I read Puritanism: A Very Short Introduction with a sense of recognition. Here were my people, all down in black and white. Strict Baptists – the sect I was brought up in – must be the rump, the tiny remainder, of Puritanism; or at least part of the modern-day rump, along with Quakers and other sectarians.
Francis J. Bremer is Professor of History at Millersville University in Pennsylvania; he’s a leading authority on puritanism, and has condensed his knowledge into an exhilarating gallop through its history.
He starts the book by quoting the social critic H. L. Mencken, whose wry definition of puritanism – “the fear that someone, somewhere may be happy” – has become common currency. Bremer goes on to say that “the word ‘puritan’ is likely to be associated with ‘prudish’, ‘sexually repressed’, ‘prohibitionist’…The image of puritans as theocrats, regicides, witch-burners, Indian killers and bigoted heresy hunters has long been entrenched in popular culture”. One aim of Bremer’s book is to rescue puritanism from distortion and stereotype, and to clarify its part in the history of Protestantism.
“At the simplest level, puritans were those who sought to reform themselves and their society by purifying their churches of the remnants of Roman Catholic teachings and practice…They believed that England as a political nation must be committed to opposing the forces of Rome throughout Christendom.” Puritans were the most fervent, the most radical, in pursuing these goals: they were the vanguard.
“Puritanism did not begin as a distinct faith but as a reform movement within the Protestant Church of England in the sixteenth century,” Bremer explains. Puritans pushed a reluctant Henry VIII, and then a more malleable boy king Edward VI, towards the extremes of Protestantism being developed on the Continent. During the brief reign of the Catholic Mary I, many had to flee abroad – where their extremism was further stoked. Returning under the long reign of Elizabeth I, puritans were disappointed by the moderacy of that regime, and continued to push for greater reform. Bremer stresses two strong emphases which marked puritans out from other Protestants: their belief in the inerrancy of the Scriptures, and the ferocity of their anti-Catholicism. “For the puritans, more than many of their fellow English Protestants, the papacy was the source of all doctrinal and ceremonial errors which had taken the church off the course initially set by Christ and his early disciples.”
What I don’t know, as yet, is how the Huguenots in France felt about the English Puritans. Clearly they were both anti-Catholic. But how their doctrinal development compared, I have yet to find out. Bremer conveys a sense of massive religious ferment and excitement criss-crossing the Channel between England and the Netherlands. In contrast, France’s monarchy remained a bastion of Catholicism, its face set against Protestantism. What news did my Huguenot ancestors, still living in France in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century, hear about the march of English puritanism? What did they make of it? When did they start to despair of their own country, and think about flight to England?