When the 16th-century Reformation took place three distinct sectors of reformation developed: the German, the Swiss (including France) and the English. Of these three the weakest and least hopeful was the English. At first opposition was fierce. 277 Christian leaders were burned to death at the stake during the reign of Queen Mary. She earned the title ‘Bloody Mary’ during her reign from 1553 to 1558. Thankfully her reign was short. Yet it was out of the shed blood and burned ashes of the martyrs that the cause of Christ grew and prospered. It was during the reign of Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603) that the Puritan movement was born. Godly ministers multiplied through the nation.
These ministers supported each other in a godly brotherhood. At first the Puritans received the name Puritan because they sought to purify the National Church of England. In later times they were called Puritans because of the purity of life that they sought. They set out to reform the Church of England. Their desire was to conform the national Church to the Word of God in government, worship and practice.
Queen Elizabeth was head of the national Church and she opposed and blocked reformation. When James I (who reigned from 1603 to 1625) came to the throne there was hope that now reform would progress. Instead the struggle intensified. It did not improve when Charles I came to the throne in 1625. Ministers began to despair of improvement and some left for America where a new race of Puritans developed. The situation came to a climax when civil war broke out during the 1640s. During that time Oliver Cromwell became the supreme governor in place of the King. When Cromwell died there was no one suitable to replace him. The nation returned to the monarchy. Charles II came to the throne.
The struggle in the Church was renewed with even more conflict than before. An act of Parliament was passed which required conformity to rules which the Puritans simply were unable to follow. In 1662 over 2,000 ministers and leaders in the Church of England were forced to leave. Rather than compromise their consciences they left. Historians regard the Puritan period as coming to an end in 1662. However it was after 1662 that the Puritans wrote some of their finest expositions. John Bunyan was imprisoned for twelve years after 1662. It was in prison that he wrote Pilgrim’s Progress.
John Owen (1616-1683) is called ‘The Prince of the Puritans’. He was a chaplain in the army of Oliver Cromwell and vice-chancellor of Oxford University, but most of his life he served as a minister of a church. His written works run to 24 volumes and represent the best resource for theology in the English language. On several important subjects such as the Holy Spirit, mortification of sin and apostasy, he is unexcelled.
Richard Baxter (1615-1691) was a prolific writer and included in his works is The Christian Directory which consists of a practical detailed application of the gospel to every aspect of life. This is probably the most comprehensive exposition of its kind ever written.
During the pre-Reformation time grace and nature were separated. This is the concept of a two storey universe. Upstairs is spiritual and holy. Downstairs is sinful, fleshly and unholy. For example the clergy were forbidden to marry as though marriage were earthly and therefore sinful. Luther partly reformed this and brought grace alongside nature. For example he married an ex-nun, Katherine. John Calvin went further and taught that grace must permeate nature. The earthly must be sanctified by the heavenly. The Puritans went further still and taught in more detail than Calvin that biblical principles must be applied to every aspect of life. There are biblical principles or biblical ethics for marriage, the bringing up of children and the home, for teachers and university professors, medical doctors, lawyers, architects and artists, for farmers and gardeners, politicians and magistrates, for businessmen and shopkeepers and for men of commerce and trade, for military men and for bankers. To the Puritans the dichotomy (division) between nature and grace, the prevalent view of medieval theologians, was essentially wrong. It is not as though the heavenly things are holy but earthly things cursed or tarnished. To the Puritans grace must penetrate and permeate all earthly life and sanctify it. Even the bells on the horses are sanctified to the Lord (Zech 14:20).
In contrast to this the Anabaptists retreated from society on the grounds that society was sinful and corrupt. The Anabaptists discouraged men from becoming politicians or magistrates. With regard to war Calvin and the Puritans taught that defence was lawful. The Anabaptists were pacifist and would have nothing to do with military affairs. It is important that we remember that there are different kinds of Baptists. For instance John Bunyan was a Baptist firmly in the Puritan tradition just like Reformed Baptists today. We see how close the Reformed Baptists are to the Presbyterians (the children of John Calvin) when we compare the 1689, 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith with the Westminster Confession. 28 out of 32 chapters are virtually the same. These Confessions of Faith represent the high water mark of Puritanism. The English Puritans followed Calvin’s example in being involved in all aspects of life.
For example Calvin was active in promoting education. In 1559 he founded the Geneva Academy with the aim of building a Christian Commonwealth. This Academy drew students from all over Europe and by the time of Calvin’s death in 1564 there were 1,200 students. The Puritans likewise were passionately concerned for education and high academic standards. Almost all the Puritans were graduates of Oxford and Cambridge. Sidney Sussex College and Emmanuel College, Cambridge, were famous Puritan institutions of learning.
Calvin was concerned about provision for the 5,000 refugee families that flocked to Geneva between 1542 and 1560. He was instrumental in the establishment of two hospitals and in one there was a cloth making industry as well as weaving and jug making. (cf Building a Christian World View, vol 2, p 242, edited by W. Andrew Hoffecker, Presbyterian and Reformed, 1988.) I have described Calvin in positive terms. Like Luther and like all leaders he had clay feet. There were authoritarian trends in Geneva which marred Calvin’s ministry. The essays in the volume edited by Hoffecker are commended for presenting a balanced view of Calvin and not one which idolises that Reformer.
This universal interest in human welfare and social concern is reflected in the lives of the Puritans. As we look back at this period we should note that pressures and trials can bring the best out of Christians. The high quality biblical exposition balanced in doctrine, experience and practical application came out of tribulation. In our generation the republishing of these resources by the Banner of Truth in Britain, and latterly by the American publishing house Soli Deo Gloria has made available many valuable Puritan books.
The question is asked, Why are the Puritans effective in teaching Reformed theology whereas so many others fail? The answer is that the spiritual genius of the Puritans lay in their being men of prayer. To them theology was not merely an academic or intellectual exercise. Reformed theology is designed to transform lives and to inspire action. This genius was a spiritual genius in which the Puritans kept prayer, doctrine, experience and practical application in balance and harmony. Today we hear the cry that Christ unites but doctrine divides! Give us Christ, not doctrine, is the cry! To the Puritans that was shallow nonsense. Christ comes to us wrapped in biblical teaching, that is, doctrine. Furthermore doctrine directs life. Doctrine is essential. It is basic to everything but it must be applied in a loving and persuasive manner.