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Mayflower, Day by Day - Wednesday, 28 April 1621

28 Apr 2021 3:16 AM | Soule (Administrator)

When is a Puritan not a Puritan?

When I was in graduate school, doing research on the English Reformation, one of my teachers said, “You know, you are going to have to go to England and continue this research: they actually still fight about this stuff there.”  I am nonetheless regularly surprised by the vehemence with which people (usually Americans) contend -- sometimes without, sometimes with threats and force -- that Puritans and Separatists are mutually exclusive.  They usually know one, and only one, thing about each group: that one thing is normally membership in the Church of England -- the Puritans accepted membership in the Church of England, so the story goes, and the Separatists rejected it.  That is, however, a distinction without a difference.

Andrew Cambers, in his 2011 study on Godly Reading: Print, Manuscript and Puritanism in England, 1580-1720 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), came up with this as a definition of Puritanism: “This book defines Puritanism as a way of characterising that strand of reformed Protestantism which is best known for its expression of dissatisfaction with the prevailing theological and ecclesiological state of the English church and for desiring its reform in line with the precepts of Calvinist theology.  It argues that this desire for reform was rooted in a series of cultural practises which were used by the godly to deliberately set themselves apart from the majority of the population and to confirm them in their status as a persecuted minority” (p. 13).  This definition has the virtue of picking out doctrine (Calvinism), church government (arguments against episcopacy), and “cultural practises” (a strong desire for sermons, which included gadding after the sermons of preachers in other parishes; the refusal of some ministers to wear the surplice; taking communion standing; and so on) as signs of puritanism, even if all of them were not present in any one person at a given time.  Unlike “puritan,” an opprobrious term created by opponents, “godly” was a designation used by the godly themselves.  This usage derived in part from the feeling that those so described could recognise one another just by their behaviour.  So the Puritans did not really call themselves “Puritan.”

As Robert Charles Anderson convincingly points out in Puritan Pedigrees (Boston: NEHGS, 2018) “Puritanism” was something of a spectrum: on the one end, there was the conforming Puritan, who might even wear vestments and use the sign of the cross at baptism (both hideous Popish monstrosities); then there were the Presbyterians, the backbone of Cromwell’s movement, who rejected episcopacy but were happy for their own polity to manifest in the established church; then there were the “independents” or Congregationalists who gathered in single individual congregations; finally, at the other end, there were the fringe groups: the Family of Love, the Brownists, and the Separatists.  These last groups certainly satisfy Cambers’ definition of “Puritan” in doctrine, Church government and cultural practises.  But the continuum of radical Protestantism is not simply an interpretative tool: it is a valuable way of seeing interconnections between various groups, geographically, theologically, and genealogically.

The distinction and division, at least the notional distinction, between the Puritans and Separatists seemed to arise in the United States.  John Seelye’s book (Memory’s Nation: The Place of Plymouth Rock.  Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), which I managed to complete -- and it was pretty hard slogging in parts -- is a marvellous review of how the Pilgrims have been re-imaged and re-imagined in every generation.  He points out that the strict division between the Puritans and the Pilgrims arose in the nineteenth century, as the Puritans were blamed for hanging witches, persecuting Quakers, attacking Indians, and generally making everyone miserable.  In short, it was H. L. Menken’s definition of Puritanism (“The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy”: “Clinical Notes by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan,” The American Mercury, v. 4, n.13 [Jan 1925], p. 59).  The Pilgrims, on the other hand, were the few, the happy few, who found religious liberty and freedom, and turkey with cranberry sauce, and lived in peace with everyone.  Both are, of course, caricatures and neither is really accurate, except when viewed through nineteenth century lenses.  But it is also clear that once shorn of nineteenth century (or even twenty-first century) baggage, the godly Pilgrims were both Puritans and Separatists, who came to America principally to be left alone.

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