A surplice

Elizabethan Puritanism

The Elizabethan religious settlement consisted of the Acts of Uniformity and Supremacy (1559), The Prayer Book of 1559, and the Thirty-nine Articles of 1563.

The Church of England retained various traditional forms of worship that some Protestants found offensive, in particular:

Clerical vestments - particularly the surplice (a white wide-sleeved gown worn to officiate in church services) and (to a lesser degree) the square cap (worn outdoors by ministers)
Kneeling to receive communion
Making the sign of the cross in baptism
Bowing at the name of "Jesus"
Using the wedding-ring in marriage services
Church bells  

Some zealous Protestants wanted to purify the church of such "popish remnants"; these "puritans" became very important both in the Church of England and in the founding of English settlements in America.


Matthew Parker (1504-1575)

Puritanism to 1570

In the reign of Edward VI, John Hooper had got into trouble because of his objections to clerical vestments.
Many of the Protestant exiles who manned Elizabeth's church had taken their ideas from the same Continental sources as Hooper. These returning exiles hoped that Elizabeth would purge the Church of England of all Catholic ceremonies and symbols.


Continental influences were reinforced by European Reformers' publications. Many of these books were translated into English and published in London. For example, the final edition of Jean Calvin's Institutes of the Christian religion (1559) was immediately translated into English by the prominent Protestant layman, Thomas Norton.

The ideas of Jean Calvin and his successor at Geneva, Theodore Beza, were very influential in England. The Genevan church had replaced bishops with presbyters and elders, and had stripped worship of all ornamentation.
Initially, few attempts were made to enforce the wearing of clerical dress. Many senior clergymen had little taste for these garments themselves. However, increasingly Elizabeth and her Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker came to see the refusal to wear clerical dress as an attack on their authority.
1566, Matthew Parker issued the Advertisements requiring conformity in clerical dress. In London, thirty-seven ministers refused to obey - a number were deprived of their livings when they would not submit.


Heinrich Bullinger (1504-75)
Heinrich Bullinger

John Jewel and other bishops, including Edmund Grindal, Bishop of London wrote to key Continental Reformers - especially Heinrich Bullinger - asking their views on the vestments and ceremonies.

Bullinger and the other Zurich Reformers did not fully approve of the ceremonies, but insisted that they were not so bad that any minister should risk dismissal by refusing to conform. Thereafter, the English bishops did uphold the ceremonies (although some less enthusiastically than others). Increasingly, the bishops in general came to see those who would not conform as mere troublemakers.


The Zurich Reformers supported Elizabeth, but Beza sided with the puritans and criticized both the ceremonies and the Church of England's governors.

Theodore Beza (1519-1605)
Theodore Beza


Many of the critics of the 1560s abandoned opposition and conformed, but a hard core of radicals continued to protest at the ceremonies. They came to see the retention of the vestments and ceremonies as a sign that the Church of England's government was flawed. They believed that worship would never be properly reformed until government by bishops was ended.
The most important Puritans were Thomas Cartwright and John Field.

Thomas Cartwright (1535-1603)
was the son of Hertfordshire yeoman. He went to Cambridge University in 1562, and in 1569 was appointed to one of its most prestigious positions (the Lady Margaret Professorship of Divinity). Cartwright used his position to inveigh against the government of the Church of England, arguing that bishops had not held such power in the pure days of the primitive Christian church.
He was promptly deprived of his office (1570) and went to visit Beza in Geneva. He returned briefly to England but had to leave again (for the Netherlands) to escape arrest. He returned in the 1585, and though briefly imprisoned, benefited from the protection of powerful patrons, such as Francis Walsingham.
He spent his declining years living comfortably in Warwick, honored as the foremost English puritan theorist. He died 27 December 1603.
" we in England are so far off from having a Church rightly reformed, according to the prescript of God's word that as yet we are not come to the outward face of the same. "

From the Admonition to Parliament (1572)
John Field (?1545-1588)
Unlike Cartwright, Field's strength was not theory but organization. He spent his time lobbying sympathizers throughout England to take practical steps towards "reform" of the English Church.
In June 1572, he arranged for the publication of an Admonition to Parliament. It inveighed against "superstitious" ceremonies, and pleaded for the establishment of Presbyterian government. In 1584, he helped draft a "Book of Discipline" as a model for how Parliament should set about reforming the Church. Unfortunately for the Presbyterian cause, most members of Parliament were content to let the Queen control the church. Field was reduced to compiling a "Register" detailing the Bishops' persecution of nonconforming ministers.

During the 1570's a few London ministers kept the Presbyterian cause alive, but they had little chance of changing the English church as a whole.
Ironically, the puritan cause received a form of support from the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Edmund Grindal (?1519-83). Grindal (another Marian exile) saw Catholicism as the greatest threat to true religion.

In 1576, Grindal conducted a metropolitan visitation (a sort of survey of standards in the archbishopric) and was shocked by how few ministers preached regularly to their flocks. He decided to try and rectify the problem by encouraging prophesyings. Prophesyings had begun spontaneously in various parts of the South-East c. 1571. They were meetings of clergy in the localities for prayer and sermons followed by mutual criticism and discussions about the state of the church.


Prophesyings rapidly became very popular, and were often attended by zealous laymen. Elizabeth (who thought that four or five preachers per county were quite enough) saw them as inherently disruptive and a covert attack on royal control of the church.
Elizabeth wanted prophesyings stopped, but Grindal merely issued orders for regulating their conduct. Elizabeth was furious -  particularly when Grindal refused a direct order to suppress them, and wrote her a letter saying that it was his duty to obey God rather than her. She wanted to deprive him immediately of his post as Archbishop but was prevailed on by her Privy Council merely to suspend him until he submitted. He never did.
Grindal's suspension marked a significant deterioration in relations between puritans and the English Church.  Many of those involved in the prophesying movement continued to meet secretly and espouse Presbyterian ideas.
In Presbyterian theory, each congregation would send representative ministers and elders to a classis of several local congregations in order to decide matters of worship and discipline. Above this classis were to be regional and national synods. If fully implemented, it would have left little place for the Queen and none for the bishops.
From about 1580, a few East Anglian congregations began to organize themselves informally into this structure. John Field tried to expand the movement nationally, but few clergy really supported the system.
Although the puritan cause had support in high quarters (Francis Walsingham and Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester, for example), the gentry had little taste for a basically clericalist system that would undermine their rights of presentation and impropriation. The attempts made by Anthony Cope, Peter Wentworth and other radicals to introduce Presbyterianism through Parliamentary legislation failed miserably.



The failure of Presbyterian attempts to reshape the Church of England led to some puritans opting out altogether. These Separatists argued that the godly should leave the Church and set up their own pure assemblies to which only "saints" should be admitted and whose worship and doctrine would be purged of all "superstition".
In 1580/1 Robert Browne (1550?-1633) and Robert Harrison(154?-1585?) formed the first separatist congregation at Norwich. Browne had attended Cambridge University and had been influenced by Thomas Cartwright and other puritans. (For some time after, separatists were often called "Brownists").


Local ministers complained about Browne's activities and he was arrested, but family connections got him released (he was from an old and wealthy family, and was related to Lord Burghley).
He and Harrison went to the Netherlands with some of their followers and joined other English puritans there. They rapidly fell to squabbling amongst themselves and Browne was expelled. Eventually Browne returned to England and abandoned separatism.
Two other Cambridge graduates, Henry Barrow and John Greenwood, founded a separatist congregation in London in 1592. They were arrested and hanged in April 1593 for their seditious writings.

A view of 16th century Amsterdam

The remnants of the London congregation fled with their remaining leader, Francis Johnson, to Amsterdam.
(This congregation too was wracked by internal dissension - much of it revolving around Francis Johnson's wife, who had a taste for "unreformed apparel" (i.e. costly velvet hats) and staying in bed till nine-o-clock on the Sabbath!)

Government attacks on Puritans

In 1583, John Whitgift was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. He was a long-time foe of puritans (it was he who had deprived Thomas Cartwright of his professorship).
In September 1583 he issued (with the Queen's assent) certain "articles touching preachers and other orders for the church" which aimed to stop nonconformity once and for all.
They forbad all recusancy, unlicensed preaching and religious exercises. They also ordered that no minister should be permitted to exercise any ecclesiastical functions unless he first accepted (i) the Oath of Supremacy, (ii) that the Prayer Book contained nothing contrary to the word of God, and (iii) that the Thirty-Nine Articles were agreeable to the word of God.
These articles were to be enforced by the newly established High Commission court, which had far more extensive power to fine and imprison than other ecclesiastical courts.
The High Commission used an "oath ex officio" - those called before the court had to swear that they would truthfully answer all questions that might be asked. Those who refused to take the oath were guilty of contempt of court and could be imprisoned indefinitely.

Since the twelfth-century, English common law had detested self-incrimination. Opposition to Whitgift's use of the ex officio oath helped establish the common law maxim that 'nobody should be forced to accuse himself'.
This principle was taken over by the American colonists and established in the Bill of Rights. The Fifth Amendment states that nobody "shall be compelled, in any criminal case, to be a witness against himself"


The immediate result of Whitgift's campaign was the suspension of two to three hundred ministers. Lawyers as well as puritans protested High Commission's inquisitorial techniques. Leicester and Walsingham both tried to rein in Whitgift. Even Lord Burghley wrote to Whitgift questioning the severity of his methods.
However, Elizabeth's support for Whitgift did not waver, and he was appointed to the Privy Council in 1586. There he was supported by Sir Christopher Hatton (whose chaplain, Richard Bancroft, was a close ally of Whigift). In 1588, Leicester died, and in 1590, Walsingham.
Whitgift was also helped by his opponents going too far.
From 1588, some puritans began to publish scandalous, cheap, highly-readable attacks on the bishops.

A sample of Martin Marprelate's prose

Printed in great secrecy, under the false joke name of "Martin Marprelate", these pamphlets were aimed at a popular audience. They used earthy language and specialized in scurrilous stories and insults.

However, the tracts were so crude and violent that they probably alienated many moderates - especially gentlemen who saw the seeds of social revolution in such attacks on authority. The crazy revolt of William Hacket in 1591 ( a zealot with some links to London puritans, but who nursed with an insane belief that he was the Messiah) helped discredit the puritan cause further.
[Text of one of the Marprelate tracts.]
[Who was Martin? Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford? Job Throckmorton with John Penry?]
In 1590, Whitgift imprisoned Cartwright and eight other puritan leaders; all were released after one or two years, but the puritan movement was broken as an organized force.
Whitgift also tried to undermine the intellectual appeal of puritanism. Assisted by Richard Bancroft (Bishop of London from 1597), he directed a successful propaganda campaign.


The title page of one of Richard Bancroft's attacks on puritan ideas.


The supporters of episcopacy (most famously Richard Hooker) wrote defenses of the English Church, its discipline and worship, and disparaged Presbyterian claims to be the purest form of Christianity.

Not all English puritans were Presbyterians. The moderate puritan tradition in the Church of England:
  1. emphasized sermons (the preaching of God's word)

  2. was extremely anti-papist (they saw the pope as the Antichrist foretold in the Book of Revelation)

  3. disapproved of clerical vestments, traditional ceremonies, and stress on the efficacy of the sacraments (all - in their view - a hangover of popish superstition)

  4. placed the doctrine of predestination at the centre of theology

  5. insisted on strict observation of the Lord's Day (this sabbatarianism was especially important from the mid 1590's).


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