Puritanism in 17th century England
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
The religious question
[By 1628] On the question of arbitrary imprisonment it appeared that the Commons had won their battle. On the question of taxation, it was made abundantly clear at the moment of the prorogation that they had not won. But there was a third question with regard to which there had not as yet been a violent collision between the Crown and the Commons, but which nevertheless had been for some time past fermenting in men's minds, and was now about to be placed in the forefront of dispute. This was the religious question.
And here, as in the question of taxation, we have to realise that the quarrel arose because the Crown strained, in defiance of popular sentiment, powers which the Tudors had exercised almost without question, because both Henry VIII and Elizabeth had been careful not to go beyond the limits of popular acquiescence. And in this respect James I had on the whole followed the example of his predecessors.
In England the country, in the reign of Henry VIII, had accepted the general principles that uniformity of religion was to be enforced, that the formulae of uniformity must have the sanction of the State, and that the supreme ecclesiastical authority of the State was the Crown. The Crown preserved the old episcopal organisation of church government as a matter of course. The uniformity which was insisted on permitted of a wide latitude of doctrine and of an appreciable - variety in ceremonial. With this the mass of the people had been content.
The limit of latitude in the direction of Roman doctrine was set primarily by the antagonism to the assertion of any claim to authority within the realm by any external potentate, whether spiritual or secular. When the popular mind learnt to associate particular doctrines or practices with allegiance to the pope, it became hotly antagonistic to those doctrines and practices.
In the other direction, the popular mind . was generally disposed to resent an attitude which challenged lawful authority. Popular sentiment sympathised with demands for increased latitude, but not with their aggressive expression, and so long as Nonconformity was unaggressive, popular sentiment was opposed to its aggressive repression.
Now popular opinion had approved or acquiesced in the rigorous repressive action of the State in the reign of Elizabeth at the time of the Martin Mar-Prelate pamphlets, when Nonconformity adopted a violently aggressive attitude and thereby lost the popular sympathy which was being drawn to it in reaction against the arbitrary methods of Whitgift and the Court of High Commission. The Hampton Court Conference on the other hand, with its immediate results, made the set of popular feeling favourable to the Nonconformists.
Gunpowder Plot, the Catholic marriage projects and the attempts to relax the penal laws against Romanists, all tended to foster and intensify the alarmed hatred of Romanism and the unpopularity of the specific doctrines and practices which were looked upon as akin to those of Rome. But what King James cared about most was insistence on the authority of an episcopate intimately associated with the monarchy; and during the greater part of his reign bishops as a body were rather Calvinistic in their theology, and were not irritatingly strict in their insistence on unpopular details of ceremonial.
Thus circumstances combined to develop Puritanism. Now the essential characteristic of Puritanism is the vivid consciousness of an immediate personal relation between the individual and his Maker, which recognises no mediator between God and man except the Son of God, who is both God and man. No Church, no hierarchy of saints, can be interposed between the soul and God. There is no ordained channel for the Divine Grace, which must be sought directly by prayer and the study of God's Word, God revealed in the Scriptures.
Of that Word there is no infallible interpreter; the only interpreter is the individual himself, guided by the Spirit of God. The individual, therefore, must in all things be guided by the inward monitor. Puritanism is, in short, the principle of individualism carried to its highest pitch in matters of religion.
But Puritanism in the seventeenth century, when it searched the Scriptures, turned to the Old Testament rather than the New. It believed very emphatically in prophets, and its prophet par excellence was Calvin. Its primary dogma was that of Predestination, a grim creed which tends to make its adherents absolutely fearless of what man can do to them, but, while it fills them with the fear of God, does not greatly tend to inspire them with a love of His creatures.
So Puritanism dwells upon the Power of an offended God and the Righteousness of His Judgments rather than upon His Love and His Mercy. And an Old Testament Puritanism contained a grave element of political danger to monarchy; since neither the institution of monarchy among the Hebrews nor its persistence, nor the attitude of the Prophets to the Kings, suggest a high conception of royalty.
Logically it would appear that Puritanism ought to be tolerant. If there is no authority except Scripture, and no interpreter of Scripture except the individual, there can be no arbiter between individuals, no one who can impose his own judgment upon his neighbour, and every man must be left to follow his own conscience. Accordingly it was among the Puritans that the doctrine of toleration was first maintained as distinct from the doctrine of comprehension. Unqualified toleration leaves opinion absolutely free. A qualified toleration may repress the expression of opinions, not on the ground that they are false, but because their dissemination is injurious to public order; on the ground, that is, not of religious truth but of political expediency.
Comprehension, on the other hand, draws a distinction between things fundamental and things indifferent, and is under no obligation to tolerate variations of opinion with regard to fundamentals. Comprehension, not toleration, is the normal attitude of a State Church. But the Puritan may interpret his position in two ways. If he admits his own fallibility, he is logically bound to leave to his neighbour the same right of private judgment which he claims for himself.
Yet the Puritan may claim infallibility for himself, having assurance of the direct guidance of the Spirit. It follows, then, that any one who thinks differently from himself is not under the guidance of the Spirit, and therefore has no claim to toleration. Hence Puritanism could also display a supreme intolerance, rendered additionally offensive by its egotism.
Again, Puritanism is not essentially connected with any particular form of ecclesiastical organisation. It is perfectly compatible with an Episcopalian, a Presbyterian, or a Congregational system. It can accept creeds infinitely various. We may then sum up the Puritanism of the seventeenth century by saying that it was predestinarian in its creed, that it drew its public morals from the Old Testament, that its personal morals were of an extreme austerity, and that it identified the Papacy with the Scarlet Woman of the Apocalypse.
It was disposed to be anti-prelatical, partly because it regarded the old system as being too nearly akin to that of Rome, partly because the Episcopate was presented as a means of subjecting the things of the Spirit to the arm of the flesh; whereas the Puritan advocates of Presbyterianism regarded that system as a means of subjecting the arm of the flesh to spiritual control. But Puritanism was not to be identified with Presbyterianism, nor did it become definitely antagonistic in England to the episcopal system until the Episcopate itself took on a new colour in the reign of Charles I.
This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.