Puritans and Persecution

IN OUR OWN secular age, we may easily forget how much our forbears prized their religion. In Tudor and Stuart England atheism was more or less unknown. Family prayers each day were the rule, and several hours every Sunday were set aside for devotions. Against a background of war between the great European Protestant and Catholic states, religion was deeply interwoven with issues of national loyalty, and in England successive monarchs sought to unify their people in religion.

On her accession in 1558, Queen Elizabeth I determined to enforce one Protestant religion, based on one Protestant Prayer Book. An Act of Uniformity, passed early, in her reign, dealt first of all with the clergy, for their obedience was the key to religious unity. The Act ordered every minister “to say and use the Matins, Evensong, celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and the administration of the sacraments, and all their common and open prayer, in such order and form as is mentioned in the Book [of Common Prayer] so authorized by Parliament (1).” It was this Prayer Book which was to become such a stumbling block to many devout Puritans, including that small group known as the Pilgrim Fathers who sailed far across the world to found a community based on their own ideals.

The Act of Uniformity punished clergymen not only for rejecting the Book of Common Prayer, but also for speaking out against it. The penalty could be as great as life imprisonment. Even a first offender was heavily punished. Any clergyman who “shall preach, declare or speak anything in the derogation or depraving of the said book or any thing therein contained or of any part thereof, and shall be [convicted] by verdict of twelve men or by his own confession or by the notorious evidence of the fact, shall [forfeit] for his first offence the profit of all his spiritual benefices or pro­motions coming or arising in one whole year next after his conviction [and] suffer imprisonment by the space of six months without bail (2).”

Some devout people objected to the Elizabethan religious settle­ment because they wanted to reform or purify the Church of England further: they were nicknamed Puritans. in 1585 the first Puritans asked Queen Elizabeth to allow parish clergy to be helped in their work by laymen, known as “associates, four, six or eight inhabitants of his parish [to] govern his said parish with him; to hear and order with him such quarrels, offences, and disorders in life and manners, as should be among the same parishioners. And if the causes and quarrels … be such that the same pastor and his associates or seniors cannot determine the same [the pastor shall] bring the said cause before the bishop of the diocese and the elders, which are to him associate (3).” Many Puritans felt that the clergy held too privileged a position in spiritual affairs.

Before the end of Elizabeth’s reign in 1603, however, a group of Puritans known as Independents began to condemn the Church of England out of hand. Some of them were put on trial for their views in 1586. They claimed that “the worship of the English Church is flat idolatry: that we admit into our Church persons unsanctifled: that our preachers have no lawful calling: that our government is ungodly: that no bishop or preacher preacheth Christ sincerely and truly: that the people of every parish ought to choose their bishop, and that every elder, though he be no doctor nor pastor, is a bishop: that all the precise which refuse the ceremonies of the Church and yet preach in the same Church, strain a gnat and swallow a camel and are close hypocrites and walk in a left-handed policy . . . that set prayer is blasphemous (4).” These were radical views, which struck at the very roots of the established English Church, and the policy of uniformity.

Some Independents began to stay away from church and worship in their own private meetings. They were called Separatists. A member described the Separatists as “a company of faithful and holy people, with their seed, called by the Word of God into public covenant with Christ and amongst themselves, for mutual fellow­ship in the use of all the means of God’s glory and their salvation (5).” To them, the detailed forms of worship specified by the Book of Common Prayer were utterly repugnant.

The Independents felt that no-one should be forced to accept any sort of religion. Magistrates, for example, “have not that authority over the Church as to be prophets or priests or spiritual kings, as they are magistrates over the same, but only to rule the commonwealth in all outward justice, to maintain the right welfare and honour thereof with outward power, bodily punishment and civil forcing of men. [To] compel religion, to plant churches by power, and to force a submission to ecclesiastical government by laws and penalties belongeth not to them (6).” Views like this challenged the whole practical basis of the Act of Uniformity.

Puritans described the purpose of their assemblies as: 1.Prayer. 2. The reading and opening of the Word. 3. The sacraments. 4. Singing of Psalms. 5. Censures. 6. Contribution to the necessities of the saints. (7).” To carry out these ideals, they or­ganized their congregations under the management of officials. Each official had a particular duty to perform: “1. The pastor – [exhorter], to whom is given the gift of wisdom for exhortation. 2. The teacher, to whom is given the gift of knowledge for doctrine. 3. The governing elder, who is to rule with diligence. 4. The deacon, who is to administer the holy treasure with simplicity. 5. The widow or deaconess, who is to attend the sick and impotent with compassion and cheerfulness (8).”

The Separatists usually met in their own homes, and held two “exercises” or services each Sunday. The morning services lasted from eight o’clock until about twelve, and the afternoon service from two o’clock until five or six. What were these services like? “We begin with prayer; afterwards we read one or two chapters of the Bible, give the sense thereof and discuss it. The first speaker then announces a text and preaches on it for about an hour. Then the second speaker talks on the same text for the same length of time and after him the third, fourth and maybe the fifth (9).”

The Puritans laid far more emphasis on preaching than did the Prayer Book. Indeed, preaching was soon to be regarded by many people as dangerous, especially where the preacher was not even an ordained priest.

By forming themselves into separate congregations, the Puritans were bound to face persecution. “Those reformers who saw the evil of these things, and whose hearts the Lord had touched with heavenly zeal for his truth, shook off this yoke of anti-Christian bondage and as the Lord’s free people joined themselves together, by covenant as a church, in the fellowship of the gospel to walk in all His ways, made known, or to be made known to them, according to their best endeavours, whatever it should cost them, the Lord assisting them. And that it cost them something, the ensuing history will declare (10).”

In 1593 Parliament forbade the Separatists to hold their own services. Anyone who refused to attend church for forty days, and who went instead to private meetings “contrary to the laws and statutes of this realm [and] being thereof lawfully convicted, shall, be committed to prison, there to remain without bail or mainprise, until they shall confirm and yield themselves to come to some church (11).”

Nevertheless, Puritans, both inside and outside the Church, grew in numbers and influence. Dr. Thomas Fuller, the famous seven­teenth-century historian and himself a minister suggested that “what won them most repute was their ministers’ painful preaching in populous places; it being observed in England that those who hold the helm of the pulpit always steer people’s hearts as they please (12).” The pulpit, indeed, was as important in influencing public opinion then as television and the press are today.

Puritans grew famous for their high morality and earnestness. Richard Baxter, who later became a Puritan minister, recounted how when he was a boy his father used to read the Bible aloud to his family on Sundays, while other villagers played riotous games: “Many times my mind was inclined to be among them, and sometimes I broke loose from conscience and joined with them; and the more I did it the more I was inclined to it. But when I heard them call my father Puritan, it did much to cure me and alienate me from them. For I considered that my father’s exercise of reading the Scripture was better than theirs, and would surely be better thought on by all men at the last; and I considered what it was for that he and others were thus derided (13).”

When James I ascended the English throne in 1603, the Puritans presented him with the Millenary Petition; it was said to have a thousand signatures. The petition called for many Church reforms, including shorter services to allow more time for sermons. The Puritans wanted to abolish many traditional customs, to make forms of worship much simpler.

They asked “that the cross in baptism, interrogatories ministered to infants, confirmation, as superfluous, may be taken away.

“Baptism not to be ministered by women, and so explained;

“The cap and surplice not urged;

“That examination may go before the communion; that it be. ministered with a sermon;

“That divers terms of priests and absolution, and some other used, with the ring in marriage, and other such like in the Book, may be corrected;

“The longsomeness of service abridged;

“Church songs and music moderated to better edification;

“That the Lord’s Day be not profaned, the rest upon holy-days not so strictly urged;

“That there may be an uniformity of doctrine prescribed;

“No Popish opinion to be any more taught or defended;

“No ministers charged to teach their people to bow at the name of Jesus;

“That the canonical Scriptures only be read in the church (14).”

The Millenary Petition also called for higher standards of education and work on the part of ministers:

“That none hereafter be admitted into the ministry but able and sufficient men, and those to preach diligently, and especially upon the Lord’s Day;

“That such as be already entered and cannot preach, may either be removed and some charitable course taken with them for their relief or else to be forced, according to the value of their livings, to maintain preachers;

“That non-residency be not permitted (15).97

However, as he made it clear in his speech when opening Parliament in 1604, James was determined to maintain religious uniformity. He specially disliked the Puritans: “At my first coming, although I found but one religion, and that which by myself is professed, publicly allowed and by the law maintained, yet found I another sort of religion, besides a private sect, lurking within the bowels of this nation. The first is the true religion [and] the second is the falsely called Catholics, but truly Papists: the third, which I call a sect rather than a religion, is the Puritans and Novelists, who do not so far differ from us in points of religion [but are] discontented with the present government and impatient to suffer any superiority, which maketh their sect unable to be suffered in any well-governed commonwealth (16).”

James was all the more opposed to the Puritans because he believed that he ruled by Divine Right, that is, by the Will of God alone. The Puritans disagreed. As James explained in this speech, he would not allow the Puritans or anyone else to question his leadership of the Church. Monarchy, he declared, “is the supremest thing upon earth: for Kings are not only God’s lieutenants upon earth and sit upon God’s throne, but even by God himself they are called gods [and in] the Scriptures Kings are called gods, and so their power after a certain relation compared to the Divine. power. Kings are also compared to fathers of families: for a King is truly parenspatriae, the politic father of his people. And lastly, Kings are compared to the head of this microcosm of the body of man.”

He went on: “To dispute what God may do is blasphemy … so is it sedition in subjects to dispute what a King may do in the height of his power. But just Kings will ever be willing to declare what they will do, if they will not incur the curse of God. I will not be content that my power be disputed upon,” he finished, “but I shall ever be willing to make the reason appear of all my doings, and rule by actions according to my laws (17).”

In 1604 the Church of England drew up new canons (laws) which were to be obeyed by everyone. The fourth and fifth canons warned that anyone who criticized Anglican services and beliefs would be excommunicated. Anyone who claimed that the form of worship

“established by law and contained in the Book of Common Prayer [is] a corrupt, superstitious or unlawful worship of God, or con­taineth anything in it that is repugnant to the Scriptures, let him be excommunicated ipso facto, and not restored but only by the archbishop, and after his repentance and public revocation of those his wicked errors.”

Anyone who claimed that the Thirty-nine Articles, drawn up by the Church in 1562 “for avoiding diversities of opinions and for the establishing of consent touching true religion, are in part superstitious or erroneous, or such as he may not with a good conscience subscribe unto; let him be excommunicated (18).”

James did however agree to hold a conference between Puritan clergymen and the bishops at Hampton Court Palace. He was fond of debate, and chaired the proceedings himself; but he continually argued against the Puritans. When one of them suggested a Pres­byterian measure, to let laymen share authority with the bishops, King James “was somewhat stirred, yet, which is admirable in him, without passion or show thereof; thinking that they aimed at a Scottish presbytery, which, saith he, as well agreed with a monarchy as God and the Devil. Then Jack and Tom and Will and Dick shall meet, and at their pleasures censure me and my Council and all our proceedings. Then Will shall stand up and say, ‘It must be thus;’ then Dick shall reply and say, ‘Nay, marry, but we shall have it thus.’

“And therefore here I must once reiterate my former speech, Le Roy s’avisera [the king will take his own counsel]. Stay, I pray you, for one seven years before you demand that of me, and if then you find me pursy and fat and my wind-pipes stuffed, I will perhaps hearken to you (19).” After strong words like these, no one was left in doubt of the new king’s hatred of Puritanism.

At the end of the conference, James dismissed the Puritans with a threat: “If this be all your party hath to say, I will make them conform themselves, or else I will harry them out of the land, or else do worse (20).” Having known the Presbyterians in power in Scotland before 1603, James was in no mood to tolerate Puritans in his new kingdom. Many people, including those who were to become the Pilgrim Fathers, watched these events with great anxiety. Before his accession in 1603, few people realized how strongly James I was prepared to defend his position as head of a united Church, and to resist the work of Puritans and other “up­start” reformers.

During the early 1600s, the Puritans grew rather unpopular.

Many Englishmen disliked the idea of a strict Sabbath, and felt that people should be free to amuse themselves after attending church, as they always had been. In this next extract, a writer speaks scornfully of the Puritan Sabbath, for which there was no basis in law: “the stoutest fencer laid down the buckler; the most skilful archer unbent his bow, counting all shooting beside the I mark; May-games and morris-dances grew out of request; and good reason that bells should be silenced from jingling about men’s legs if their very ringing in steeples were adjudged unlawful. Some of them were ashamed of their former pleasure, like children which, grown bigger, blushing themselves out of their rattles and whistles. Others forbore them for fear of their superiors (21).” The reference to bells about men’s legs is to the small bells which country dancers wore on their clothing.

In some circles the name “Puritan” actually became a term of abuse. One Puritan said sarcastically that anyone who “showed favour to any godly honest person, kept them company, relieved them in want, or protected them against violent or unjust oppres­sion, he was a Puritan. If any gentleman in his country maintained the good laws of the land, or stood up for any public interest, for good order or government, he was a Puritan.

“In short, all that crossed the views of the needy courtiers, the proud encroaching priests, the thievish projectors, the lewd nobility and gentry—whoever was zealous for God’s glory or worship, could not endure blasphemous oaths, ribald conversation, profane scoffs, Sabbath-breaking, derision of the word of God, and the like—whoever could endure a sermon, modest habit or conver­sation, or anything good—all these were Puritans, then enemies to the King and his government, seditious, factious, hypocrites, ambitious disturbers of the public peace, and finally the pest of the kingdom (22).”

Puritan unpopularity allowed James to strengthen the Court of High Commission. This Court existed to see that clergymen obeyed the law of the Church, and to punish Puritans who tried to make reforms of their own. The judges could try offences “committed by any ecclesiastical person within these our realms [which] in any wise concern the execution of their several offices in any matter of ecclesiastical cognizance, as also of all other misdemeanours committed by the said ecclesiastical persons for which they may be censured by the ecclesiastical laws of this our kingdom (23).”

Against this background of repressive authority, high-lighted so clearly in the opening years of James’s reign, many Puritan groups – clergy and laity – began to fear real persecution. One group, meeting secretly in a Nottinghamshire village under the leadership of William Bradford, began to consider a drastic step: illegal emigration. But how could this be arranged, and where could they go?