While Scotland played out its drama, even in Elizabethan times there were nonconformists who sought to “purify” the Church of England of what they called its “Catholic” practices. These activists claimed—with some merit—that the established church was not fully reformed; they were called Puritans.
One of the earliest to use the term was Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1559 to 1575, who also called them “precisians,” meaning that they were sticklers. Puritans preferred to call themselves “the godly.” However, a noted figure in the movement, William Bradshaw, used the term in his 1605 work English Puritanisme, purporting to expound on “the maine opinions of the rigidest.” In modern usage the term is synonymous with prudery, although they were emphatically positive about married sexuality and—mostly in opposition to Catholicism—did not revere virginity.
Puritans adopted the Reformed theology of Calvinism, with its opposition to ritual and emphasis on preaching, a stricter observance of the Sabbath and preference for a presbyterian system, albeit leaning toward the congregational. They opposed religious practices that came close to Catholic ritual.
They fled or went underground when Queen Mary attempted to restore Catholicism. They resurfaced, many returning from exile in continental Europe’s hotbeds of Calvinism, in the England of Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, whose order was established by two laws. The Act of Supremacy of 1558 restored the Church of England’s independence from Rome and the queen as its supreme governor; the Act of Uniformity of 1559 outlined the form the English Church would take, including the reestablishment of the Book of Common Prayer. This is known as the Elizabethan Settlement.
As proposed, the laws defined Holy Communion in terms of Reformed Protestant theology, opposing transubstantiation, ordering that ministers wear a surplice only without other vestments and that priests be allowed to marry, as well as banning images from churches. Faced with opposition from Catholic bishops and lay peers in the House of Lords, revisions allowed for belief in the Real Presence of Christ in Holy Communion, liturgical vestments, celebration of Communion on the altar or on a table against the wall and permitted kneeling out of reverence to receive communion.
The laws were echoed in the Thirty-nine Articles of 1563 composed by 46 theologians, including bishops and other clergy. The document tiptoes toward accepting Trent’s biblical canon by adding, to the Protestant 66-book Old Testament, “the other books (as Hierome saith) … yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine.” The Articles bow to Calvin’s Geneva, declaring predestination “sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons.” There’s a salute to Luther’s Augsburg stating, “We are justified by faith only is a most wholesome doctrine.” The Articles wrap up with a rousing Protestant rant on the “Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, worshipping and adoration as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, [which] is a fond thing vainly invented.”
One would have thought this would appease all Protestant parties, but efforts were made to push things further toward Reform, including the Lambeth Articles, a series of nine doctrinal statements by Archbishop of Canterbury John Whitgift in 1595. When Elizabeth heard of them she became enraged, ordered them suppressed and the bishop deposed; it would be the high tide of Calvinism and Continental Protestantism in Elizabethan England.
Indeed, many Puritans decided to leave the country again. Some went off to found expatriate English Nonconformist and Separatist communities and churches in the Netherlands in the 1590s. From among them came the leaders of a group known today as the Pilgrims, who sailed on the Mayflower from Plymouth to the New World in 1620, whose story deserves separate treatment.
The English pot continued to boil, however, under James I. A 1603 Puritan manifesto, the Millenary Petition, called for reform of the English church, naming in particular the use of vestments during services, the sign of the cross in baptism and kneeling to receive Holy Communion. James was not inclined to support them, although he made other minor conciliatory gestures.
Puritanism rose finally to the forefront of life in England under Charles I, who acceded to the throne in 1625, facing almost open revolt from Protestant lawmakers. In 1629, Charles dissolved Parliament with no intention of summoning a new one; it was an attempt to neutralize his enemies there, but it had the opposite effect.
Added to the complaints concerning an established Church kept mildly within Reform by a conservative nobility, was Charles’ perceived sympathy with a new current of thought seeping into England from the Netherlands, Arminianism. It was based on the ideas of Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609), a theologian at the University of Leiden who disagreed with certain interpretations of Calvin in the Dutch Reformed Church.
Arminius agreed with other Reformers, especially Calvin, that humanity is morally depraved and that atonement is intended for all through Jesus’ death, which satisfies God’s justice. However, to Arminians, grace is resistible, human beings have a free will to respond or resist and election is conditional as is eternal security.
The Puritans viewed Arminianism as a deceptive path to reintroducing Catholicism and away from Calvinism in a more traditional and sacramental direction, a direction they saw as “irreligious.” As if to confirm their suspicions, in 1633, Charles appointed William Laud as Archbishop of Canterbury, with whom he began a series of anti-Calvinist moves restricting nonconformist preachers, insisting on the use of the Book of Common Prayer and reorganizing the internal architecture of English churches so as to emphasize the altar.
Into this cauldron entered one Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), a man of the middle gentry, descended from the sister of King Henry VIII’s minister Thomas Cromwell. He became a Puritan after undergoing a religious conversion in the 1630s and took a generally tolerant view of many Protestant sects of his time. He was an elected member of Parliament in the House of Commons when civil strife broke out.
The English Civil War (1642–1651) was a series of armed conflicts and political machinations between Royalists (“Cavaliers,” mostly long-maned noblemen known for their horsemanship) and Parliamentarians (“Roundheads,” mostly commoners, including peasants and tradesmen pressed into the infantry, who were known for their short haircuts, as shall be explained). At heart, the war was about class power in England’s government: the primacy of the monarch and nobility, as opposed to that of Parliament and the more common people.
Cromwell took the side of the Roundheads as a military leader. An intensely religious man, a self-styled Puritan Moses, he fervently believed that God was guiding his victories.
The nickname Roundheads was first used in derision around 1641, when debates in Parliament concerning church matters were causing riots. According to a contemporary, the rioters “had the hair of their heads very few of them longer than their ears.” It was a class slur, as the rioters included London apprentices who were bound by regulations to keep their hair closely cropped.
The war also had a powerful religious undercurrent. It was a conflict between what would eventually be called the “high church,” the more traditional faith and rites favored by the Anglican king and nobility on one hand and on the other the “low church” of the middle and working classes leaning toward a more Continental Protestantism, including Puritanism.
Cromwell was one of the signers of King Charles I’s death warrant in 1649. After the regicide, he was at first a leading member of the so-called rump Parliament, which established the Commonwealth of England (1649-53). This Parliament included supporters of religious independence who did not want an established church and sympathizers with the Levellers, who emphasized popular sovereignty, extended suffrage, equality before the law and religious tolerance, along with Presbyterians who could live with the trial and execution of the king.
The Church of England was retained, but the episcopacy was suppressed and the Act of Uniformity 1558 was repealed in September 1650. Mainly on the insistence of the Army, many independent churches were tolerated, although everyone still had to pay tithes to the established church.
In 1653, Cromwell became Lord Protector, ruling England effectively as a dictator. He was religiously tolerant, but appointed “triers” who assessed the suitability of candidates for parish ministry and “ejectors” to dismiss ministers and schoolmasters deemed unsuitable—both were the vanguard of Cromwell’s reform of parish worship.
England’s American colonies at the time consisted of the New England Confederation, Providence Plantation, Virginia Colony and Maryland Colony. Cromwell secured their submission and largely left them alone. He intervened only to curb his fellow Puritans against Maryland, by confirming the Catholic proprietorship and edict of tolerance there. Of all the English dominions, Virginia most resented Cromwell’s rule, and Cavaliers flocked there during the Protectorate.
Another unusual religious initiative was an effort encouraging Jews to return to England in 1657, over 350 years after their banishment by Edward I, in the hope that they would help speed up the recovery of the country. There is some evidence that he also thought he could convert the Jews and hasten the Second Coming, based on his interpretation of Matthew 23:37-39. He was serious enough about that to ban Christmas as a pagan festival.
The Puritan outbreak in England, which briefly spread to Scotland and Ireland through military forays by Cromwell, ended shortly after Cromwell’s death. His son inherited the title Protector, but without support, and resigned in May 1659, ending the Protectorate. In 1660 Charles II was invited back from exile to be the rightful king, whose reign said legally to have begun in 1649, when Charles I was beheaded.
The Church of England was restored as the national Church in England in 1662 and people reportedly “pranced around May poles as a way of taunting the Presbyterians and Independents.” This was known as the Caroline Settlement, which ushered in the Caroline Divines, deemed to have fostered a golden age of Anglican scholarship and devotional writing.