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Wednesday, November 17, 2004

The Failures of Puritanism in England, Part Two

continued from here

Although certainly the resistance of the lower orders to moral reform was understandable, there were other factors as to why the moral purges of Cromwell and the Puritans did not succeed. Since Elizabeth I’s reign, organised religion had been in a state of flux as various religious factions schemed against each other, all convinced that they represented the authentic voice of Christianity. Conflict between those who followed the Episcopalian model of church government and those who wanted the institution of a more fundamentalist Calvinist model had been rife for decades. These schisms did not disappear with the Parliamentary victory in the Civil War. Attempts to reconstruct the Church of England along Reformed lines led to an outbreak of theological infighting that only served to undermine religious authority. The conflict was over whether the Church should follow the Presbyterian model of the Church of Scotland, with its strict hierarchies, or a more atomised Congregationalist model, as seen in the Massachusetts colony, whereby the parish would become the ultimate centre of religious identity and organisations and persons above parish level reduced to an advisory role. The failure to quickly work out a viable plan for church government was a serious hindrance to coordinated efforts at reform on a national level.

Also important was the fact that certain elements of religious control had disappeared. In particular the abolishment of ecclesiastical courts in 1641, although a long-hated symbol of Laudian oppression, was to cause the Puritans many difficulties. Although their disappearance had initially been beneficial to the 'Godly cause', the absence of church courts helped to block the path of moral reform. Without being able to directly sanction moral offenders the Puritans were forced to forge alliances with secular magistrates. Many of these secular magistrates proved unwilling to play much of a role in cracking down on traditionally ignored activities such as sports, visiting alehouses, and illicit sexual relations, as they knew that community solidarity remained stronger than godly zeal. Crucially, in most parts of the country the magistracy never really forged strong links with the major-generals in 1656, as, despite their victory at Westminster, the Puritans had failed to overcome much of the hostility and apathy towards Puritan aspirations held by many local officials.

For the Puritans, who had long championed religious toleration as a means for subverting the hated episcopacy, the end of strict state control over access to printing presses, at around the same time as the demise of the ecclesiastical courts, was to cause them further unforeseen difficulties. The genie of religious dissent was let loose, as disparate groups, especially the Quakers, found that they could quite easily disseminate their ideas to a public eager for theological discussion. For the Puritans, the inability to strictly control access to the printing press meant that they were unable to stem the tidal wave of dissenting opinion that was flooding forth from the various Protestant separatist groups. Attempts to replace the old Laudian religious orthodoxy with a new Calvinist variety were seriously undermined by the newfound freedom of the population to discuss religious concepts and ideas. Individually, these dissident groups never attracted hordes of converts, but as an overall movement they formed a serious theological and social challenge to the Puritan project. Calvinism, having long served as the banner to which the religiously disaffected rallied, now found itself in the strange position where its key theological concepts had mutated into form that they usually found distasteful and often considered abhorrent. Despite their victory against the Royalist party and the seeming subjugation of the Episcopacy, they were now the religious conscience of the government and were, as such, now the primary targets for dissenters, separatists, and traditionalists.

The dominant theology in Cromwell’s New Model Army during the Civil War should have served as a warning to the Puritans as to how difficult it would be for them to reform the Church of England. As the war progressed, a very particular interpretation of Calvinist Protestantism developed in ranks of the Parliamentarian army. In the spring of 1645 Cromwell had reorganised the army to maximise soldier morale by encouraging a more free-wheeling theology, a process described by William Haller as “the spontaneous irrepressible aggregation of like-minded saints in shifting voluntary groups within or without the traditional ecclesiastical frame, or what was left of it, seeking comfort and enlightenment for themselves from the gospel.”

These ‘gathered churches,’ where men willingly joined together as a sort of roving religious/military hybrid unit, fired the Army with the righteousness of certainty that God was on their side. ‘Free grace’, the idea that all were capable of receiving God’s grace, had been traditionally the source of great disapproval amongst orthodox Puritans. Yet on the battlefield, fired by the Word, this belief, preached by the Army chaplains, that Jesus was with them in their hearts, helped guide them to ultimate military triumph.

Puritan theology had always been torn between the polarising ideas of freedom of conscience and enforcing certain standards of conduct. Although orthodox Calvinism had always been very hierarchical, despite its rejection of the Episcopalian model of church government, it brought certain ideas into the public domain that were taken and shifted into all sorts of strange and wonderful directions. Dissident Protestant sects like the Baptists, the Fifth Monarchists, the Muggletonians, the Ranters, and the Quakers, amongst other, all emerged from this process of creative re-interpretation of points of Puritan theology. Mainstream Puritans may have seen these offshoots as heretical and disgusting, but they were the children of the movement for a more Godly England. In particular, they were the outgrowth of the more loving sides of Puritan belief, focused on the issues of liberty of conscience while rejecting the orthodox Calvinist's obsessively dour focus on predestination. Liberated by the concept of paradise being something that was actively within achievement for those who would seek it, they presented a serious theological challenge to the newly ensconced religious radicals of the Interregnum government. With the freedom to print what they wanted they were able to spread their message easily through a population where literacy, spurred by the Puritan emphasis on 'knowing The Word for yourself', was unusually high for a society of its time. Even if they didn't attract vast numbers of converts, they had a powerful effect on religious discourse, because even those who were unconvinced by nonconformist positions became aware of alternatives to prevailing Puritan theology and were more inclined to dissent.

Many of the ideas held by the dissenting groups were extremely radical and confrontational for the time. The Quaker rejection of religious patriarchy, by allowing women to speak and actively participate in services, was greeted with much suspicion in a society where women's opportunities beyond the home were extremely limited. Their de-emphasis on the Bible in favour of what they called 'the light inside,' the place that God had in the hearts of all true believers, flew in the face of Calvinist orthodoxy. Their rejection of the concept of predestination for the belief that anyone could gain salvation through giving themselves up to God, was matched in its radicalism by the Ranters and their elevation of predestination to a process so unalterable that no action could reverse it, thus meaning that hedonistic acts were therefore a method of praising God.

The nonconformists created a blizzard of contrasting ideological positions, yet, crucially, they all converged on one issue, an issue that showed their common routes in the earliest Calvinist challenges to Episcopalian Angliocanism. This issue was the idea that religion was a fellowship of the spirit, a voluntary association, something that was not instituted from above but something actively entered into as a means of a personal expression of faith. The original Puritan dissidents had created this concept of communities of faith in the early part of the seventeenth century with their practice of 'gadding to prayer' - travelling to hear preachers and being part of a dynamic religious community that was no longer bound by the old restrictions of parish. With religious freedom now essentially guaranteed for all, the impetus for reform was reduced, as those who wanted to live and pray according to Puritan methods were now free to do so.

With the political situation unravelling, and the death of Cromwell in 1658, by the late 1650's it was obvious that the Puritans had failed in their goal of effecting a permanent transformation of English society. Puritanism was a religious movement that had failed during their moment of greatest opportunity. The cultural conflict between traditionalists and reformers that had been a part of English life for over a century had not been resolved by the Parliamentary victory. The 1650's showed that the Puritan agenda commanded neither the popular support nor the enforcement muscle to truly alter England. Thus when the Reformation brought Charles II back to the throne on a wave of popular support, it not only meant the political failure of republicanism, but also the defeat of the Puritan ideology.

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