Updated on 16 March 2021
The Puritans were English Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries, who sought to ‘purify’ the Church of England.
The word ‘Puritan’ came into general use in England during the reign of of the Catholic Queen Mary I (1553 – 1588), usually as a term of derision. Today the word ‘Puritanical’ has come to mean having or displaying a very strict or censorious moral attitude towards self-indulgence or sex. However, the early Puritans were reformers and dissenters against the Church of England.
Purifying The Church of England
The early Puritans wanted to purge or “purify” the Church of England of any traces of Catholic influence. The English Puritans were known at first for their extremely critical attitude regarding the religious compromises made during the reign of Elizabeth I.
Many of them were graduates of Cambridge University, and they became Church of England priests so they could reform their local churches. They encouraged direct personal religious experience, sincere moral conduct, and simple services of worship .
The movement drew its support from two principal groups of lay adherents. The first was a minority of nobles and gentry. The second was a much larger number of the “middling sort of people”, such as merchants, yeomen and artisans – especially in London and the cloth-working towns and villages across England.
The following were common values for most Puritans:
- Separation from the Roman Catholic Church and its traditions
- A reformed Protestant Church and theology
- Simplified forms of worship; a dislike of church ritual, robes, music & idolatry
- An emphasis on personal interpretation of the Bible
- Attendance of public sermons by gifted lay preachers rather than state-regulated services in local parish churches
- Strict observance of the Sabbath and a disregard of festivals and Saints’ days
King James I
After James I (1566 – 1625) became king of England in 1603, Puritan leaders asked him to grant several reforms. In 1603, the Puritans presented the king with a manifesto of their demands.
A year later, in 1604, James I rejected most of their proposals, which included the abolition of bishops. In general King James’ religious policy was aimed at maintaining conformity and state control over the Church through the bishops.
James I did, however in 1611, approve a new version of the Bible known today as the King James Version (KJV), of which the Puritans were in favour. Although the KJV went some way in keeping the peace, due to governmental persecution, many Puritans separated from the Church of England and some left the country altogether.
Puritans went to Holland and Germany as well as the American colonies, most notably the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620.
Beginning in the early reign of Charles I (1600 – 1649), a close-knit network of influential Puritans sponsored further colonial ventures, including Sayebrook and Massachusetts Bay in New England and Providence Island in the Caribbean.
Puritans suspected King Charles I of having Catholic sympathies from the beginning of his reign. Both his marriage to the Catholic princess Henrietta Maria from France and his Archbishop Laud’s attempts to impose a tighter grip on the church were regarded with deep mistrust.
Laud himself regarded Puritanism as a greater threat to the Church of England than Roman Catholicism because of the Puritans’ opposition to the existing church hierarchy.
Despite this opposition to their cause, during Charles I’s reign, the Puritans persevered and became a political as well as a religious force to be reckoned with. As such, several Puritans rose to prominent positions in society including many Members of Parliament.
Civil War Period
After the English Civil War Period broke out in 1642, most of the members of the Long Parliament who remained at Westminster were Puritan in outlook. After the defeat of the Royalists in the First Civil War, the issue of religion began to dominate proceedings in Parliament.
Many of the Puritans’ religious demands were implemented including the abolition of bishops from the Church of England. However, during the war,
Puritan opinion became increasingly radicalised and extreme sects such as the Fifth Monarchists emerged.
Commonwealth of England
After the civil war years, the Commonwealth of England was established and ruled by the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, who tried to establish a broadly-based national Church with toleration of law-abiding Protestant sects.
Cromwell’s attempt to reform the morals of the nation under the Rule of the Major-Generals (1655-7) proved deeply unpopular and the emergence of the Quakers during the 1650s, who opposed all organised churches, was particularly disruptive and alarming.
In general, however, Cromwell’s religious policy made steady progress towards reconciliation among the Puritan sects.
The Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 also restored The Church of England and the rule of the bishops. Puritan clergy were expelled from the Church of England under the terms of the Act of Uniformity of 1662.
Thereafter, English Puritans were classified as Nonconformists and slowly they lost the power and influence they once had. As a movement, the Puritans were over and the few that were left joined other remaining Protestant sects or set sail to join the American colonies.
The Puritans that set sail for the American colonies in 1620 aboard the Mayflower are generally regarded as separatists that sought religious freedom over ‘puritanical’ rule. However, a large number of Puritans emigrated in the 1630s onwards and sought to enforce their ‘puritanical’ rule over religious freedom.
Most notably these Puritans played a leading role in establishing the colonies in Massachusetts Bay and Rhode Island, as well as elsewhere. Enforcing their strict religious rule, many non Puritan settlers in their colonies faced severe persecution such as the Boston Martyrs.
However, as the number of non Puritan settlers increased from across Europe religious freedom overpowered ‘puritanical’ rule and the Puritans faded out of existence once and for all.
Image from onepassionministries.org