The End of Puritanism
The Church of England, increasingly angry over the Puritan’s unwillingness to conform to their practices (for which they found no Scriptural warrant or felt were throwbacks to Popery), began to persecute the Puritans to drive them out of their pulpits for being non-conformists.
These non-conforming Puritans refused to wear the “surplice,” a white, knee-length gown with sleeves that the Roman Catholic priests wore. They refused to cross themselves at communion or wear the square cap of the Romish priests. Soon they were ejected from their churches, homes, and schools—and finally, their country as the persecution against them reached its summit.
The Church of England rejected the Roman church with its superstitious rituals, papal infallibility, and corrupt doctrine. In its place, however, the Anglican church substituted its own superstitious rituals, the supremacy of the king and erastianism of the bishops, and Arminianism. The Arminians began to court the favor of the king and turned him and his bishops against the Puritans. The persecution of the Puritans under the reign of bishop William Laud caused an alarming emigration of people of all ranks to the new settlements in America. A Puritan clergyman applying for the interest of the Earl of Dorset with the Archbishop on his behalf, was told that, “if he had been guilty of drunkenness, uncleanness, or any such lesser faults, he could have got his pardon; but the sin of Puritanism and non-conformity is unpardon-able and therefore you must fly for safety.”
In 1661, Anglican leaders and four Puritan divines met at the Savoy Conference to try to work out their differences, but the odds were stacked against the Puritans having any say. They desired extemporaneous prayer at the discretion of the minister, and they wanted to omit sermons and lessons from the non-canonical books of the Bible. They still wanted to abstain from having to wear the priestly garments, from kneeling during communion, and crossing themselves as the Roman priests did. They did not want to be restricted to using the Book of Common Prayer prescribed by the Anglican church, highlighting such requirements as unacceptable during the Savoy Conference:
1. No minister be allowed to baptize without using the sign of the cross.
2. No minister be allowed to officiate without wearing a surplice.
3. No one be admitted to the Lord’s Supper unless he receives it kneeling.
4. Ministers are obliged to pronounce all baptized persons regenerate whether they are the children of Christians or not.
5. Ministers are obliged to deliver the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ to the unfit both in health and sickness, even those who are forced to receive it against their will.
6. Ministers are obliged to absolve the unfit in absolute expressions.
7. Ministers are forced to give thanks for all whom they bury, as brethren whom God has taken to Himself.
8. None may be preachers who do not subscribe to the understanding that there is nothing in the Book of Common Prayer, the book of ordination, or the 39 Articles contrary to the Word of God.
The Puritans were unable to concede to these matters, and so the king reinstated the Book of Common Prayer of 1552, and along with Parliament passed the Act of Uniformity, which stated that every clergyman must give unfeigned assent and consent to everything contained in the Prayer book. Then it forbade anyone to hold any church position after August 24, 1662, who was not ordained in the Anglican church.
All these provisions were distinctly aimed at the Presbyterians, with the express purpose of forcing them to leave the church. The move worked, for on August 24, 1662, two thousand Puritan ministers, one half of the whole body, either resigned or were ejected from their livings (many gave moving farewell sermons). The House of Lords proposed to allow these ejected ministers 20 percent of their wages as compensation, but the Lower House rejected even this concession. Many of those who opposed the non-conformists secretly desired to see Catholicism creep back in under the guise of Anglican loyalists.
In May 1664, an act was passed which forbade under penalty of fine or imprisonment, or, for the third offense, banishment from which a return meant death, for any religious meeting at which more than four persons were present and that was not in accordance with the rites of the Church of England.
John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress, spent twelve years in jail. Joseph Alleine, who penned, “Alarm to the Uncoverted,” died at the age of 36 from his prison sufferings. A law was passed forbidding travel to New England or Virginia for the Puritans who might have found fellowship and sympathy. John Owen, perhaps the greatest theologian of the Puritan era, was offered the presidency of Harvard University, but the King refused to allow him to leave the country to accept the position.
A few ejected ministers ventured to occupy the pulpits of those clergy who had fled to the country to avoid persecution. These acts of devotion and heroism were rewarded by the passing of the Five Mile Act of 1665, which stated that any non-conformist who would not comply was never at any time to come within five miles of a corporate town, and was rendered incapable of teaching in any public or private school.
Within three years of the Great Ejection of 1662, London had seen the Great Plague, in which thousands died of bubonic plague, as well as the Great Fire, in which 75 percent of the town was burned to the ground. Thomas Vincent testified to God’s judgment upon London in his book entitled, “God’s Terrible Voice in the City.” Church historian J.B. Marsden in his 1854, “The History of the Later Puritans,” wrote:
To the church of England, the exclusion of the non-conformists
proved a melancholy triumph. If it is presumptuous to fix upon
particular occurrences as proofs of God’s displeasure, yet none will
deny that a long, unbroken course of disasters indicates but too
surely, whether to a nation or a church, that His favor is withdrawn.
Within five years of the ejection of the 2,000 non-conformists,
London was twice laid waste, first by pestilence and then by
fire. Religion in the Church of England was almost extinguished,
and in many of her parishes the lamp of God went out. The
places of the ejected clergy were supplied with little regard
even to the decencies of the sacred office; the voluptuous,
the indolent, the ignorant, and even the profane, received
episcopal orders, and like a swarm of locusts overspread the
Will we ever see the like of the Puritans again? Probably not. However, like God’s people, there will always be a remnant of saints and ministers committed to Scripture, the sovereignty of God, and a pure and holy life that prove ready to meet the Puritans in their generation. Let us pray for such introductions and influence in our own day and lives.
Dr. Don Kistler, founder of the Northampton Press, is an ordained minister presently residing in Orlando. He is the author of, A Spectacle Unto God: The Life and Death of Christopher Love, and Why Read the Puritans Today? The editor of all the Soli Deo Gloria Puritan reprints, Kistler has edited over 150 books and is a contributing author for Justification by Faith ALONE!; Sola Scriptura; Trust and Obey: Obedience and the Christian; Onward, Christian Soldiers: Protestants Affirm the Church; and Feed My Sheep: A Passionate Plea for Preaching. Visit donkistler.org.