Tuesday, May 01, 2012

The Puritan Day in the Sun and Its Sunset

Under Charles I (1625-49), both political and theological tensions escalated. The appointment of William Laud as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633 marked a clear attempt to depart from Calvinistic thought. Laud attempted to impose uniformity in worship on all congregations, even in Ireland and Scotland, which led directly to the Scottish National Covenant in 1638 and the Bishop’s Wars in 1639-40, in which the Scots defeated Charles’ army. Many in England were convinced that Charles was leading England back to Rome.
Charles, however, did not back down. In 1640 he led in enacting a series of canons which proclaimed the divine right of kings to rule in civil society and the church. When he called a new Parliament in order to approve taxes to fund his wars, he was met with stiff resistance. The “Root and Branch Petition,” signed by 15,000 Londoners, called for the abolition of the present church government. The “Long Parliament,” as it came to be known, had a strong Puritan element, and it denied Charles the taxes and annulled the Canons of 1640. A rebellion in Ireland was savagely put down and thousands of Protestants were killed, which only fueled the white-hot fires of conflict. Parliament issued its “Grand Remonstrance,” which indicted Charles for all of his misdeeds. Charles himself illegally entered the chamber of the House of Commons in 1642 to attempt to arrest those who led the opposition to his rule. There was no way forward except by armed conflict. On August 22, 1642, Charles called upon his loyal subjects to come to his aid against a rebellious Parliament.
At first, the outlook seemed grim for the Parliamentarians. They called upon the Scots for help, and the Scottish parliament agreed to help on the condition that England would adopt the Solemn League and Covenant which had been adopted in Scotland. This would have made Presbyterianism the law of the land in England, and it was as intolerant of independency as the Church of England had been. Many Puritans had misgivings, but the need for help was so urgent that Parliament agreed. Hence, 21,000 Scottish soldiers marched south to aid the war against the crown.
On June 15, 1646, at Naseby, Oliver Cromwell led his New Model Army to victory over the royalist forces. This put a stop to the fighting temporarily, but peace was not to be had yet. Charles was still officially recognized as king, and although in captivity, he attempted to pit various political factions against one another in an effort to regain the upper hand. He was able to secure the help of the Scots, but Cromwell defeated him in battle again in 1648.
What happened next is described in the words of the official website of the British monarchy:
“The Army, concluding that permanent peace was impossible whilst Charles lived, decided that the King must be put on trial and executed. In December, Parliament was purged, leaving a small rump totally dependent on the Army, and the Rump Parliament established a High Court of Justice in the first week of January 1649. On 20 January, Charles was charged with high treason 'against the realm of England'. Charles refused to plead, saying that he did not recognise the legality of the High Court (it had been established by a Commons purged of dissent, and without the House of Lords - nor had the Commons ever acted as a judicature). The King was sentenced to death on 27 January. Three days later, Charles was beheaded on a scaffold outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall, London.”

In the midst of all of this turmoil, the Commons had concluded that the Church of England needed to be completely reconstituted; thus, they abolished episcopacy and left the church with no legal foundation for existence. Parliament called for an assembly of theologians to provide a legal and theological basis for the church. The theologians, or “divines” as they were called, were tasked with settling the government and worship of the Church of England. Their goal was not to revise the church’s doctrine but to show that the Church of England was in agreement with the Scottish church and with the Reformed churches on the continent. One hundred nineteen leading churchmen were chosen, and on July 1, 1643, the Westminster assembly began its work. This was an opportunity that Puritans had hoped for.
The work of the Assembly would not conclude until March 25, 1652. In the meantime, they produced a lasting and influential confession of faith, a directory of church government, and catechisms. However, the major purpose for which they labored would ultimately be undone. Although Cromwell led the parliamentary army to victory over the royalists, Cromwell and the army were predominately independents, not Presbyterians. Cromwell wanted more religious freedom than the Presbyterians were willing to grant, and the Scottish co-belligerents feared the Independents. The anti-royalist party was thus fractured. Furthermore, many in England still believed very much in monarchy. They wanted a constitutional monarchy, not the abolition of monarchy. After Cromwell’s death, the monarchy was eventually restored in 1660 to Charles’ son, Charles II. The Act of Uniformity in 1662 forced over 2,000 ministers out of their pulpits, creating the English non-conformist movement. Robert Letham concludes, “The Westminster Assembly failed to achieve in its own land the purpose for which it had been established" [The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2009), 44.]
The Puritan movement basically lasted for another generation or so, but it gradually faded away as a cohesive movement. In 1688-89, William and Mary came to the throne in the Glorious Revolution and established a degree of religious toleration that previous monarchs had forbidden. The Bill of Rights established many civil liberties, and the Act of Toleration allowed Nonconformists to worship as they pleased, as long as they stayed within certain bounds. The combination of events that transpired in the last forty years of the seventeenth century effectively spelled the end of the Puritan movement as such.  Although men like Matthew Henry (1662-1714) or Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) can be identified as Puritan in their thinking and emphases, the times were changing and other movements took center stage. Of course, Puritans concerns will never die away, as they are concerns that go to the heart of what it means to know the Lord.


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