These days, the Puritans don’t get much love. Just think back to the last time you heard someone use the label “Puritan” as a put-down. “Puritanical” is a word that has come to mean strict and legalistic. Most people these days avoid the Puritans because they assume these caricatures are true. However, they couldn’t be farther off from the truth. Yes, the Puritans were devout and cared deeply about their faith. But the Puritans weren’t stoics. They were affectionate, warm, and joyful people who sought to be happy in God. Let me try to paint a different picture for you.
A Brief History of the Puritans
The Puritan movement began in England as an extension of the Protestant Reformation. As the name suggests, the Protestants were those who broke off, in protest, from the Roman Catholic Church. These men and women felt that the Catholic Church had veered away from Biblical Christianity and lost the gospel in the process.
In the early 1500s, the ideas of the Reformation began to take hold throughout Europe. Eventually, the nation of England joined in. In 1530, King Henry VIII denounced the authority of the Pope and distanced the nation from Roman Catholicism. At the same time, the king declared England to be an independent Protestant Church run completely by the state.
The Push to Purify the Church
While many Protestants celebrated the change, others worried that The Church of England retained too much of the unbiblical liturgies and rituals from the Roman Catholic Church. Beyond that, many began to distrust the political motivations of the State in their authority over the Church. Motivated by these concerns, the Puritan movement began to rise among the clergy in England.
These ministers felt that the English Reformation had not gone far enough. England needed to become a “pure” Church. That is, they needed to distance themselves from the monarchy and gain authority to spiritually rule over themselves. They needed to conform all of their practices to Scripture and remove any of the remaining man-made vestiges held over from Rome. It’s important to note that these Puritans weren’t seeking purity in the stereotypical stodgy way many assume. These were not a legalistic holier-than-thou group. Rather, the Puritans earnestly sought to be a people passionate for God. They aimed for purity in their personal and corporate worship in order to please God and enjoy him rightly.
Persecution and Emigration
Through many successive kings and queens, the Church of England oscillated back and forth between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. In the midst of these changes, the monarchy retained control over the congregations of the Church of England. Eventually, some Puritan ministers began to take matters into their own hands and form their own congregations according to their own convictions, independent from the rule of England. Other Puritans attempted to reform the Church of England from within. In the case of the former non-conformists, many decades of persecution ensued.
Under the reign of King Charles I, William Laud was appointed as the Bishop of London. In 1629, Laud began a campaign to enforce conformity to the practices of the Church of England. Those who refused to conform were bitterly persecuted. The Puritans, seeking to escape this persecution, began looking for hope in the New World. In the 1630s, prominent men like John Winthrop, John Cotton, Thomas Hooker, and Thomas Shepherd began the exodus of many Puritans from England to the New England colonies. In America, they hoped to realize their dream of a pure church and a pure society.
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