The Question of the Puritans 2

Continuing my posting of my comprehensive exam answers. What follows is the second part of the first question relating to early colonial religion. Part One of Question 1 can be found here.

While it is difficult to neatly describe the variety of Puritan emphases, there have been some helpful frameworks which help show the general categories of reform that different Puritans embraced. One framework, that of Jerald Brauer, divides Puritan themes into four categories. The first, nomist, embraces the more conventional understanding of Puritan life and behavior. Those who express this general category sought a visible renewal of the church through rigorous embrace of community standards and ecclesial reform. While orienting itself around the law, the law was not the source of salvation but rather was the expression of it. Those who were among the elect lived out this election in patterns of Godly behavior.

For some, this might sound an oppressive approach, but at the core it was not about restriction but about providing a freeing atmosphere for people to embrace the fullness of God’s work in their lives and in their communities. Because salvation was not merely an individual reality, people who were among the saved were saved within the context of a saved community, a city on a hill which as a community oriented around God’s priorities resonated the hope of God to all.

This nomist approach is likely the best way of describing the Puritan community of early colonial Massachusetts. Having been persecuted by the hierarchy in their home country, the leaders and colonists who made the pilgrimage to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s sought to establish their spiritual vision in a place free of conflict and struggle. They sought a separate location but did not, and would not, sever the religious connection with their mother church. They sought to put into practice, give expression to, that which they wanted to see all communities embrace. Instead of staying in England and fighting a continued battle with the established authorities, they found new soil and invited those who sought a similar vision to join them.

John Winthrop was a key leader in this early movement, serving terms as governor and serving as a spiritual leader throughout his life, helping provide leadership to the early colony, supporting its vision and maintaining its focus, being willing at times to push out those who sought to undermine what he, and others, saw as the pure expression of a community in which the church and the state stood hand in hand, informing-not controlling-the other. Other ministers who faced a various amount of persecution in England and who sought to join in with this new expression followed. Men such as John Cotton and Roger Williams, both highly educated and influential leaders, joined in to give voice and leadership to the burgeoning community.

By establishing such a focused expression of Puritan understanding, expressed holistically in relatively isolated community, the Puritans were able to put into practice their suggestions, offering a clearly developing contrast to the standing order in England, one that had theological and ecclesial implications that became difficult to overcome, especially as the Puritans themselves refused to be drawn into the more clearly heretical approaches that were increasingly blossoming throughout England. By offering a restrained reforming intention, the Puritans continued to fight for the Church of England in general, for orthodox Christian beliefs, while pushing against what they saw as deficient implementation of Reformation goals. In other words, it might be said that the Puritans main goal was to help the Church of England be even more of what it was and what it claimed to be, a living expression of the chosen people of God.

This is why it becomes somewhat strained to emphasize specific theological points, or to overemphasize a caricature of Calvinism as the primary Puritan elements. The questions are raised not only about how different Puritans expressed different priorities and values and ranged widely in their discussions of theology, but also, more pointedly, even about what kind of Calvinism might have been the more general approach. Was it, as some assume, the Calvinism of Calvin himself, or was there more of a Zwinglian emphasis? Again, the arguments can be made on many fronts depending on which specific person is looked at, which makes Puritan theology a bit of a slippery discussion. What might be more helpful is to discuss those who over-emphasized Puritan themes and in doing so found themselves no longer welcome among the Puritan communities in England or America.

A very early guide in this respect brings us back to Roger Williams, a Puritan leader and minister who, it seems, embraced in full the need to bring renewal to the church of England. After coming to the colony, he was seen as a great leader with potential. Yet, it did not take long for his distinctions to be made clear. Among the earliest of these was his increasing argument that the Puritans in Massachusetts simply could not be a full expression of God’s people while they still maintained spiritual unity with those in the Church of England. Williams saw the Church in England as being too far gone, too lost in corruption and too much in the thrall of politics and wealthy patrons.

He made increasingly strident and increasingly disturbing calls towards full separation, something that the leaders in Massachusetts were not willing to pursue. way Williams can be seen as the ultimate nomist Puritan, pushing the call of Scripture to the utmost, seeking absolute purity in the church and in his own life. This radical embrace of purity eventual led to his being banished.

In Rhode Island he helped lead a new expression, a more radical expression, one which no longer sought affiliation with the church of England, but sought continued radical reformation. He affiliated with the early Baptists, who sought an even more holy expression of community, one orient around key priorities in Scripture, expressed through new forms of the demand that men and women make a conscious declaration of faith through adult baptism.

In a way, the Baptists were the separatist expression of the more reform minded Puritans, pushing areas of theology a bit farther in some respects, though not always in ways that radically broke from Puritan understanding. Indeed, even the issue of adult baptism was seen as a theologically complex topic that had Scriptural support. So, it was with a sense of wary cohabitation that the Baptists found increasing acceptance within the colonies.

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