Uneven Course. The Reformation came late to England and began only because the Pope refused to annul the marriage of Henry VIII so that he might marry again and have a male heir. Henry broke with the Pope in 1533 and 1534, pressuring Parliament to dissolve his marriage and proclaim him supreme head of the Church of England. He retained the theology, church organization, ecclesiastical courts, and religious practices of the Catholic Church. As the Reformation spread on the Continent, many Englishmen called for more-substantive changes that might purify their church of its Catholic aspects and return to the theology and religious practices that were sanctioned in the Scriptures. Under Edward VI these Puritans prevailed as the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, established contacts with John Calvin and other continental leaders of the Protestant movements who aided him in introducing such Protestant reforms as sanctioning clerical marriages, adopting the Book of Common Prayer for use in worship services, and endorsing the Forty-two Articles, which codified church doctrine. The pendulum swung in the other direction under Queen Mary, a Catholic monarch who executed Protestants and forced others to flee to the Continent. Elizabeth I maintained a Protestant doctrine but retained much of the ceremony and structure of Catholicism. Under the “Elizabethan Settlement” puritan groups began to separate into particular groupings according to the manner and degree of reform they sought. This process continued during the reign of the Stuart monarchs. James I was unfavorable toward puritans, while Charles I was downright hostile. He instructed his archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, to enforce a more high, or Catholic-oriented, Anglicanism. In response the puritans joined forces and rose up against him and won control of the country by 1648. Their leader, Oliver Cromwell, was a commoner who had no legitimate claim to the throne and so instituted a commonwealth which, by the time of his death in 1658, had degenerated into a military dictatorship under his son, Richard. Seeking some stability, the English Parliament restored the son of Charles I to the throne. The time between the accession of Elizabeth in 1558 and the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 has often been called the “Puritan Century” because of the growth, influence, and proliferation of many reforming groups who wished to purify the Church of England, albeit in a variety of ways and to different degrees. Some reformers gave up on the existing church and separated from it (separatists); others remained within the Church of England (nonseparatists). Some wanted each congregation to have complete autonomy (congregationalists), while others wanted a more national and centralized church (presbyterians).
Presbyterians. Presbyterianism was introduced into Scotland by John Knox in 1558 and into Ireland in 1606 when James I gave the lands of rebellious Irish Catholics to Scottish Presbyterian settlers. Presbyterians accepted the episcopalian notion of the Catholic and Anglican churches that the church should be centralized and nationally governed. They wanted to replace bishops and archbishops with representative assemblies in a similar hierarchical arrangement. In this plan congregations maintained a great deal of autonomy but operated within guidelines set by the higher councils, which also operated as courts of appeal from decisions made at the lower levels. The most important of these councils was the presbytery, which was composed of local ministers and their elders. Synods encompassed a wider area, and a General Assembly drew representatives from the nation. When the puritans controlled England, they called an assembly of divines to meet in Westminster and recommend a statement of beliefs and ecclesiastical structure for all churches in England, Scotland, and Ireland. The Westminster Assembly recommended a Confession of Faith with the basic and essential tenets of theology, the Directory of Public Worship for the order of services, the Form of Church Government, and the Longer and Shorter Catechism for religious instruction. In the end Parliament neither adopted these documents nor established Presbyterianism in England and Ireland, but the separate kingdom of Scotland did, implementing the rigid dogma and hierarchy of a state church. In Ireland, Presbyterianism remained as a voluntary church, and its adherents were persecuted as dissenters from the Anglican Church, which was reestablished under Charles II. They absorbed the sentiments of the variety of Protestants who fled to Ireland during this time of persecution, creating a more flexible ecclesiastical structure which emphasized congregational autonomy and allowed variations in nonessential theological doctrines.
Congregational Pilgrims. One separatist group went to Holland during the reign of Charles I to avoid persecution in England. When group members had trouble making decent livings and their children began to adopt Dutch ways, they boarded the Mayflower in 1620 and sailed to the New World to establish a settlement where they could practice their religion in isolation. No minister accompanied the settlers of Plymouth in the early years, but they gathered themselves into a church to pray, read the Scriptures, and listen to sermons even though they had no one to administer the sacraments. Another group settled in Salem. When the Puritans settled nearby, their larger colony overshadowed Plymouth and absorbed Salem. The distinction between the separatist Pilgrims and the nonseparatist Puritans soon faded, and they became indistinguishable from each other.
Congregational Puritans. Refusing to separate from the Church of England, puritans still hoped to reform the church from within and strove to lead moral and exemplary lives within an English society which they feared was becoming increasingly corrupt. These efforts became more difficult under Charles I, who forced everyone to conform to the Church of England, which was reinstating earlier Catholic practices. A group of puritans decided to move to America, practice their religion freely, and create a model society, a “citee upon a hill,” which would be an example to England. In 1629 they sailed to Massachusetts Bay, led by John Winthrop, whom they chose as governor. They brought their charter with them so that they could govern their Bible Commonwealth with no outside interference. A great migration of puritans followed until 1640 when the English Civil War erupted and Puritans fought for control of England and her church. If the Puritans in New England had been serious about purifying the Anglican Church, they should have returned to England and done so; most did not. In reality they had become as separatist as the Pilgrims, and the two groups merged.
Congregational Baptists. Emerging from the puritan movement were the Baptists. They rejected infant baptism, believing that this sacrament should be the seal of conversion in adults. General Baptists were separatists, yet they continued the Anglican belief that everyone had the free will and ability to be saved. In spite of persecution they grew in numbers and spread throughout England and, eventually, to the colonies, settling mainly in Rhode Island. Particular Baptists retained the nonseparatist views of the Puritans, as well as the Calvinistic acceptance of predestination, and remained in fellowship with the Puritans. Their creed was patterned closely after the Westminster Confession. They mainly clustered in Wales and emigrated from there to many of the American colonies.
Patrick Collinson, The Birthpangs of Protestant England (New York: Macmillan, 1988);
Christopher Hill, Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England (New York: Schocken, 1964);
Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Later Reformation in England, 1547–1603 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990).