Puritans & Puritanism

Although the name has since taken on connotations of repressive morality, the first Puritans were reformers and dissenters against the established Church. The following areas were important issues for most Puritans:

  • separation from the Roman Catholic Church and its traditions
  • movement away from Episcopacy towards a Reformed Protestant Church and theology
  • simplified forms of worship; a dislike of church ritual, robes, music, idolatry &c
  • an emphasis on personal interpretation of the Bible
  • attendance of public sermons by gifted lay preachers rather than state-regulated services in local parish churches
  • strict observance of the Sabbath and a disregard of festivals and Saints' days

The term came into general use in England during the reign of of the Catholic Queen Mary I (1553-8), usually as a term of derision. Its use as a label to identify a particular viewpoint within the Church of England dates from the early reign of Elizabeth I. The first Puritans wanted to purge or "purify" the Anglican Church of any traces of Catholic influence that remained after the Elizabethan Church settlement. The movement drew its support from two principal groups of lay adherents: a minority of nobles and gentry, and a much larger number of the "middling sort of people", such as merchants, yeomen and artisans, especially in London and the clothworking towns and villages.

During the reign of King James I, Puritan influence resulted in the commissioning of a new English translation of the Bible: the Authorised Version of 1611, but in general King James' religious policy was aimed at maintaining conformity and state control over the Church. Many Puritans were driven abroad, some to Holland and Germany, some to America, notably the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620.

During the early years of Charles I's reign, a close-knit network of Puritan magnates revolving around the Earl of Warwick, Lord Saye-and-Sele and Lord Brooke sponsored further colonial ventures, including Sayebrook and Massachusetts Bay in New England and Providence Island in the Caribbean.

Puritans suspected King Charles I of having Catholic sympathies from the beginning of his reign. His marriage to the Catholic princess Henrietta Maria and his support for Archbishop Laud's attempts to impose Arminian doctrines upon the Anglican church were regarded with deep mistrust. Laud himself regarded Puritanism as a greater threat to the Church than Roman Catholicism because of the Puritans' opposition to Episcopacy.

Most of the members of the Long Parliament who remained at Westminster after the outbreak of civil war in 1642 were Puritan in outlook. After the defeat of the Royalists in the First Civil War, the settlement of religion began to dominate proceedings in Parliament. Many of the recommendations of the specially-appointed Westminster Assembly were implemented, including the replacement of the Book of Common Prayer in January 1645 and the abolition of Episcopacy from the Church of England in October 1646.

During the course of the war, Puritan opinion became increasingly radicalised. Initially two broad groupings emerged in Parliament: the moderate Presbyterians and the more radical Independents. By the ending of the war, the extreme Puritan sects were beginning to be represented among MPs and army officers with the appearance of Baptists. After 1648, an upsurge of millenarian enthusiasm culminated in the emergence of the Fifth Monarchy sect.

The Puritan ideal of a commonwealth ruled by a godly government of "Saints" reached its peak with the short-lived Nominated Assembly (Barebone's Parliament) of 1653. The Assembly was replaced by the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, who tried to establish a broadly-based national Church with toleration of law-abiding Protestant sects. A central commission of clergy and laymen was established to examine candidates for the ministry ("Triers") and local commissions were appointed to eject ministers who proved unsuitable ("Ejectors"). Cromwell's attempt to reform the morals of the nation under the Rule of the Major-Generals (1655-7) proved deeply unpopular and the emergence of the Quakers during the 1650s, who opposed all organised churches, was disruptive and alarming. In general, however, Cromwell's religious policy made steady progress towards reconciliation among the Puritan sects.

The Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 also restored Anglicanism and the rule of the bishops. Puritan clergy were expelled from the Church of England under the terms of the Act of Uniformity of 1662. Thereafter, English Puritans were classified as Nonconformists.


Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London 1971)

David Underdown: Pride's Purge (Oxford 1971)

C.V. Wedgwood, The King's Peace (London 1955)

English Dissenters: Puritans www.exlibris.org


Puritan links