John Bunyan cannot be understood unless he is seen against the contemporary religious and historical background.
The Puritans have been, and still are in some quarters, the most maligned and misrepresented of men. The very word “Puritan” has become a term of scorn, implying a gloomy fanaticism, a narrow-minded bigotry, a blight on all that is free and joyous. Nothing is farther from the actual truth. In fact the Puritans were a body of men of God who brought a spiritual light to England, drew the nation back to moral values, and stamped a moral greatness upon her that no other group, religious or secular, has ever done. The hatred of the Puritans was deliberately fostered by their political and ecclesiastical enemies in the reign of Charles II, many of whom were avowed enemies of truth and godliness, or, like Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, singularly blind to their real aims and principles, and wilfully opposed to anything they stood for be it good or bad.
Thomas Fuller in his Church History of Great Britain written in 1655, says the word “Puritan” came into use in 1564 when conformity in liturgy and ceremonial were being enforced. “Such as refused the same were branded with the odious name of Puritans … But prophane mouths quickly improved this nickname, therewith on every occasion to abuse pious people, some of them so far from opposing the Liturgy that they endeavoured (according to the instructions thereof in the preparation to the Confession) to accompany the Minister with a pure heart and laboured (as it is in the Absolution) for a life pure and holy.”
In his autobiography Richard Baxter, the eminent Puritan divine and scholar, records how his father, a strict Church of England man, was jeered at as a Puritan because he read the Bible on Sunday afternoons. The family was living in a Shropshire village in 1630 when Baxter was a boy. “When I heard them speak scornfully of others as Puritans whom I never knew, I was at first apt to believe all the lies and slanders wherewith they loaded them. But when I heard my own father so reproached, and perceived the drunkards were the forwardest in the reproach, I perceived that it was mere malice. For my father never scrupled Common Prayer or Ceremonies, nor spake against bishops, nor ever so much as prayed but by a Book or form, being not then acquainted with any that did otherwise. But only for reading Scripture when the rest were dancing on the Lord’s Day, and for praying (by a form out of the Common Prayer Book) in his house, and for reproving drunkards and swearers, and for talking sometimes a few words of Scripture and the Life to come, he was reviled commonly by the name of Puritan, Precisian, and Hypocrite: and so were the godly conformable Ministers that lived anywhere in the country near us, not only by our neighbours, but by the common talk of the vulgar rabble all around us.”
“The word ‘Puritan’,” says Dr Hugh Martin, “was apt to be used very vaguely and was found to be a useful term of abuse by those who disliked any stress on a moral life. Wycliffe and his Lollards were fore-runners of Puritanism, as were Hooper and Latimer: indeed the title might fairly be applied to the Wesleys and Whitefield and their fellow-labourers in the Evangelical Revival.”
Puritanism began as a reform movement in the Church of England by men who desired the Reformation to be furthered in a purer and more scriptural direction. The Elizabethan Settlement in religion was an uneasy compromise between what we may call the Catholic and Protestant points of view. It retained elements from Medieval Catholicism but made concessions to those who desired to purge the Church from continuing Roman practices or tendencies. Above all the Puritans desired simpler and godly ministers who preached the great vital truths of the Word of God. Elizabeth I was in many ways a wise ruler but she lived in an era when monarchy was thorough-going dictatorship. Her oppressive Church policy not only forced Puritanism to become a reform movement within the Established Church, but drove large numbers of Puritans into separatist religious and political groups. Her ecclesiastical policy sowed the seeds of the Civil War. Her first Parliament passed two great Acts that had important and disastrous consequences. The Act of Supremacy declared that she was Supreme Governor in all spiritual and ecclesiastical affairs, as well as in temporal affairs. She used this power relentlessly, dragooning Archbishops and Bishops, and laying down the law herself in matters of theology, worship and vestments. The Act of Uniformity imposed severe penalties on any Minister who deviated from the Prayer Book services, and fines on those who deliberately absented themselves from divine service in the Parish Church. Bunyan was to feel the full power of this law in days to come. The Queen herself ordered that the surplice and cope and other Roman Catholic vestments were to be used in the service of Holy Communion. Trouble inevitably followed, for many clergy felt that they could not conscientiously wear vestments associated with the Roman Catholic mass which they abhorred. James I followed Elizabeth, and distinguished himself by the threatening remark about Nonconformists, “I will make them conform or harry them out of the land.”
In 1572 the Puritan leaders drew up the “Admonition”, a vigorous statement of the Puritan position. They protested that many ministers had no true call from God and were ignorant and inefficient, and that they administered the sacraments laxly. True Reformation, they urged, consisted in “abandoning all popish remnants both in ceremonies and regiment,” and also “in bringing in and placing in God’s Church those things only which the Lord Himself in His Word commandeth.” They objected to the surplice because it was the priestly garment of pre-Reformation days, and preferred the black Geneva gown to which many of them had become accustomed when they were in exile in the persecuting days of Mary. They regarded the use of the sign of the cross in baptism as superstitious. They rejected kneeling at the Lord’s Supper as implying adoration of the elements of bread and wine, and because Jesus and his disciples sat at the meal in the Upper Room. They also protested against certain festivals as being of pagan or Romish origin. It is interesting to note that in 1563 proposals along these lines had been brought before Convocation, and rejected by one vote only, 58 for the motion and 59 against. This indicates how evenly balanced the parties were in the Church of England at that time. But had the voting gone in favour of the Puritans, it is exceedingly unlikely that Queen Elizabeth would have accepted the proposed reforms. In 1566 Archbishop Parker summoned the London clergy to Lambeth Palace and demanded there and then a promise from each to wear the prescribed vestments. There were 110 ministers present, of whom 37 refused to conform. The minority, Parker reported to Cecil, “were the best.” The nonconformists were suspended from all ministry: some became chaplains to Puritan gentry, some joined the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, some turned to the study of medicine, and some emigrated. Five remained undeterred, continued to minister, and were imprisoned.
The dominant aim of the Puritans as expressed in the “Admonition” was to purge the services of worship from all remnants of Romish teaching, practice, and superstition, and to procure in every parish an earnest, spiritually-minded, preaching minister. Their principles were rejected. The proposals enraged the Queen. She suspected the political tendencies of Puritanism, for it implied a threat to the royal supremacy in the Church. In a speech to Parliament at the beginning of the war with Spain she made her position clear, denouncing both Romanists and Puritans. “I mean to guide them both by God’s holy true rule. In both parts be perils, and of the latter (i.e. Puritans) I must pronounce them dangerous to a kingly rule, to have every man according to his own censure to make a doom of the validity and privity of his Prince’s government with a common vail and cover of God’s Word.” The early Puritans were far from any such intention. Cartright and Travers maintained that magistrates and princes were under the discipline of the Church in spiritual matters, like anyone else, but they had no political aims and repudiated any charge of disloyalty to the Crown.
The deplorable state of the Church in general in those days is now admitted on clear evidence. Non-residence of the clergy in their parishes from which they drew the income, and the holding of several livings and ecclesiastical offices in plurality, were very common. Large numbers of parishes had no adequate pastoral care. A survey in 1586 found only 2000 preachers in 10,000 parishes. Many parsons were ignorant men, others immoral, some chiefly taken up with hunting and other field sports. Archbishop Grindal of York in 1570, and of Canterbury in 1575 was sympathetic with much in the Puritan emphasis and outlook, and anxious to deal with abuses in the Church. He stoutly defended his efforts to secure and install godly preachers, and refused to suppress various Puritan meetings for Bible study and prayer. As a consequence, the Queen on her own authority suspended him from his duties for the last seven years of his life, although he nominally remained in office. He was undoubtedly a Puritan at heart. Whitgift, who succeeded Grindal, was of an entirely different outlook, was in full agreement with the Queen’s opposition to all Puritan ideas, and vigorously enforced the regulations with great harshness. He it was who instituted the iniquitous Court of High Commission, which attained such shameful eminence under Archbishop Laud, and where men could be, and were, thrown into prison for some ecclesiastical offence without warrant and without trial.
There was an underlying unity of spiritual purpose among the various groups of Puritans. These were mainly: those who remained within the Anglican Church as true Evangelical Protestants, Presbyterians, Independents (or Congregationalist), and Baptists (at first and for many years called “Anabaptists”, i.e. those who re-baptised after infancy). In addition there was the Society of Friends, contemptuously called “Quakers”, and various sects such as Ranters, Fifth Monarchy men, and others.
Sufficient has perhaps been said of the conforming Puritans within the Church of England. Despite episcopal opposition and stiff laws and penalties, these Puritans remained active, chiefly amongst the laity and included many gentry and landowners. They never died out in the State Church and became the ancestors of the Evangelical party in the Church of England today.
The English Presbyterians, often in alliance with the Church of Scotland, desired a church founded on the Geneva model of Calvin. They were the dominant party in the Long Parliament, 1640-51, and the Westminster Assembly of Divines, 1643-49. They believed in the parity of ministers, denying any superior rank of bishops because in the New Testament presbyter and bishop are translations of the same Greek word. They believed strongly in the priesthood of all believers, the central doctrine of the Reformation, as did other Puritans. They believed in a graded system of church courts, in the grouping of local churches in presbyteries, with the associated presbyteries joined in synods, and a General Assembly made up of both ministers and lay elders as the supreme Church authority. John Geree in The Character of an Old English Puritane (1646), puts it thus: “They held God’s rule for His Church Aristocratical by Elders, not Monarchical by Bishops, nor Democratical by the People.” They believed that this form of Church government was to be found in Scripture. They not only objected to the rule of bishops, but also repudiated worship according to the Book of Common Prayer. The Westminster Assembly published a Directory of Worship which advocated extempore prayer. Dr Thomas Cartwright, the leading Puritan of the day, and Professor of Divinity at Cambridge until his ejection in 1570 was a Presbyterian. He taught Calvinist doctrine to some hundreds of students and his influence on them was far-reaching. Many of the nobility, country gentry and city merchants were Presbyterians. The leading doctrines of Presbyterianism are Calvinistic and Evangelical, and are enshrined in the Westminster Confession and the Longer and Shorter Catechisms. Presbyterians considered themselves as standing midway between the Episcopal Church and the Independent Sects. In 1572 a presbytery was set up in Wandsworth and in several other places. Cartwright and his fellow Puritans opposed separation from the Church of England in the hope that the Government would reform it in Puritan and Presbyterian directions. But it was a vain hope, and Presbyterian Puritanism never became a great force in England.
At first, and for some considerable time, the Independents included those we would now call Congregationalists and Baptists. But the distinctive position of the latter on the baptism of believers only led them to become a separate body in the course of time. There was an Independent congregation in London as early as 1571. The best known of their early leaders was Robert Browne who wrote a book that had a far-reaching influence entitled, A Treatise of Reformation without Tarrying for Any. He had been a student at Cambridge under Cartwright. According to Browne, the only Church is a local body of believers in Christ who voluntarily covenant together to live according to the law of God and of Christ; such a Church has Christ as its immediate Head, is self-governing by the appointment of elders and deacons, and chooses its own Pastor. When such a “gathered church” of believers met the Holy Spirit was considered to be in control, and the Church’s activities to be guided by him. Browne founded a Congregational Church in Norwich in 1581, but because of much persecution and imprisonment he and the majority of his congregation sought refuge in Holland. Strangely enough, Browne himself later repudiated Independency and returned to the Church of England. Two other prominent leaders of the Independents were Greenwood and Barrow, associated with a church at Islington in 1586. They were imprisoned and executed at Tyburn in 1593. As a result of continued persecution of Independents under the Conventicle Act of 1593, many emigrated to Holland to seek liberty of worship denied them in England. It was exiles from Lincolnshire who formed the Church at Leyden from which the Pilgrim Fathers sailed in the Mayflower in 1620 to found New England. The Pastor of this Church was John Robinson, a learned and broad-minded man who asserted that “God has still more light and truth to shed forth from His Word.” The leading personality amongst the Independents of the Commonwealth period was Dr John Owen. Originally a Presbyterian he changed to Independency, and was Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. His books are amongst the classics of Puritanism. He was the friend and chaplain to Oliver Cromwell, and strangely enough he was also the friend of Charles II, and spoke warmly to that monarch in praise of John Bunyan, the tinker of Bedford.
The Baptists were generally called “Anabaptists” by their opponents, because they re-baptised believers in adult years. But the term “anabaptist” linked them with those of that name whose fanatic excesses at Münster and elsewhere on the Continent brought them and their ideas into great disrepute. Baptists and Independents held identical views concerning the government and ordering of the church. They differed in that Baptists held that Christian baptism was the baptism of believers and not of infants. At first they baptised by affusion or pouring, but gradually they came to adopt immersion, although the mode of baptism was always of secondary importance to them. There were two parties amongst the Baptist sect. The General Baptists, under such leaders as Smyth and Heiwys held Arminian views, i.e. that salvation was available to all, and that man, in some sense, could aid his own salvation. The Particular Baptists, originating in Jacob’s Independent Church in London in 1616, were strongly Calvinistic, believing in “particular redemption”, i.e. redemption for the elect only. Both sections grew steadily and John Bunyan entered into controversy with them as we shall see in a later chapter. It is often claimed that Bunyan himself was a Baptist but we shall see in due course that this is very uncertain. In Bedfordshire and some other places Independents and Baptists joined together in fellowship to found local churches, later called “Union Churches”, and it was to one of these that Bunyan belonged.
The Quakers also formed one of the Puritan groups, although in the seventeenth century with their fanatical zeal, strange doctrines, and bizarre practices, they were far removed from “The Society of Friends” which today is renowned for its philanthropic and social work. Their doctrine of the “inner light” which all might develop to become mature Christians conflicted with the Calvinist doctrine of the fall of man and his total depravity. Their practice of waiting on God in silence for the Spirit to move them, and their apparent indifference to the use and authority of the Bible, raised up against them many opponents including John Bunyan and Richard Baxter. George Fox, 1624-90, the founder of the sect was a fiery prophet of a section of Puritanism, which denounced formal worship, a paid ministry, the taking of oaths, the removal of the hat as a mark of respect, and insisted on passive resistance to enemies. Cromwell endured much trouble from them, although conferring with George Fox brought him to a better understanding of them.
The extreme left-wing of the Puritan movement was occupied by small sects under such names as Levellers, Diggers, and Fifth Monarchy men. Though these groups had a religious origin they soon became radical sects with political and social reformist aims. They were in revolt against the whole established order of things, property, education, the Church, the franchise system, and much else. The Levellers’ leader was John Lilburne, who demanded democracy based on Christian equality, and universal male suffrage. The Digger movement was confined to agricultural workers. Its leader, Gerard Winstanley, was a visionary. He wished to abolish money and commerce, and establish small, self-supporting communes. The Fifth Monarchy sect, or Millenarians, held that the four world empires of chapter seven of the Book of Daniel were coming to a close with the Protectorate of Cromwell. They looked for the immediate second coming of Christ to earth to set up his kingdom, the Fifth Monarchy. Some were peaceful though misguided Christians, but others became violent revolutionaries who had to be put down with bloodshed after the Restoration in 1661. They were to have a strong, indirect bearing on the course of John Bunyan’s life.
Although in many matters there was a variety of view within the Puritan movement, there was an underlying unity on fundamental principles.
First, they held strongly to the Protestant emphasis on the Bible as the only rule of faith and conduct. (The Quakers alone were an exception to this). J. R. Green the historian says: “England became the people of a book, and that book was the Bible.” It was, he adds, the one book that was familiar to every Englishman: it was read in churches and at home, and came to exercise a profound influence on thought, aims religious social and political, and on private conduct. The Puritans, following John Calvin, held that the Bible was authoritative for doctrine, forms of worship, and church government. The Authorised Version of 1611 was the chief literature for most people at a time when there were few other books or newspapers to distract their attention. It was read with simple belief in its literalness and infallibility. As John Bunyan shows in Grace Abounding the Bible was alternatively a source of comfort and torment. Cromwell found in the Bible abundance of texts to support his policies and adorn his letters and speeches. The words of Scripture became part of the common speech. Cromwell and other Puritan leaders did not use it merely to impress an audience; he used it to his wife, in letters to his friends, in Parliamentary speeches and army despatches. The Westminster Confession states that “our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority (of the Bible) is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.” The Puritan was certain that Scripture was more than an external authority; it was confirmed by the Spirit-prompted response of his mind and heart to the Word. To him, his authority was no longer an infallible Church or bishop or government, it was the Word of God, giving light on all points and in all circumstances. “Elizabeth,” says J. R. Green, “might silence or tune the pulpits; but it was impossible for her to silence or tune the great preachers of justice and mercy and truth, who spoke from the Book which she had again opened for her people.” This was the Geneva Bible of 1560. “The Bible,” said Chillingworth a conformist, “and the Bible alone is the religion of Protestants.”
Another vital principle of the Puritans was the concern to worship God in the beauty of holiness. They sought to purge worship of all Roman accretions, and of every practice not sanctioned by the Word of God. They desired simplicity and reality in worship and so that the worship should be acceptable to God they laid much emphasis on the state of the worshipper’s heart, which should be contrite, humble, believing, obedient. Preaching was the most important part of the service, although prayer and Scripture reading prepared for it. The pulpit was placed in a central position in Nonconformist churches and from it the Word of God was expounded thoroughly, in all its parts, week by week. Nothing so roused their anger as unworthy clergy involved in holy things in an unworthy manner. Milton waxed eloquent
regarding this in his poem Lycidas, and his pamphlet The
Reason of Church Government Urged against Prelacy (1641).
Yet again, the strongest influence on the Puritans was their consciousness of the Sovereignty of God in creation, providence and redemption. They sought to live with a keen sense of responsibility to the Almighty, both for themselves, and for others. They felt that they lived in the sight of God and in the presence of eternity. They were in deadly earnest about the value of the soul, the reality of divine judgement, and democratic rights and duties. There is little doubt that there was an atmosphere of moral slackness and decadence at the beginning of the seventeenth century that challenged all that Puritanism stood for. But the authorities of the national Church opposed the men who would have brought about reform, drove them out, and took the part of the licentious court of Charles II. In all the Puritan groups was to be found a strong belief in personal holiness, personal allegiance to God revealed in Christ, as distinct from mere nominal membership of a church on the basis of infant baptism. From this it followed that the Puritan viewed every walk and duty of life as related to his walk with God and obedience to him. This, in turn, gave them the vision of a holy nation governed by godly men. It was this that underlay the efforts of the Puritans when in authority during the Commonwealth, to force others into Puritan patterns of behaviour. This unwise zeal, more than anything else, has given Puritanism a bad name even today.
As to Puritanism and the Arts, later generations of writers have caricatured Puritans as gloomy, sour-faced, sanctimonious people, who never laughed and were opposed to all recreation, drama, dancing, music etc. Nothing is further from the truth. They appreciated and enjoyed these where they were wholesome, but strongly attacked them for being debased and corrupting as they often were. The two greatest poets of the age were Spenser and Milton, both Puritans. Cromwell and other leading Puritans delighted in music; much music was published in the Commonwealth period, and the only objection Puritans had was to profane music on the Sabbath. The Pilgrim’s Progress again and again shows us men and women engaged in singing and dancing, and music at meals in the Interpreter’s House. The Puritans developed congregational singing in place of the service being sung by clergy and choir alone. As to the drama, Puritans opposed stage plays in Stuart days because the plays were decidedly bawdy and salacious, especially the Restoration comedies, where the stock themes were murder, adultery, incest and seduction. John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys, who cannot be suspected of Puritan sympathies, expressed their disgust at the profane, atheistical, and licentious plays they saw. As to recreation, the Puritans opposed bear-baiting, cock-fighting, rope-walking and May Day revels, because too often they were associated with drunkenness, gambling, brutality and impurity. The Maypole sounds harmless enough, but in fact it was at the centre of the May Day celebrations a continuation of a pagan festival, rowdy and licentious. The activities associated with May Day had been denounced by the Church long before the Puritan era, for example by the Bishop of Salisbury in the thirteenth century, as encouraging gross immorality. Drunkenness also was widespread and the Puritans endeavoured to check it.
As for Sunday, the Puritans regarded it as a day set apart by God for his service, to be spent, in the words of Richard Baxter, “in hearing the Word of God truly preached, thereby to learn and to do His will; in receiving the sacraments rightly administered; in using public and private prayers; in collecting for the poor and in doing of good works; and chiefly in the true obedience of the inward man”. To the Puritan, Sunday was “the market-day of the soul”, when they did business especially with God. Sunday sports would interfere with opportunities for religious worship and meditation. King James I in 1618 issued a proclamation scolding the “Puritans and Precisians” and maintaining the right of people to their customary Sunday sports after service, with the exception of bear-baiting and bowling. But so violent were the protests that the king withdrew the order. Charles I aided and abetted by Archbishop Laud re-issued the order in 1633 and issued the Book of Sports which outraged the Puritans, and this was one of the issues at Laud’s trial. Incidentally, the archbishop was particularly incensed against the Puritans of the Midlands. He reported to the king, “My visitors there found Bedfordshire most tainted (with preaching) of any part of the diocese.”
G.M. Trevelyan has an interesting comment on this aspect of Puritanism in his History of England: “Family prayer and Bible reading had become national customs among the great majority of religious laymen, whether they were Churchmen or Dissenters. The English character had received an impression from Puritanism which it bore for the next two centuries, though it had rejected Puritan coercion and had driven Dissenters out of polite society. Even the Puritan Sunday survived … Even at the Restoration when the very name of Puritan was a hissing and a reproach, when the gaols were crowded with harmless Quakers and Baptists, the Puritan idea of Sunday, as a day strictly set aside for rest and religious meditation, continued to hold the allegiance of the English people. The good and evil effects of this self-imposed discipline of a whole nation, in abstaining from organised amusement as well as from work on every seventh day, still awaits the dispassionate study of the social historian.” It is interesting also to find that the Restoration Parliament in 1677 copied the Lord’s Day legislation of the Commonwealth, confirming existing Acts which laid down that everyone should attend Church, and imposed fines on those who engaged in Sunday travelling or trading, stating that goods exposed to sale were to be confiscated.
As to social affairs, the Puritans stood for bringing Christian principles and Christian concern into the life of the nation. Oliver Cromwell writing to the Speaker of the House of Commons after the astonishing victory of Dunbar, is typical. After describing how God had given them the victory, he proceeds—”We that serve you beg of you not to own us, but God alone … Disown yourselves; but own your Authority; and improve it to curb the proud and insolent, such as would disturb the tranquility of England, though under what specious pretences soever. Relieve the oppressed, hear the groans of poor prisoners in England. Be pleased to reform the abuses of all professions—and if there be anyone that makes many poor to make a few rich, that suits not a Commonwealth. If He that strengthens your servants to fight, please to give you hearts to set upon these things, in order to His glory and the glory of your Commonwealth—then besides the benefit England shall feel thereby, you shall shine forth to other nations, who shall emulate the glory of such a pattern, and through the power of God turn in to the like! These are our desires. And that you may have liberty and opportunity to do these things, and not be hindered, we have been and shall be (by God’s assistance) willing to venture our lives.”
Into this confused and troubled nation, where religion and politics, divine right of kings and justification by faith alone, predestination and universal male suffrage, rule by bishops and the priesthood of all believers, reform of abuses and government in a single person, tonnage and poundage and treasure in Heaven, were mixed, came John Bunyan on the threshold of his extraordinary career, which was to make him one of England’s greatest writers and a household name.