V. PURITAN HEYDAY

The Puritan victory involved a religious revolution. The Church of England had been broken up in 1643 by the abolition of the episcopacy. The Presbyterian form of Protestantism—in which the congregations were ruled by ministers governed by district synods subject to a general assembly—had been made the official religion of the state in 1646, but this Presbyterian dominance ended two years later when Pride purged the Presbyterians from Parliament. For a time it seemed that religion was to be left free of state control or subsidy. But Cromwell (who came to agree in almost everything with the King whom he had killed) believed that a state-endowed church was indispensable to education and morals. In 1654 he appointed a “Commission of Triers” to test clergymen for fitness to receive a benefice and stipend. Only Independents (Puritans), Baptists, and Presbyterians were eligible. Each parish was allowed to choose between the presbyterian form of organization and the congregational form—in which each congregation ruled itself. The Puritans adopted the congregational form; the presbyterian system, which prevailed in Scotland, was largely confined in England to London and Lancashire. The Anglican clergy, once so powerful, were ejected from their livings, and ministered to their followers in secret places, like the Catholic priests. In 1657 John Evelyn was arrested for attending Anglican services. 42 Catholicism was still outlawed. Two priests were hanged (1650, 1654) for “seducing the people,” and in 1657 the Puritan Parliament, with Cromwell’s consent, passed an act by which any person over sixteen years old who did not disavow Catholicism was to suffer the forfeiture of two thirds of his property. 43 By 1650 religion had taken on a measure of social stratification: the poor favored the dissenting sects—Baptists, Quakers, Fifth Monarchy Men, etc.—or the Catholics; the middle classes were predominantly Puritans; the aristocracy and most of the gentry (untitled landowners) adhered to the disestablished Anglican Church.

Intolerance was inverted rather than lessened. Instead of Anglicans persecuting Catholics, Dissenters, and Puritans, the triumphant Puritans, who formerly had clamored for toleration, now persecuted Catholics, Dissenters, and Anglicans. They forbade the use of the Book of Common Prayer, even in the privacy of homes. The Puritan Parliaments limited toleration to those Britons who accepted the Trinity, the Reformation, the Bible as God’s Word, and the rejection of bishops. Socinians or Unitarians were therefore beyond toleration. Severe penalties were decreed for any criticism of the Calvinistic creed or ritual. 44 Cromwell was more lenient than his Parliaments. He connived at some Anglican services, and permitted a small number of Jews to live in London, even to build a synagogue. Two Anabaptist preachers denounced him as the Beast of the Apocalypse, but he bore with them patiently. 45 He used his influence to check the persecution of Huguenots in France and of Waldenses in Piedmont; but when Mazarin asked in return more toleration of Catholics in England, Cromwell pleaded his inability to control the zeal of the Puritans. 46

Perhaps only among the Jews did religion play so pervasive a role in everyday life as among the Puritans; and indeed Puritanism agreed with Judaism in almost everything except the divinity of Christ. Literacy was encouraged in order that the Bible might be read by all. The Old Testament was loved with a special devotion, because it offered the model of a society dominated by religion. The main business of life was to escape the fires of hell; the Devil was real and everywhere, and only the grace of God could enable a chosen few to inherit salvation. Biblical phrases and imagery permeated the utterances of the Puritans; thoughts and visions of God or Christ (but never of Mary) brightened and terrified their minds. Their clothing was modest, somber, and unadorned; their speech was grave and slow. They were expected to abstain from all profane amusements and sensual pleasure. The theaters, which had been closed in 1642 because of war, remained closed till 1656 because of Puritan condemnation. Horse races, cockfights, wrestling matches, bear or bull baiting, were forbidden; and to make sure that the bears in London would be baited no more the Puritan Colonel Newson killed them all. 47 All maypoles were pulled down. Beauty was suspect. Women were respected as faithful wives and good mothers; elsewise they were in bad odor with the Puritans as temptresses, and as the cause of man’s expulsion from Paradise. Music was frowned upon, except in hymns. Art was destroyed in the churches, and none was produced except for some excellent portraits by Samuel Cooper and by Peter Lely—who was a Dutchman.

The Puritan attempt to legislate morality was probably the most thoroughgoing since the Mosaic Law. Civil marriage was recognized as valid and divorce was allowed, but adultery was made a capital crime; however, after two executions on this head no jury would convict. Oaths were punished on a class-graduated scale; they cost a duke twice as much as a baron, three times as much as a squire, ten times as much as a commoner; one man was fined for saying “God is my witness.” 48 Wednesday was a day of obligatory fasting from meat, even if it coincided with Christmas, and soldiers were authorized to invade homes to see that the fasts were observed. No shops were to be opened on Sunday, no games or sports were then to be played, no worldly work was to be done, and no avoidable travel was permitted; “vainly and profanely walking on the day” was prohibited. 49 Despite the Restoration and its moral relapse, the English Sunday remained “blue” till our time.

Many of these legal or social taboos proved too severe for human nature. We are told that a large proportion of the population under Cromwell became hypocrites, sinning as usual, pursuing money, women, and power, but always with a long face, a nasal twang, and religious phrases dripping from the tongue. And yet a great number of Puritans seem to have lived up to their Gospel with sincerity and courage. We shall find two thousand Puritan preachers accepting poverty under the Restoration rather than abandon their principles. The Puritan regimen narrowed the mind but stengthened the will and the character. It helped to prepare Englishmen for self-rule. If the home was darkened by fear of hell and by Puritan ordinances, the family life of the common people was given an order and purity that survived the demoralization of the elite in the reign of Charles II. All in all, the Puritan regime probably effected a moral betterment which—renewed and reinforced by Methodism in the eighteenth century—may deserve much of the credit for the comparatively high morality of the British nation today.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!