The Puritan Age

from A History of Preaching
by F. R. Webber

As early as the days of Edward VI, who reigned from 1547 to 1553, there were men who believed that the English Reformation had not gone far enough. John Hooper, when elected bishop of Gloucester, objected to the use of episcopal vestments, and was imprisoned for a time before the matter was settled by compromise. During Edward’s reign, Cranmer had brought foreign theologians of Calvinistic views to England, and through these men Calvinistic teachings became known.

During Mary’s reign, 1553 to 1558, many Protestants were compelled to flee to the European continent in order to escape persecution. At Geneva, at Zurich, in Holland, and in some of the German cities these English refugees became influenced by Calvinism. When they returned to England at the death of Mary, they brought with them the opinions that they had formed while abroad. These returning refugees, some 800 in number, were confident that Elizabeth would restore the Protestantism of her brother Edward VI. Elizabeth disappointed them. Possessed of a degree of political shrewdness, she resolved to pursue a mediating course between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. There were more than 9,000 clergymen in England who had grown up under the pre-Reformation ways, and it was not deemed wise to introduce sweeping changes. The two Prayer Books of Edward VI’s day had retained much of the ancient liturgy and rubrics.

When Elizabeth came to the throne, two important laws were passed, namely the Act of Supremacy and the Act of Uniformity. It was decreed that “No foreign prince, person, prelate, state or potentate, spiritual or temporal, shall at any time after the last day of this session of Parliament, use, enjoy or exercise any manner of power, jurisdiction, superiority, authority, preeminence or privilege, spiritual or ecclesiastical, within the realm.” The supervision of the Church of England, its doctrine, practice and forms of worship was given to the Queen, who was authorized to appoint suitable agents to carry it out. The Second Book of Common Prayer of Edward VI, with a few changes, was adopted. The ornaments of the rubrics were to be the same as in Edward VI’s reign. All clergy were required to take an oath of obedience to these laws.

This mediating position of the Church of England, while rejecting the authority of the Roman hierarchy, nevertheless preserved the Roman Catholic form of church government, with its archbishops, bishops, priests and deacons. A modified form of the traditional order of worship was retained. This Church of England was declared to be the State Church and every citizen was presumed to be a member of it and subject to it. Its doctrines, practice, forms of worship and ceremonial were to be binding upon all, clergy and laity alike. The clergy were required by law to conform to it, under pain of deprivation, and the laity were obliged to attend church service on all Sundays and festival days under penalty of a fine of one shilling for every service missed. Thirteen bishops and about 200 clergymen who refused to take the Oath of Obedience were deprived of their offices.

The growth of Puritan ideas was gradual. At first there were men who objected to church vestments and to certain details of ceremonial. Some of the English refugees who had returned from Geneva brought back with them the “reformed” objection to the cap and surplice worn in England by the clergy. They objected to the sign of the cross in Baptism, and to the custom of kneeling when receiving Holy Communion. Queen Elizabeth took delight in colorful vestments and an impressive ceremonial, and she ordered Archbishop Parker to compel the use of these things. Parker was not favorable to the use of vestments at the outset, but he conformed to the wishes of Elizabeth.

In 1564 some of the clergy who were known to hold Puritan views were deprived of their congregations. In 1567 a group of about one hundred laymen met at Plumbers’ Hall in London, for worship. They were arrested and their leaders imprisoned. In 1572 an effort was made to establish an independent congregation in London with a Scottish form of government. Field and Wilcox, two of the men who attempted it, were cast into prison.

Queen Elizabeth did not believe that every clergyman should preach. In order to check the spread of Puritan opinions, she believed that one or two preaching clergymen in each diocese would prove sufficient. When Grindal became archbishop, he permitted a kind of informal service called “prophesying,” at which short sermons were preached. Queen Elizabeth ordered Grindal to suppress this form of preaching, and when he refused, she suspended him from office and his see was sequestered.

Archbishop Grindal was succeeded in 1583 by John Whitgift, a man with a fiery zeal for uniformity. In order to suppress the Puritans, he drew up his notorious Five Articles. These decreed that: no preaching, catechizing or praying be permitted in any private home where any are present besides the family; that no one be permitted to preach or catechize unless he read the whole service, and administer the Sacrament four times a year; that all clergy wear clerical vestments; that no one be permitted to preach unless he be ordained by the Church of England; that none be allowed to preach unless he accept the Queen as sovereign head of both State and Church, that he use only the Book of Common Prayer, and that he subscribe to the Book of Articles of 1562. Archbishop Whitgift ruled for twenty years. Enforcing his Five Articles rigidly, he ejected several hundred Puritan clergymen from their livings and suspended hundreds of others. At one time, toward the end of Elizabeth’s reign, one-third of all the 9,000 or more clergy of the Church of England were either deprived of office or else under suspension.

Puritan influence had been growing steadily, however, and many changes had been made. Altars were removed from churches and a small Communion table set up in the midst of the building. The use of the cope had been discontinued, as well as the custom of bowing at the name of Jesus. Organs and choirs were silenced, and in many cases stained glass windows were destroyed on the pretext that more light was needed so that the people might read their prayers.

Toward the end of Elizabeth’s reign, Richard Hooker set forth his views regarding the apostolic origin of the episcopate. Hooker was not an extremist. He was not in favor of enforcing this form of church government by law, and he permitted exceptions for valid reasons.

The reign of the House of Tudor came to an end when Elizabeth died in 1603. King James VI of Scotland was called to the English throne. Despotic, arrogant and unionistic, he determined to bring about a union of England and Scotland, and to create a single State-controlled prelatic church for both countries. Aware of the bitter struggle that had taken place in Scotland between James and the leaders of the Scottish Kirk, the Puritans realized that the new King was not their friend. James VI of Scotland became James I of England, and he ruled from 1603 to 1625.

At the outset the strong Puritan party was not hostile to the rule of bishops, nor to the liturgy, nor even to the idea of a State Church with the despotic James at its head. They were hostile to Roman Catholic doctrine and ceremonial, and they would have made certain revisions in the Prayer Book, were they given a chance.

Their first act was to present the Millenary Petition, signed by about 800 clergymen. They sought in this petition to bring about certain reforms. One of the things to which they objected was pluralism, by which a clergyman could hold two or more livings at the same time. This evil led easily to another, absenteeism, wherein a clergyman could hold a benefice and draw the salary connected with it, and yet rarely if ever set foot within the bounds of the parish.

The King met the Puritans at the Hampton Court Conference of 1604. This three-day meeting was attended by four Puritan leaders, nine bishops, seven deans, two common clergy and the King himself. After hearing the requests of the Puritans, King James declared that they were seeking to overthrow the right of the State to control the church; and in its place to set up a Scottish form of church government in which a presbytery, composed of clergymen and lay representatives, should govern the congregations. Finally he strode from the room declaring: “I shall make them conform themselves, or I will harry them out of the land, or else the worse.”

In 1608 a group of people, chiefly in Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire, withdrew from the Church of England and became Separatists. They went to Holland, where they lived for twelve years. Then, returning to Plymouth in Devon, they set sail in 1620 in the Mayflower for America, hoping to enjoy the religious liberty that had been denied them under the tyrannical rule of James I and his despotic bishops.

Charles I came to the throne in 1625 and ruled until 1649. While a better man than his father insofar as his personal character is concerned, yet his attitude toward the Puritans was one of oppression. During his reign the House of Commons was strongly Puritan, and sought to enact laws which would purify the Established Church of some of the things that had given offense in the past.

About the year 1630 the persecution under Archbishop Laud began. A fanatic in regard to religious uniformity, Laud sought to compel the Puritans to conform at any cost . . . Many of the more extreme men in the Puritan party had begun to oppose the frivolities of the day, and to urge a form of Protestant asceticism that included condemnation of the theatre, of dancing and of Sunday sports. Those who preached these things were punished. The Book of Sports was reissued, and the Continental Sabbath with all its sports, was encouraged by the enemies of Puritanism, under the guise of Christian liberty. Many Puritans were imprisoned, others deprived of their homes by means of ruinous fines, still others driven from England and compelled to flee to Holland and to America. New ceremonies and canon laws, abhorrent to the Puritan mind, were enacted in 1640, by the Convocation.

Weary of the despotism of Charles I, Archbishop Laud and the prelates, the people rose in revolt in 1642, and the Civil War followed. The majority of the nobles, the bishops and many of the landed gentry supported the Royalists. The Puritans and many of the people of the middle class took the part of the Parliamentarians. In its earlier stages the war seemed to be going in favor of the Royalists, but in 1643 the people of Scotland came to the aid of the Parliamentarians. A treaty was entered into between the English Puritans and the Scottish leaders. Known as the Solemn League and Covenant this agreement sought to establish a form of religion which should be in harmony with the Word of God and the teachings of the Genevan reformers. Scotland sent an army to assist the English Parliamentarians. A battle fought in 1644 at Marston Moor, and the Battle of Naseby in 1645, resulted in the defeat of the Royalist forces. Archbishop Laud was brought to trial and beheaded in 1645, and Charles I met the same fate in 1649.

Oliver Cromwell, an English Puritan army officer, had distinguished himself at Marston Moor. He became the leader of the victorious Parliamentarians. The Westminster Assembly of Divines met in London, abolished the rule of bishops, rejected the Book of Common Prayer, and adopted a declaration of faith known as the Westminster Confession, because of the fact that the Assembly had met in the town of Westminster, two miles southwest of the London of those days. . . .

Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan, was formally declared declared Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1653, and he held this position until his death in 1658. His Son Richard who succeeded him was neither a Puritan nor a statesman, and after a year he abdicated. The Long Parliament had convened under King Charles I in 1640 and had been dissolved by Cromwell in 1653. It was set up again in 1659 and convened for a year.

In 1660 the new parliament restored the monarchy, under Charles II . . . In 1661 the episcopacy was reestablished, and an Act of Uniformity passed, requiring all clergy men and schoolmasters to conform to the Prayer Book. About 2,000 clergymen who refused to conform were deprived of their congregations. These included Presbyterians, Independents, Baptists and Quakers, who became known as Dissenters. In 1664 the Conventicle Act was passed, making it illegal for Dissenters to meet for worship. Any gathering other than a private family, where more than four persons in addition to the family were present, was defined as a conventicle. In 1665 the Five Mile Act was passed, making it unlawful for any clergyman who had been deprived of his congregation for nonconformity, to come within five miles of any place where he had formerly preached, or to preach in any large town. Should such men take an oath renouncing the Solemn League and Covenant and pledging themselves never to take up arms against the King, they could preach. No man was permitted to hold any office in town or city unless he was willing to take an oath renouncing the Solemn League and Covenant, pledge his loyalty to the King, and agree to become a communicant member of the Church of England.

The sermons of Puritan times, both in England and in Continental Europe, reflect strongly the influence of the Scholastics. Scholastic theology was rejected, but the structural form of sermons has all the multitude of main divisions and subdivisions that were so popular among the Schoolmen. . . . The aim of preaching in the Puritan era was to present every possible detail of the subject, whether it had any practical relation to the needs of the congregation or not.

This method of homiletics led to a diffused sermon structure instead of unity and progress. Instead of constructing a sermon on the plan of several rivers, which unite and form one great stream that moves forward steadily toward a definite goal, the sermons of Puritan times were constructed on the plan of a tree. A general theme was stated, and then each one of its details was traced out in turn, as one might trace each limb and each branch of a tree. . . . This rage for minute analysis was often at the expense of literary style and clearness. Often there was little actual advancement of thought, leading the hearers onward, and culminating in a powerful impression. Rather were the sermons of those days a number of minor truths, loosely tied together by the text. If, as Dr. John Watson says, three detached sermonettes do not make one sermon, how can thirty or forty separate ideas result in unity? . . .

In our age of twenty and twenty-five minute sermons and even less, it is difficult to appreciate the patience of the congregations of Puritan times, who were content to sit quietly in church not two or three hours, but sometimes all day long, listening to sermons and free prayers. . . . The preachers of the Puritan era believed that no great Scriptural truth can be presented in less than an hour or two. . . .

The preaching of the Puritan age was vigourous, however, in spite of its faults of style. It cannot be denied that it was strongly Biblical. It is true enough that there was, in many cases, faulty exegesis, and forcing of the text in order to support some doctrinal whim of the preacher or of the party to whom he belonged. However, the great “doctrines of grace” as they were called, were by no means neglected; and these were interpreted after the manner of the Calvinists.