Where Did The Puritans Come From?
Mention the Puritans in any American church, and you’re sure to elicit a few responses.
For some, the religious devotion of the Puritans serves as an ideal worth striving for. Whether in the form of reciting a Puritan prayer to begin a church worship service, telling the story of the Pilgrims at Thanksgiving or reading John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the Puritans and their works captivate the hearts and minds of many American Christians.
For others, the Puritans embody legalism and bigotry. Images of sullen, dark-clothed, heartless ministers from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter come to mind, or perhaps their intolerance shown in the 1692 Salem Witch Trials. 20th century satirist H.L. Mencken summarized, at least for him, the essence of Puritanism: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
Amidst the debate over Puritanism’s American legacy, what often gets lost is the Puritans themselves. Where did they come from? Why are they called Puritans?
To understand their origins, and thus the Puritans themselves, we need to talk about clothes.
In 1547, King Henry VIII of England died. His son, King Edward VI, took the throne at the age of nine.
Raised as a Protestant, Edward and others like Archbishop Thomas Cranmer immediately began reforming the Church of England along Protestant lines. Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer replaced Catholic liturgy, justification by faith alone became official church doctrine, and men like John Rogers, Hugh Latimer, and Nicholas Ridley freely preached the Gospel.
For some, though, Edward’s changes didn’t go far enough. After issuing a series of sermons before the king, John Hooper – the “most popular preacher of the day” – was nominated to fill the vacant bishopric of Gloucester. Despite being overly qualified, Hooper refused the nomination. Taking the position would require him to take the Bishopric oath, an oath he felt was unscriptural.
Even more than that, Hooper objected to the requirement that he wear priestly robes (or “vestments”). He thought the robes symbolized a spiritual separation between ministers and laypeople, an idea contradictory to the Reformation idea of the priesthood of all believers.
Refusing to bend to the king’s orders, Hooper soon found himself in prison. It wasn’t until John Calvin wrote Hooper and told him the issue wasn’t worth the controversy and division did Hooper agree to wear the robes.
From the modern observer’s perspective, Edward VI jailing Hooper because he refused to wear priestly robes seems a bit extreme, especially since they both considered themselves Protestants. Couldn’t they just agree to disagree?
From Edward VI’s perspective, the answer to that question would be a resounding no. By not wearing the robe and thus undermining official Church policy, Hooper was in effect undermining Edward VI himself. With no real distinction between church and state, refusal to submit to official church policy meant a possible threat to civil stability, and no self-respecting 16th century monarch tolerated that.
The John Hooper vestments controversy foreshadowed the larger issue that haunted English religious life for the next 100 years: How far should the Church go in the way of reform?
In 1553, Edward VI died and his half-sister, Mary, took the throne. “Bloody Mary’s” reign didn’t last long; Elizabeth I replaced Mary after a tumultuous five years.
Elizabeth I (1558-1603) ruled tactfully, constantly toeing the line between extremes; unsurprisingly, her religious policy reflected this. While Elizabeth banned incense in church and insisted services be conducted in English, she also believed in clerical celibacy and insisted traditional vestments be worn.
Her desires became law in the form of the Act of Uniformity. Among other things, the statute required priests to wear a white robe or face suspension from the ministry. Almost all of England’s ministers accepted the Act of Uniformity, but the law only partially achieved its desired effects of stamping out religious dissent.
Nonconforming ministers did not go away; they merely went underground. In the 1560s, wealthy merchants and landowners funded so-called “Puritan” preachers to preach at secret gatherings. These meetings became the power source for Puritan theology and future theologians.
The Puritans are notoriously hard to label. They were not a specific political party, nor an explicit class movement. Labeling the Puritans as uniformly Calvinist does not work well either, simply because not all of them were.
According to Carl Trueman, professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, the Puritans can be (though not perfectly) defined as a group dedicated to simple aesthetics in worship and an emphasis on personally experiencing God through the Scripture.
We have already seen how the Puritan aesthetic of worship came into play with the vestment controversy, but their emphasis on Scripture would wind up being the definitive, dividing issue.
As the 16th century concluded, Protestants in the Church of England had split into two camps, never to be truly reconciled. On one side sat members of “High Church” camp, firmly on the side of the state and its authority. On the other side sat the Puritans, holding to various degrees of dissent.
The real issue between the High Church and Puritan camps boiled down to one of authority. The Puritans believed that the Scripture was the authority for the Church in all things. Thus, their fundamental problem with the Church of England was not necessarily priestly robes, but that the Church believed it possessed the authority to mandate those robes. With no explicit command in Scripture for such garments, the Church of England was operating outside of its biblical authority.
Most Puritans stayed in England with the hope of “purifying” the national church of its residual “popish” practices. They never succeeded, but the Puritans nonetheless remained relevant; they played a large part in the creation of the King James Bible of 1611, produced lasting literature and actively participated in the English Civil War and its aftermath.
A smaller number of Puritans considered the Church of England irredeemable. Eventually known as the “Separatists,” many of these groups remained underground or left the country altogether. Around a hundred Separatists left England in 1607 in search of religious freedom in the Netherlands; many of them later migrated to America in 1620 aboard the Mayflower.
This blog post of 1000+ words is much too short to conclude with a few paragraphs waxing about Puritanism’s legacy – we merely scratched the surface of their impact. Their grand legacy, either good or bad, was not this post’s point.
It is extremely tempting to paint historical figures like the Puritans in a romanticized or devilish light, depending on your outlook. As Protestants rightly pay tribute to the 500th year anniversary of the Reformation this October, what must be remembered is that the Puritans were real-life people that emerged from messy, sinful real-life events.
They were human, like you and I.
In any conversation about the Puritans, that’s a good place to start.
Read more from Nathan Parsons here.
 Ryle, J.C. Five English Reformers. Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth Trust, 1890. Pg. 47.
 Trueman, Carl. “Puritanism” (iTunes U). Lecture, Reformation from Westminster Theological Seminary, Glenside, PA, September 29, 2014.
 Bobrick, Benson. Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and Revolution It Inspired. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2001. Pg. 181.