Redefining English Protestantism The Rise Of Puritanism

In the 1580s, Geneva became for Elizabethan Puritans what Moscow was for many European Communists during the 1930s—a potent symbol of their aspirations and a source of the ideas and support that might bring them about. If Elizabeth would not allow them their demands for a purified church finally purged of its remaining vestiges of popery—such as bishops and clerical robes—then what of her successor? Elizabeth might well have suppressed serious religious dissent within her realm. But what would happen after her death? Was there not a serious danger of radical religious upheaval just over the horizon? This was certainly what many members of the Anglican establishment feared; it was also, of course, precisely what many Puritans were hoping for.

When it was announced that Elizabeth would be succeeded by James VI of Scotland, English Puritans believed their moment had come. James had earlier supported the reforms of John Knox and had created a Reformed church modeled along pure Genevan lines in his old realm. Surely he could be relied upon to do the same in England? The Puritans decided to seize the initiative and steal a march on their Anglican opponents.

On his way from Edinburgh to London in April 1603, James was met by a Puritan delegation that presented him with the "Millenary Petition," signed by more than one thousand ministers of the Church of England. Its authors went out of their way to stress their loyalty to both king and country. They had, they declared, served their church faithfully, despite their serious misgivings concerning its practices; the time had now come to change things. They demanded reforms, in particular the removal of the "burden of human rites and ceremonies" such as making the sign of the cross in baptism, wearing clerical dress, using a ring in the marriage service, and bowing at the name of Jesus. All these practices were unbiblical, they argued, and therefore could not be required of any minister of the church.

It soon became clear that James had little sympathy with such demands for reform. His personal sympathy lay with moderate Calvinist beliefs, more in line with those associated with Geneva than those now emerging from Amsterdam.37 Ideas, however, were one thing; practices were another. James's Scottish experience had created something of an aversion on his part to the more austere forms of Presbyterian church culture and convinced him that, just as Geneva was a republic, so Calvin's followers were covert revolutionaries. His views on this matter were shaped to no small extent by some unpleasant experiences with Scottish presbyteries, particularly under Andrew Melville, a Scottish Presbyterian who had taught at the Genevan Academy and formed a close personal friendship with Calvin's protégé Theodore Beza.

At a heated encounter between the king and senior churchmen at Falkland Palace in October 1596, Melville had physically taken hold of James and accused him of being "God's silly vassal." Melville pointedly declared that while he and his colleagues would support James as king in public, in private they all knew perfectly well that Christ was the true king in Scotland, and his kingdom was the kirk—a kingdom in which James was a mere member, not a lord or head. James was shaken by this physical and verbal assault, not least because it suggested that Melville and his allies posed a significant threat to the Scottish throne.

Apologists for the Anglican establishment were quick to spot their opportunity. Richard Bancroft and others set out to persuade James that his monarchy was dependent upon the episcopacy for its future.

The ultimate goal of Puritanism, they argued, was to overthrow the monarchy altogether. Without the bishops of the Church of England, there was no future for the monarchy in England. The king's real enemies, the "Papists" and the "Puritans," had a vested interest in destroying his authority. Only a close working alliance with the bishops would preserve the status quo and allow James to exercise his (as he saw it) divinely ordained kingly role in state and church. It was a telling argument, and it hit home.

In the end, James I developed his own policy that managed to contain Puritanism's agendas without leading to any major alterations to the practices or beliefs of the established church.38 The Puritans were offered scraps of consolation and promises of future change that either never materialized or amounted to surprisingly little. James promised a new English translation of the Bible, which some Puritans may unwisely have hoped would strengthen their position; when the famous "King James Version" was published in 1611, it turned out to use the traditional language favored by Anglicans rather than the more radical terms preferred by Puritans.

To sensitive Puritan consciences, James seemed hostile, or at best indifferent, to their concerns. Not only did the established church retain many "popish" ceremonies and practices, but James seemed to encourage cultural activities that were inconsistent with a strict interpretation of biblical commandments. One flashpoint in these "culture wars" was the "Book of Sports"; issued by James I in 1618, it explicitly authorized and encouraged the Sunday sports and rural festivals denounced by many Puritans as sinful pagan profanations of the Sabbath.39 James countered the growing Puritan demands for rigorous observance of the Sabbath by denouncing such "Puritans and Precisians" as failing to care for human recreational needs.40 James demanded that after the end of divine service our good people be not disturbed, letted or discouraged from any lawful recreation, such as dancing, either men or women; archery for men, leaping, vaulting, or any other such harmless recreation, nor from having of May-games, Whitsun-ales, and Morris-dances; and the setting up of Maypoles and other sports therewith used.

While bear-baiting was forbidden on the Sabbath, the English people were permitted to enjoy a wide range of alternative recreations. Adding insult to injury, James insisted that his "Book of Sports" be read aloud from the pulpit during regular Sunday worship. For many Puritan groups, compromise seemed impossible. In 1607 a congregation from Scrooby, England, initially fled to Holland; eventually they migrated on the Mayflower to establish the Plymouth Colony on the shore of Cape Cod Bay in North America in 1620.

In the end, apart from taking the somewhat drastic step of emigrating to America, there was little that the frustrated Puritans could do other than wait for James to die and hope that his successor might open doors that, up to this point, had remained firmly closed. The shape of English Protestantism might yet be changed by royal decree. If not, there were other options. Could not a case be made for overthrowing monarchs if they stood in the way of the advance of Protestantism? It was a dangerous thought, sown in despair. Its time would come, perhaps sooner than anyone might have anticipated.

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