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The English Puritan's Beginnings - by Mark S. Ritchie

The Era of the Puritans (1559-1662, or thereabouts)

Today, many Christians are turning back to the puritans to, “walk in the old paths,” of God’s word, and to continue to proclaim old truth that glorifies Jesus Christ. There is no new theology. In our electronic age, more and more people are looking to add electronic books (ePubs, mobi and PDF formats) to their library – books from the Reformers and Puritans – in order to become a “digital puritan” themselves. Take a moment to visit Puritan Publications (click the banner below) to find the biggest selection of rare puritan works updated in modern English in both print form and in multiple electronic forms. There are new books published every month. All proceeds go to support A Puritan’s Mind.

What should we think a puritan is all about?

What is a Puritan?

First we must define what we mean by “puritan.” You must quickly lose the idea that Puritan means morose, sour, legalists who were always trying to prevent people from doing things. This view comes from later American history and people such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, who were glad to be living under liberal Unitarianism in New England and regarded the old Puritanism of their forefathers as a repressive, false religion. So, Puritanism is usually a term of contempt. Even today we hear people speaking of, for instance, anti-smoking advocates as the “new Puritans.” This is totally inaccurate and unfair to the original Puritans.

Furthermore, the term was a term of abuse even when it was invented in England. The term was invented to describe those who, generally speaking, believed that the Reformation in England had not gone far enough, and needed to be continued until a new, biblically-based church could be achieved. So, in very broad terms, Puritans were the English equivalent of the continental Reformers such as Calvin. We shall see that the history of this is very complicated, and that the term is useful up to a point and then in the 1600’s becomes less and less useful to describe any particular group of people.

C. S. Lewis said, “We must picture these Puritans as the very opposite of those who bear that name today: as young, fierce, progressive intellectuals, very fashionable and up-to-date. They were not teetotallers; bishops, not beer, were their special aversion. . . .” For many generations, these Puritans were the “young bucks” who wanted to go all the way with God and the Bible. They were excited about Biblical truth and couldn’t imagine why anybody would want to hide it under Romish superstition and human traditions.

Haven’t we gone out of the Reformation period?

Secondly I must explain why we are going to deal with the Puritans in a topic on the Reformation. The answer is twofold. I believe that until about 1688 in England, the Reformation was still ongoing. Certainly in some nations the results of the Reformation were settled far earlier, but in England the direction seesawed back and forth until 1688. Remember than we are generally dealing here with “Reformation” in its historical sense of trying to reform the national or regional churches of a country, rather than (what many of us would prefer) always speaking of the reformation of individual hearts and the gathering of people into individual Bible-believing free and independent churches or Biblically-based denominations. So in the historical sense of Reformation, the Reformation was basically settled and over in England in 1688, while the inward reformation of human hearts and church institutions by the gospel is still ongoing.

We begin with the Puritan topic by noting that the early Reformers were the beginning of the Puritans. William Tyndale may be seen as the prototype of Puritans – biblical, thorough Christians who were under no illusions and who had no need for political compromise. Before Elizabeth’s time several Puritan types had made their appearance, notably John Knox and many others who served in Edward VI’s reign.

But the real beginning for Puritanism as a movement was in Elizabeth’s reign. The people, if we can judge by their representatives in Parliament, were always for more reform than Elizabeth was ready to grant. The sharp, young rising stars of England in Elizabeth’s time were Puritans. They made their voices heard and eventually suffered for it.

Types of Puritans

First, we may note the Separatists. These are usually not lumped in so much with the Puritans, although their doctrine was often similar, but this group had no truck with state churches and believed that believers should covenant together apart from the unholy mess known as the Church of England. The first Separatist congregation was formed around 1567 by Richard Fitz, according to Cairns. Since this group was not really calling for the reform of the Church of England, but rather its dissolution, they are not usually mentioned in the company of the next three groups of Puritans. The next three groups believed in a State Church, but only disagreed over what form it should take.

Anglican Puritans, in the beginning, were the first Puritans. They were content to work within the system, and leave bishops in place, but purge the church of “Popery” which had been left over by the political compromises of Elizabeth.

Presbyterian Puritans wanted to get rid of the bishops and institute a Presbyterian system as known in Scotland already. Their first forceful representative was Thomas Cartwright, who in 1570 lectured at Cambridge on the Book of Acts from a Presbyterian standpoint. He was driven from his position.

Independent Puritans, later called Congregationalists, wanted each church to govern itself and be independent. Although there was communication between them and the Separatists, they were essentially separate groups until the end of the 17th century. One of the first Independent churches was established by Henry Jacob in 1616.

Elizabeth’s reign 1558-1603

Elizabeth believed Puritans were her greatest religious problem after the Roman Catholics. These men continued, throughout her reign, to refuse to wear vestments, to refuse to swear certain oaths, to stop teaching and preaching against certain “popish” aspects of her settled Church of England.

One of the moderates was Edmund Grindal, Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1576 he was ordered to suppress the “prophesyings,” meetings in which Puritan ministers would get together to exhort and sharpen each other. Remember, these were ministers of the Church of England who were meeting together. Grindal refused, offered his resignation, and wrote to Elizabeth, “Remember, Madam, that you are a mortal creature.” She did not deprive him of his office, but she effectively suppressed him until his death in 1583 (Edwards, vol I, p 161-2).

Archbishop Whitgift replaced Grindal. He was a much more effective partisan of the Anglican way, and persecuted the Puritans with more vigor. He outlasted Elizabeth and served into James’s reign.

James’s reign 1603-1625

The Puritans were excited by the opportunities presented by James’s accession to the throne. James was the son of Mary Queen of Scots and the first of the Stuart line of kings. He had been raised by Presbyterians, and was surely going to aid the cause of reformation! They presented the Millenary Petition to him, and arranged to have a conference with him at Hampton Court the next year.

Unfortunately the king had learned to hate Presbyterianism, not love it. He rejected the Puritans and said he would harry them out of the kingdom, if possible. About the only thing that the participants could agree on at Hampton Court was the need for a new translation of the Bible. Even in this they were not on the same side. The Puritans wanted to replace the official Bishops’ Bible with something better, but James’s motive was to decrease the influence of the Geneva Bible with its fully Protestant marginal notes.

The result was the King James Bible. The verdict of history is mixed, but surely this was a great achievement. It is peripheral to our interests in this lesson, however, because it has little to do with the Puritans. The Bible of the Puritans was the classic Geneva Bible, with its notes and all.

James fancied himself a theologian, but was a truly arrogant and useless ruler. An open homosexual, he was in no position to dictate terms to any church.

Charles I’s reign 1625-1649

A new and ominous development came during Charles’s reign. Up to this point, English Protestantism had been thoroughly Calvinistic, as had all Protestantism (Lutheranism had toned down Luther’s predestination theology soon after his death, however). But now a new view had arisen in the Netherlands called Arminianism. This theology, which emphasized the free will of man and the conditionality of all God’s grace, was appealing to the new brand of high churchman serving under the third Anglican king. William Laud especially came to embody this type, which combined a new reverence for forms and ceremonies with a new hatred for Calvinistic (i.e. Protestant) theology. Bishop of London in 1628, Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633, he became the symbol of all that the Puritans were working against. They had not been quiet during these long years of oppression and humility. They still held the conscience of England if not its power. And Charles decided that he could do without the power of the people. After 1629 he summoned no Parliament until 1640. This proved his undoing.

In 1640 what came to be known as The Long Parliament was seated, because Charles needed new taxes. He got more than he bargained for. England was finally fed up. Scotland was not far behind. Laud and Charles had tried to impose the Book of Common Prayer on Presbyterian Scotland, and the Scots had rebelled. Charles needed to pay the army which was putting down Scotland.

Instead, Parliament made common cause with Scotland against the king, and by 1642 armies raised by Parliament were fighting the armies of the King. Parliament adopted the Solemn League and Covenant in 1643, which bound England and Scotland to develop a common Presbyterian form of church government, duly constituted. In vain did the Independents ask for greater freedom. The Westminster Assembly met, and developed an official, consistent doctrinal consensus for Presbyterianism that is used to this day.

But things had gotten out of hand in the army, which was strongly Independent rather than Presbyterian. The army finally took steps to have Parliament purged of elements which might have made common cause with the King under a Presbyterian system, and in 1649 the King was executed and Oliver Cromwell took control.

The American Puritans

Going backwards in time several years, some 20,000 Englishmen left for New England in the 1630’s. Why was this? They were tired and disgusted with Laud and his minions, and perhaps were finally through with trying to reform the Church of England. Still, they were not Separatists (unlike the Pilgrims who were the first Englishmen in Massachusetts), and they believed in a state church. They established Puritanism as the religion of New England, kept as good relations with the mother country as possible under such terms.

Some of the ablest Puritans went to America, such as John Cotton and Thomas Hooker. Harvard University was founded almost immediately. Puritan New England was to be the place where God’s reform was finally to be established with consistency. It was to be a “city on a hill.”

The eventual failure of American Puritanism to realize that goal, and its powerful influence on America, is too big to study in this lesson.

The Protectorate 1649-1660

England was now without a King. The future Charles II was making ineffectual moves in Europe and Scotland to regain power. The Presbyterians in Scotland remembered that the King was a Stuart, and called him “Bonnie Prince Charlie.” And they saw their hopes of having the Westminster Confession and the Solemn League and Covenant form the basis for a new kind of religious union of England and Scotland. Some of them began to support Charles as the claimant for the throne.

Meanwhile, the Independent Puritans were creating a new kind of England. For the first time, there was toleration for most of the “normal” types of Protestantism (but not Roman Catholicism or Quakerism). The church was still established by the State, but the pastor might be one of many of the Puritan types. The Prayer Book was not to be used. In many ways Cromwell was a tyrant, but in many ways he foresaw and England of liberties that were not to come for many more years.

But when Cromwell died, things fell apart. His son tried to act as Lord Protector (Cromwell’s title), but he was not the leader his father had been. A newly seated Parliament brought the King, Charles II, back in 1660.

Lloyd-Jones asks, What went wrong in Puritanism during this period, that it could not take hold and that it eventually created the Restoration of Charles II? He points to three points: (1) the fatal mixture of politics and religion, (2) the divisions among the Puritans and the blameworthy acts of the Presbyterians, and (3) the whole State-Church idea. His criticisms are powerful and worth reading. (Puritans, 54-72).

Charles II’s reign 1660-1685

If the Presbyterians had helped replace the King on the throne, it certainly did not help their position any. Charles’s reign, known as the “Restoration,” has gone down in history as one of the most immoral and pleasure-loving times in English history. And Charles was no Presbyterian, even though he had signed the Solemn League and Covenant in 1650 when he was courting the Scots’ support. He immediately reestablished “Anglicanism” in preference to the Cromwellian legislation.

Britannica says, “These Puritans were outmaneuvered in their attempt to obtain a comprehensive church, however, by those who favoured the strict Episcopal pattern. A new Act of Uniformity was passed on May 19, 1662, by the Cavalier Parliament. The act required reordination of many pastors, gave unconditional consent to The Book of Common Prayer, advocated the taking of the oath of canonical obedience, and renounced the Solemn League and Covenant. Between 1660 and when the act was enforced on Aug. 24, 1662, almost 2,000 Puritan ministers were ejected from their positions.”

As a result of the Act of Uniformity, English Puritanism entered the period of the Great Persecution. The Conventicle Act of 1664 punished any person over 16 years of age for attending a religious meeting not conducted according to The Book of Common Prayer. The Five Mile Act of 1665 prohibited any ejected minister from living within five miles of a corporate town or any place where he had formerly served. Still, some Puritans did not give up the idea of comprehension (inclusiveness of various persuasions). There were conferences with sympathetic bishops and brief periods of indulgence for Puritans to preach, but fines and jailings set the tone. Puritanism became a form of Nonconformist Protestantism.

This was the time that the Baptist Puritan, John Bunyan, spent in Bedford jail and wrote Pilgrim’s Progress.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones quotes a historian, Robert Bosher, who says that “1662 marks the final refusal to come to terms with the Continental Reformation.” (Lloyd-Jones, p. 57) This statement is entirely true. The English King and Church, given a final opportunity by God to go towards biblical religion, not only ignores but spurns the opportunity. This, however, is not to say that the Presbyterian desire or direction would have been exactly right. The state-church establishment would still have been spiritual poison, as it eventually was in Scotland and New England. In God’s good time, the majority of biblical Christians had to be driven to the “denominational” churches before the glorious awakenings of the 18th century could culminate in the missions movement and evangelicalism.

The Puritans’ finest hour, I guess, came here when, deprived of their pulpits (and incidentally of any conceit that the state-church and biblical Christianity can be reconciled), they preached in the woods, in barns, any way they could, and finally they laid the foundations for English nonconformity because that was the only option left to them.

James II’s reign 1685-1689

Parliament had spent many years during Charles’s reign, trying to exclude James from the succession to the throne. He was a Catholic and this was unacceptable to the English of the 1680’s. No more would they be under the thumb of Rome or welcome her minions. But he became King anyway, and the next three years were spent trying to get rid of him. Leading Englishmen offered the throne to William, prince of Orange, of the Netherlands, and his wife, Mary, oldest daughter of James. William landed with an army, to whom large numbers of James’s subjects defected. In 1689 Parliament declared that James had abdicated and offered the crown to William and Mary. This whole process was called the “Glorious Revolution.”

William (1689-1702) and Mary (1689-1694)

William and Mary granted toleration (Toleration Act, 1689) to various religious views — their own places of worship and their own preachers. By this time the Puritanism of old was gone. It was a spent force, and God’s long revival of biblical religion took a breather for several decades. The next big event in English church history was the Great Awakening of the 1730’s and beyond, which forged a new view of Biblical Christianity that combined the doctrine of Puritanism with the fervor of Pietism. But that is indeed beyond the scope of a course on the Reformation!


We haven’t had near the time to sum up the Puritans or to evaluate their spiritual influence. While their political views faded into irrelevance, their biblical teachings rose higher and higher in estimation as the spiritual midgets of later ages looked backwards to what had been accomplished. Time and again, their teachings became the basis for revival of souls. Jonathan Edwards revived their spirit in America in the 1730’s, while Whitefield modified and resurrected their teachings in England. In the 1800’s Spurgeon esteemed them greatly, and their major works were reprinted in great numbers. In the 1950’s such a movement began all over again under the leadership of Martyn Lloyd-Jones and his friends at the Banner of Truth Trust. These books have been a blessing worldwide.

A quick listing of the giants of the faith of the Puritan period would include these and many more:

John Owen

Richard Baxter

John Flavel

Richard Sibbes

John Bunyan

Thomas Watson

William Gurnall

William Perkins

William Ames

Thomas Goodwin

Thomas Manton

Puritan political views have experienced a misbegotten revival, too, in the Christian Reconstructionist and Theonomy circles. There are splinter groups that hark back to the golden age when governments protected and/or instituted the true church. In my view, history (not to mention the Bible) gives little credence to such dreams. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s book The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors is recommended reading for all those who wish to re-impose the political dreams of the Puritans.

Speaking of Dr. Lloyd-Jones’s book, there is a very interesting little sidelight to Puritan history contained there. To quote from pages 234-235, “In 1654 Oliver Cromwell — with his idea of Toleration — and the Parliament called upon the divines to define what should be tolerated or indulged among those who profess the fundamentals of Christianity. In effect they said, we have all these divisions and sects and groups; what are the fundamentals of Christianity on which we can have fellowship together? So a committee was set up and the members of the committee were these: Mr. Richard Baxter, Dr John Owen, Dr Thomas Goodwin, Dr Cheynel, Mr. Marshall, Mr. Reyner, Mr. Nye, Mr. Sydrach Simpson, Mr. Vines, Mr. Manton, Mr. Jacomb. As I said earlier, Baxter tried to short-circuit the whole proposal at the beginning by saying that nothing was necessary but the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Commandments. But that was rejected. Then they proceeded to work, and they produced 16 Articles which they felt stated the fundamentals on which, and on which alone, true fellowship is possible between Protestant Evangelical people.

Here they are:

That the Holy Scripture is that rule of knowing God and living unto Him which whoso does not believe cannot be saved.

That there is a God who is the Creator, Governor and judge of the world, which is to be received by faith, and every other way of the knowledge of Him is insufficient.

That this God who is the Creator is eternally distinct from all creatures in His Being and Blessedness.

That this God is One in Three Persons or subsistences.

That Jesus Christ is the only Mediator between God and Man without the knowledge of whom there is no salvation.

That this Jesus Christ is the true God.

That this Jesus Christ is also true Man.

That this Jesus Christ is God and Man in One Person.

That this Jesus Christ is our Redeemer, who by paying a ransom and bearing our sins has made satisfaction for them.

That this same Lord Jesus Christ is He that was Crucified at Jerusalem, and rose again and descended into Heaven.

That this same Jesus Christ being the only God and Man in One Person remains for ever a distinct Person from all saints and angels notwithstanding their union and communion with Him.

That all men by nature were dead in sins and trespasses, and no man can be saved unless he be born again, repent and believe.

That we are justified and saved by grace and faith in Jesus Christ and not by works.

That to continue in any known sin upon what pretence or principle soever is damnable.

That God is to be worshipped according to His own will, and whosoever shall forsake and despise all the duties of His worship cannot be saved.

That the dead shall rise, and that there is a day of judgment wherein all shall appear, some to go into everlasting life and some into everlasting condemnation.

They were the 16 points: We have the authority of Richard Baxter for saying that it was Dr John Owen who worded those Articles, that Dr Goodwin and Mr. Nye and Mr. Simpson were his assistants, that Dr Reynolds was the scribe and that Mr. Marshall, a sober, worthy man did something, but the rest were little better than passive. Now these Articles were designed and intended to exclude not only Deists, Socinians and Papists, but also Arians, Antinomians, Quakers and others. What I am asking is this: Cannot we accept those as the fundamentals?”

Copyright © 1999 by Mark S. Ritchie. Permission is granted to use materials herein for the building up of the Christian Church.

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