‘The Pilgrim Chronicles’ (Excerpt)
The Faith and Focus of the Puritans
Through the Act of Supremacy and the Act of Uniformity, Queen Elizabeth’s Settlement solidly established the Church of England as the nation’s official government denomination. It was a compromise of sorts: the Church of England would retain its Protestant doctrine, but it would also keep familiar, Catholic-style worship ceremonies and traditions. The publication of English language Bibles, once outlawed in England, now proliferated, and commoners and gentry alike eagerly purchased personal copies. Learning and sharing Scripture became the rage in England. “Everywhere might be heard the eager conversation of minds enlightened by the truth, speaking those wonderful words which the Most High had spoken unto men,” reported nineteenth-century church historian Edward B. Underhill. “The street, the tavern, the ale-house, the church and every company were the scenes of earnest dispute or holy zeal [as] scripture was compared with scripture and its sense closely scrutinized.” By the early 1600s, the common people of England were awash in a flood of faith. “The whole moral effect . . . was simply amazing,” observed renowned English historian John Richard Green. “The whole nation became a church.”
While Queen Elizabeth’s compromise solidified Protestant doctrine in the Church of England, it also placed requirements and restrictions on Protestants as well as Catholics. The English people were required to abide by the standards and policies of the Church of England as stated in the 1559 Book of Common Prayer.
Pastors and preachers were forbidden to publicly “preach, declare or speake any thing” that was not sanctioned by the Anglican Church. Disobedient pastors could be discharged from their salaried positions in the Church and even imprisoned for life. The punishment for any minister who deviated from Church policy was outlined in the Book of Common Prayer:
“And that if any manner of parson, vicar, or other whatsoever minister, that ought or should sing or say common prayer mentioned in the said book, or minister the sacraments, from and after the feast of the nativity of St. John Baptist next coming, refuse to use the said common prayers, or to minister the sacraments in such cathedral or parish church, or other places as he should use to minister the same, in such order and form as they be mentioned and set forth in the said book, or shall willfully or obstinately standing in the same, use any other rite, ceremony, order, form, or manner of celebrating of the Lord’s Supper, openly or privily, or Matins, Evensong, administration of the sacraments, or other open prayers, than is mentioned and set forth in the said book (open prayer in and throughout this Act, is meant that prayer which is for other to come unto, or hear, either in common churches or private chapels or oratories, commonly called the service of the Church), or shall preach, declare, or speak anything in the derogation or depraving of the said book, or anything therein contained, or of any part thereof, and shall be thereof lawfully convicted, according to the laws of this realm, by verdict of twelve men, or by his own confession, or by the notorious evidence of the fact, shall lose and forfeit to the queen’s highness, her heirs and successors, for his first offence, the profit of all his spiritual benefices or promotions coming or arising in one whole year next after his conviction; and also that the person so convicted shall for the same offence suffer imprisonment by the space of six months, without bail or mainprize.
And if any such person once convicted of any offence concerning the premises, shall after his first conviction soon offend, and be thereof, in form aforesaid, lawfully convicted, that then the same person shall for his second offence suffer imprisonment by the space of one whole year, and also shall therefore be deprived, ipso facto, of all his spiritual promotions; and that it shall be lawful to all patrons or donors of all and singular the same spiritual promotions, or of any of them, to present or collate to the same, as though the person and persons so offending were dead.
And that if any such person or persons, after he shall be twice convicted in form aforesaid, shall offend against any of the premises the third time, and shall be thereof, in form aforesaid, lawfully convicted, that then the person so offending and convicted the third time, shall be deprived, ipso facto, of all his spiritual promotions, and also shall suffer imprisonment during his life.
In England, no group of believers was more committed to living according to the biblical worldview than the Puritans. Like the Presbyterians in Scotland and England, the Huguenots in France, and the Dutch Reformed in Holland, the Puritans were followers of the sixteenth-century French-Swiss Reformation theologian John Calvin, whose systematic theology, they believed, faithfully reflected biblical truth. Queen Elizabeth’s compromise of Protestant doctrine and Catholic-style ceremony was generally acceptable to much of the English population, but it deeply troubled England’s Puritans. The Puritan movement included large numbers of laborers, farmers, tradesmen, and merchants, but much of its early development occurred within the faculty of England’s Cambridge University. There Christian intellectuals contended that the Roman Church had long before veered off course by equating man’s tradition with God’s Word, and had thus burdened believers with unbiblical, man-made dogmas.
They and other Puritan leaders argued that worship should be Bible-based, emphasizing simplicity instead of ceremony and biblical doctrine rather than Church tradition. The focus of true worship, they held, should be God-centered, and they feared much in the Church of England was man-centered.
Despite their deep concerns, however, mainstream Puritans wanted to reform the Church, rather than replace it. Their goal was to bring it closer to what they believed was the model of the New Testament church. The Bible alone, Puritans believed, was the revealed Word of the Triune God, and was therefore inerrant and authoritative.
Puritans treasured Scripture, and loved deep, meaty sermons, which became a trademark of their preachers. Puritan theology consistently stressed salvation through personal faith in Jesus Christ rather than by good works. Saving faith, Puritans generally believed, was not merely belonging to a church, intellectually accepting a belief system, or engaging in religious practices. It was an undeserved gift, an act of grace, given by a loving and sovereign God to those who personally surrendered their hearts and lives to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Such saving faith in the life of a believer, Puritans held, was marked by repentance of sin, a desire to live as a disciple of Christ, and a belief that salvation from God is eternally secure. “This truth is perceived…” wrote seventeenth century Puritan theologian William Ames in The Marrow of Theology, “by a certain spiritual sense in which the grace of God now present becomes known and evident to the believer.”
The faith and focus of Puritanism was based on Bible passages such as the following, which are excerpted from chapters eight and ten of the New Testament book of Romans:
“Now then there is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus, which walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. . . . Also we know that all things work together for the best unto them that love God, even to them that are called of his purpose.
For those which he knew before, he also predestinated to be made like to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.
Moreover, whom he predestinated, them also he called, and whom he called, them also he justified, and whom he justified, them he also glorified.
What shall we then say to these things? If God be on our side, who can be against us?
Who spared not his own Son, but gave him for us all to death, how shall he not with him give us all things also?
Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s chosen? It is God that justifieth.
Who shall condemn? It is Christ which is dead: yea, or rather, which is risen again, who is also at the right hand of God, and maketh request also for us.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation or anguish, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all day long; we are counted as sheep for the slaughter.
Nevertheless, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.
For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor Angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. . . .
For if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God raised him up from the dead, thou shalt be saved.
For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness, and with the mouth man confesseth to salvation. For the Scripture saith, whosoever believeth in him, shall not be ashamed.
For there is no difference between the Jew and the Grecian: for he that is Lord over all, is rich unto all that call on him. For whosoever shall call upon the Name of the Lord shall be saved.
But how shall they call on him, in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him, of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent? As it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them which bring glad tidings of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!