Puritanism in United Kingdom

British Political and Social Thought: Contribution of Puritanism

Introduction to Puritanism

The militant Puritans who supported Cromwell, particularly the Levellers, took more extreme measures to defend the rights of Parliament and Englishmen during the constitutional crisis. Members of Cromwell’s military force, the New Model Army, believed that God chose them to purge England of its pro-Catholic monarch. Cromwell’s soldiers also opposed what they regarded as the unmerited privilege of the idle aristocracy. Cromwell’s army demanded voting rights for all men holding property, rather than just for wealthy landowners. One part of his army, the Levellers, took the demands a step further and argued that all men should be able to vote, a revolutionary idea in the 17th century. The Levellers asserted that ‘the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he.’ Some in the radical Puritan camp, called Diggers, advocated communal property, claiming that the Bible tells of the early Christians holding goods in common.

Behind the social and class radicalism of the Puritans lay the Protestant work ethic. From antiquity, social and political thought had been essentially limited to the concerns of men of leisure, ignoring those who worked for their livelihood. Political power by right belonged to those with the leisure time to be concerned with the public good, a task beyond the capacity of those who had to work hard. The Protestants reversed these assumptions with their embrace of the work ethic. Puritan writers such as Richard Baxter and John Bunyan produced influential texts describing a cosmic struggle between the forces of industry and idleness. Their texts vibrate with the conflict between productive, hardworking energy and idle, unproductive sloth.

Protestants viewed work as a battleground for personal salvation. Men served God by busying themselves in work that served both society and the individual. The doctrine of the calling gave each man a sense of his unique self, as God imposed the work appropriate to each individual. After being called to a particular occupation, it was a man’s duty to labor diligently and to avoid idleness and sloth. The virtuous man realized himself and his talents through labor and achievement. The corrupt man was unproductive, indolent, and in the Devil’s camp; he failed the test of individual responsibility. The ruling classes of idle nobility and useless monarchy were the enemy that God had sent the hardworking Puritan to slay.” (1)

Puritans During the Tudors

The political dispute was made more bitter by the co-existence of a religious conflict. James, educated as a devout Anglican, was naturally inclined to continue to uphold the compromise by which the Tudors had severed the English Church from the Roman Catholic hierarchy, yet had retained many forms of the Catholic Church and the episcopal organization by means of which the sovereign was able to control the Church. During Elizabeth’s reign, however, a large part of the middle class—the townsmen especially—and many of the lower clergy had come under the influence of Calvinistic teaching.

The movement was marked:

  • by a virulent hatred for even the most trivial forms reminiscent of “popery,” as the Roman Catholic religion was called; and
  • by a tendency to place emphasis upon the spirit of the Old Testament as well as upon the precepts of the New.

Along with austerity of manner, speech, dress, and fast-day observance, they revived much of the mercilessness with which the Israelites had conquered Canaan. The same men who held it a deadly sin to dance round a may-pole or to hang out holly on Christmas were later to experience a fierce and exalted pleasure in conquering New England from the heathen Indians. They knew neither self-indulgence nor compassion. Little wonder that Elizabeth feared men of such mold and used the episcopal administration of the Anglican Church to restrain them. Many of these so-called Puritans remained members of the Anglican Church and sought to reform it from within. But restraint only caused the more radical to condemn altogether the fabric of bishops and archbishops, and to advocate a presbyterian church. Others went still further and wished to separate from the Established Anglican Church into independent religious groups, and were therefore called Independents or Separatists.

Hostility of James I to the Puritans

These religious radicals, often grouped together as “Puritans,” were continually working against Elizabeth’s strict enforcement of Anglican orthodoxy. The accession of James was seized by them as an occasion for the presentation of a great petition for a modification of church government and ritual. The petition bore no fruit, however, and in a religious debate at Hampton Court in 1604 James made a brusque declaration that bishops like kings were set over the multitude by the hand of God, and, as for these Puritans who would do away with bishops, he would make them conform or “harry them out of the land.” From this time forth he insisted on conformity, and deprived many clergymen of their offices for refusing to subscribe to the regulations framed in 1604.

Hatred of the Puritans for James I

The hard rule of this monarch who claimed to govern by the will of God was rendered even more abhorrent to the stern Puritan moralists by reports of “drunken orgies” and horrible vices which made the royal court appear to be a veritable den of Satan. But worst of all was his suspected leaning towards “popery.” The Puritans had a passionate hatred for anything that even remotely suggested Roman Catholicism. Consequently it was not with extreme pleasure that they welcomed a king whose mother had been a Catholic, whose wife was suspected of harboring a priest, a ruler who at times openly exerted himself to obtain greater toleration for Roman Catholics and to maintain the Anglican ritual against Puritan modification. With growing alarm and resentment they learned that Catholic conspirators had plotted to blow up the houses of Parliament, and that in his foreign policy James was decidedly friendly to Catholic princes.

The cardinal points of James’s foreign policy,—union with Scotland, peace, and a Spanish alliance,—were all calculated to arouse antagonism. The English, having for centuries nourished enmity for their northern neighbors and perceiving no apparent advantage in close union, defeated the project of amalgamating the two kingdoms of England and Scotland. James’s policy of non-intervention in the Thirty Years’ War evoked bitter criticism; he was accused of favoring the Catholics and of deserting his son-in-law, the Protestant elector of the Palatinate. The most hotly contested point was, however, the Spanish policy. Time and time again, Parliament protested, but James pursued his plans, making peace with Spain, and negotiating for a marriage between his son Charles and the Infanta of Spain, and Prince Charles actually went to Spain to court the daughter of Philip III.

Interconnection of Puritanism, Commercialism, and Parliamentarianism

It was essentially the Puritan middle classes who were antagonized by the king. The strength of the Puritans rested in the middle class of merchants, seamen, and squires. It was this class which had profited by the war with Spain in the days of “good Queen Bess” when many a Spanish prize, laden with silver and dye woods, had been towed into Plymouth harbor. Their dreams of erecting an English colonial and commercial empire on the ruins of Spain’s were rudely shattered by James. It was to this Puritan middle class that papist and Spaniard were bywords for assassin and enemy. By his Spanish policy, as well as by his irregular methods of taxation, James had touched the Puritans in their pocketbooks. The Puritans, too, were grieved to see so sinful a man sit on the throne of England, and so wasteful a man squander their money. They were even hindered in the exercise of their religious convictions. Every fiber in them rebelled.

Puritans throughout the country looked to the large Puritan majority in the House of Commons to redress their grievances. The parliamentary struggle became then not only a defense of abstract ideals of democracy but also a bitter battle in defense of class interests. Parliamentary traditions were weapons against an oppressive monarch; religious scruples gave divine sanction to an attack on royalist bishops; consciousness of being God’s elect gave confidence in assailing the aristocracy of land and birth. For the present, the class interests of the Puritans were to be defended best by the constitutional limitation of royal power, and in their struggle with James’s son and successor, Charles I (1625-1649), they represent by chance the forces of democracy.


Notes and References

Guide to Puritanism






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