverenced Authority keeping within its sphere: but durst not under pretence of subjection to the higher powers, worship God after the traditions of men. He made conscience of all God’s ordinances, though some he esteemed of more consequence. He was much in prayer; with it he began and closed the day. It is he was much exercised in his closet, family and public assembly. He esteemed that manner of prayer best, whereby the gift of God, expressions were varied according to present wants and occasions; yet did he not account set forms unlawful. Therefore in that circumstance of the church he did not wholly reject the liturgy, but the corruption of it. He esteemed reading of the word an ordinance of God both in private and public but did not account reading to be preaching. The word read he esteemed of more authority, but the word preached of more efficiency. He accounted preaching as necessary now as in the Primitive Church, God’s pleasure being still by the foolishness of preaching to save those that believe. He esteemed the preaching best wherein was most of God, least of man, when vain flourishes of wit and words were declined, and the demonstration of God’s Spirit and power studied: yet could he distinguish between studied plainness and negligent rudeness. He accounted perspicuity the best grace of a preacher: And that method best, which was most helpful to the understanding, affection, and memory. To which ordinarily he esteemed none so conducible as that by doctrine, reason and use. He esteemed those sermons best that came closest to the conscience: yet would he have men’s consciences awakened, not their persons disgraced. He was a man of good spiritual appetite, and could not be contented with one meal a day. An afternoon sermon did relish as well to him as one in the morning. He was not satisfied with prayers without preaching: which if it were wanting at home, he would seek abroad: yet would he not by absence discourage his minister, if faithful, though another might have quicker gifts. A lecture he esteemed, though not necessary, yet a blessing, and would read such an opportunity with some pains and loss. The Lord’s Day he esteemed a divine ordinance, and rest on it necessary, so far as it conduced to holiness. He was very conscientious in observance of that day as the mart day of the soul. He was careful to remember it, to get house, and heart in order for it and when it came, he was studious to improve it. He redeems the morning from superfluous sleep, and watches the whole day over his thoughts and words, not only to restrain them from wickedness, but worldliness. All parts of the day were like holy to him, and his care was continued in it in variety of holy duties: what he heard in public, he repeated in private, to whet it upon himself and family. Lawful recreations he thought this day unseasonable, and unlawful ones much more abominable: yet he knew the liberty God gave him for needful refreshing, which he neither did refuse nor abuse. The sacrament of baptism he received in infancy, which he looked back to in age to answer his engagements, and claim his privileges. The Lord’s Supper he accounted part of his soul’s food: to which he labored to keep an appetite. He esteemed it an ordinance of nearest communion with Christ, and so requiring most exact preparation. His first care was in the examination of himself: yet as an act of office or charity, he had an eye on others.
He endeavored to have the scandalous cast out of communion: but he cast not out himself, because the scandalous were suffered by the negligence of others. He condemned that superstition and vanity of Popish mock-fasts; yet neglected not an occasion to humble his soul by right fasting: He abhorred the popish doctrine of opus operatum in the action. And in practice rested in no performance, but what was done in spirit and truth. He thought God had left a rule in his word for discipline, and that aristocratical by elders, not monarchical by bishops, nor democratical by the people. Right discipline he judged pertaining not to the being, but to the well-being of a church. Therefore he esteemed those churches most pure where government is by elders, yet unchurched not those where it was otherwise. Perfection in churches he thought a thing rather to be desired, than hoped for. And so he expected not a church state without all defects. The corruptions that were in churches he thought his duty to bewail, with endeavors of amendment: yet he would not separate, where he might partake in the worship, and not in the corruption. He put not holiness in churches, as in the temple of the Jews; but counted them convenient like their synagogues. He would have them kept decent, not magnificent: knowing that the gospel requires not outward pomp. His chief music was singing of psalms wherein though he neglected not the melody of the voice, yet he chiefly looked after that of the heart. He disliked such church music as moved sensual delight, and was as hindrance to spiritual enlargements. He accounted subjection to the higher powers to be part of pure religion, as well as to visit the fatherless and widows: yet did he distinguish between authority and lusts of magistrates, to that he submitted, but in these he durst not be a servant of men, being bought with a price. Just laws and commands he willingly obeyed not only for fear but for conscience also; but such as were unjust he refused to observe, choosing rather to obey God than man; yet his refusal was modest and with submission to penalties, unless he could procure indulgence from authority. He was careful in all relations to know, and to duty, and that with singleness of heart as unto Christ. He a counted religion an engagement to duty, that the best Christians should be best husbands, best wives, best parents, best children, best masters, best servants, best magistrates, best subjects, that the doctrine of God might be adorned, not blasphemed. His family he endeavors to make a church, both in regard of persons and exercises, admitting none into it but such as feared God; and laboring that those that were borne in it, might be born again unto God. He blessed his family morning and evening by the word and prayer and took care to perform those ordinances in the best season. He brought up his children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord and commanded his servants to keep the way of the Lord. He set up discipline in his family, as he desired it in the church, not only reproving but restraining vileness in his. He was conscientious of equity as well as piety knowing that unrighteousness is abomination as well as ungodliness. He was cautious in promising, but careful in performing, counting his word no less engagement than his bond. He was a man of tender heart, not only in regard of his own sin, but others misery, not counting mercy arbitrary, but a necessary duty wherein as he prayed for wisdom to direct him, so he studied for cheerfulness and bounty to act. He was sober in the use of things of this life, rather beating down the body, than pampering it, yet he denied not himself the use of God’s blessing, lest he should be unthankful, but avoid excess lest he should be forgetful of the Donor. In his habit he avoided costliness and vanity, neither exceeding his degree in civility, nor declining what suited with Christianity, desiring in all things to express gravity. He own life he accounted a warfare, wherein Christ was his captain, his arms, prayers, and tears. The Cross is his, and his word perfect, Vincent qui patitur.
He was immovable in all times, so that they who in the midst of many opinions have lost the view of true religion, may return to him and find it.
Reader, seeing a passage in Mr. Tombes his book against paedobaptism; wherein he compares the Nonconformists in England to the Anabaptists in Germany in regard of their miscarriages and ill success in their endeavors, till of late years; I was moved for the vindication of those faithful and reverend witnesses of Christ, to publish this Character; whereof if any shall desire proof in matter of fact, as in the matter of right, the Margin contains evidence, let him either consult their writings, or those who are fit witnesses by reason of age, fidelity and acquaintance, having fully known their doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, long-suffering, love, patience, persecution and affliction, etc. 2 Timothy 3:10, 11. And I doubt not but full testimony will be given that their aim and general course was according to rule: some extravagance there be in all professions, but we are to judge of a profession by the rule they hold forth, and that carriage of the professors which is general and ordinary.