The Question of the Puritans 1

One reason I basically disappeared from writing anything for much of late last year was because I had my comprehensive exams in the weeks preceding Thanksgiving. These are four exams, all taken within a two week span, each on a major area of study. Each exam has two or three questions, and the student is required to answer them without any notes whatsoever. All from memory.

Anyhow, I passed them. I passed two of them with distinction. It was a lot of work and a lot of writing, and if you know anything about me you know that I don’t like to put writing to waste. That wasn’t a waste, but it seems a shame to do what turned out to be about fifteen hours of straight writing and then just forget about it.

So, I’m going to post my answers on my website. I have copies of what I wrote and I’m sharing them, mostly so that I remember for myself the work I did and the words I wrote. I’ll go in order of what I wrote. So, I begin with my comprehensive exam that covered Enlightenment Christianity.

My answers were also pretty long, so I’m breaking those up into bits too.

The question itself was pretty long, so I’ll just add the most relevant part:

Discuss the theological arguments that the Puritans (particularly, Quakers and Baptists) espoused and show how they were subversive of the standing order in England and the new world, with some attention given to the historical context of the Puritan movement.

If someone were wanting to understand the changing moods, fashions, and theories as they have changed in academic approaches to the past, it would not be outlandish to suggest they start such a study by looking at how historians have sought to come to terms with the religious history of Britain and the United States, and with the Puritan movement more specifically. Over the decades, indeed ever since the Puritans were an active force on the scene, there has been a sharp debate about not only what they accomplished but indeed who they were as a movement and as a people. Many suggestions have taken root, some bordering on hagiographic embrace of the Puritan religious zeal, while others have, in a general tone of anti-religious rationalism,condemned this movement as highly authoritarian, morose, and a symbol of spiritual oppression.

The trouble with coming to terms with the Puritans is, in part, that both of those descriptions might be accurately applied at various times, to various figures. But to pigeonhole the Puritans in general into being either religious saviors of a hell-bound church, or repressed artifacts of a bygone religious-soaked era, is to engage in an over-generalization,and one which no longer can be maintained. Rather than trying to contain the movement within an easily described category-to support a generalized approach to history-it is much more accurate to see the complexity of the Puritan movement for what it was, pursuing what Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis would call an “ecological” one that does not engage in simplistic reductionism but instead seeks to understand the ‘map’ of the era in a way that accurately represents the contexts and themes as they developed.

Even still, it is important to try to contain the term “Puritan” within some boundaries, so that it means something rather than meaning nothing or meaning everything. For it certainly meant something to those who participated in what can be now seen as a wide Puritan movement. Essentially, the name itself describes the overall goal. The Puritans were those who were part of the Church of England and who sought a more pure expression of the church and their own lives in the context of the late 16th through the early 18th century. Though indeed, at the latter stages, the term Puritan becomes fairly outdated, but it might be argued that the priorities of the movement were maintained through a linear successor, which is an argument to be made at a later time.

Having established that the Puritans, with the most basic definition, were seeking a more pure church, the question then becomes what is meant by such a move towards purity. That there was not a single answer to this question is a big reason why the Puritan movement is so difficult to contain in a simplistic definition. What does seem clear is that most Puritans were not seeking to break away from the established church in England, but rather saw themselves as a renewal movement, one that sought to press forward the reforms and changes that the Church of England initiated from its beginning.

At the core of this was the increasing sense that the established hierarchy was not inherently right, an opinion expressed in large and small ways in reforming of liturgy to new explorations of theology, putting into practice the sense that God was truly at work among the people. This understanding of the people in the church as God’s people, a new covenant people, gave rise to focused attempts to make the church a more holistic expression of God’s chosen work. If the leadership of the church were to resist this movement, they were putting themselves outside of God’s work, and thus should be resisted in word and in act.

This understanding a holistic work of God was both a strong impetus and a major danger, as religious sentiment was not seen as separate from political or economic spheres. Religious discontent often suggested political discontent, with religious zeal giving way far too easily to revolutionary fervor. That is another reason why it is so difficult to easily categorize or contain the Puritans, especially in the 17′” century. With the Church of England tied so tightly to the politics of England, those who sought real religious renewal were not easily separated from those who sought political renewal, and those who earnestly sought the welfare of their fellow humans were not easily separated from those who sought to gain power and influence for themselves.

So, we again come back to the difficulty of coming to terms with who was a Puritan and what the Puritan movement sought. Contemporary historians have come to a
realization that Puritanism was a complex movement, with many different priorities and emphases, that sought to reform the Church of England from the inside. They were those who sought continued reform within the Reformation church, not willing to concede to what they saw as misplaced theology or sometimes corrupt expression, nor willing to let go of the core values of unity and tradition. They were not, in this way, separatists, for they did not seek a separate church. They were, it might be said, separated from on occasion, especially in the early to mid-seventeenth century when the Arminian oriented Bishop Laud sought to purge the Church of England of Puritans, with their more clearly Calvinistic leanings.

Those labels, Arminian and Calvinistic, might seem to give sharp definition to the two approaches to the church. Yet, this would be a mistake to see these labels as offering a neat division in approach, priorities, or themes. Again, it is important not to be simplistic in attaching pre-conceived notions of theology. For the Laudians, the issue was about the maintenance of established authority, with the theological issues being more about markers than about a sharply defined Anglican orthodoxy. The Puritans, themselves, could be seen as taking up many of the themes that might characterize Arminian thought, such as the importance of actions or behavior, even as they would assert a strong belief in election. This assertion of election, the chosen people of God, motivated them to not concede to what they saw as deficient patterns of life.

to be continued…

This entry was posted in church history, comps. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *