Puritan Neuroses

Blair Worden

  • The Puritan Gentry: The Great Puritan Families of Early Stuart England by J.T. Cliffe
    Routledge, 313 pp, £18.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 7102 0007 2
  • The Puritan Moment: The Coming of Revolution in an English County by William Hunt
    Harvard, 365 pp, £30.60, April 1983, ISBN 0 674 73903 5
  • Godly People: Essays on English Protestantism and Puritanism by Patrick Collinson
    Hambledon, 604 pp, £24.00, July 1982, ISBN 0 907628 15 X
  • Laud’s Laboratory: The Diocese of Bath and Wells in the Early 17th Century by Margaret Steig
    Associated University Presses, 416 pp, £30.00, September 1983, ISBN 0 8387 5019 2
  • The Puritan Conversion Narrative: The Beginnings of American Expression by Patricia Caldwell
    Cambridge, 210 pp, £17.50, December 1983, ISBN 0 521 25460 4
  • Protestant Reformers in Elizabethan Oxford by C.M. Dent
    Oxford, 262 pp, £17.50, June 1983, ISBN 0 19 826723 1

If the directions taken by historical research are indicative of a nation’s broader preoccupations, then we may have to prepare ourselves for a religious revival of some magnitude. Religious explanations in history are all the rage – nowhere more so than in the study of the English Civil Wars. John Morrill, that panjandrum of Civil War revisionism, is reported to have advised a recent meeting of the Royal Historical Society to think of 1640-60 not as the first of Europe’s modern revolutions but as the last of its wars of religion. J.T. Cliffe’s useful and unpretentious book on the pre-Civil War rulers of England’s shires is entitled, not (as one would have expected a decade or two ago) The Rising Gentry or The Provincial Gentry, but The Puritan Gentry. His theme is not estate management, or local government, but the strenuous spiritual self-examination which, together with the belief in providence and the fear of Catholics, is now guaranteed a central place in any reputable account of the origins of the ‘Puritan Revolution’; and high time too. William Hunt, whose book is ostensibly about pre-Civil War Essex but really about many things besides, calls it The Puritan Moment.

The argument nowadays is not about the political importance of religious conflicts but about their nature. If there is an orthodoxy under attack, it has been built upon Nicholas Tyacke’s deservedly famous essay of 1973, ‘Puritanism, Arminianism and Counter-Revolution’. According to that view, there was not much wrong with the Church of England until Charles I and Archbishop Laud got their hands on it in the 1620s. Since 1559, the Church, episcopal in structure yet Calvinist in doctrine, had secured a wide base of support and become an instrument of national stability. The Laudians, by their destruction of doctrinal consensus and by their political and economic attacks upon the laity, demolished that base and turned the Church into a sect. So Arminianism rather than Puritanism becomes the motor of historical change, of ‘counter-revolution’.

That thesis has exerted an attraction which may not have owed everything to its undoubted merits. Historians reluctant to believe that the Civil War had long-term causes are dispensed by it from examining religious problems earlier than the 1620s. The revolutionary content of Puritanism in the 1640s can be contrasted with the defensive and conservative character of the movement two decades earlier, and the blame for the transition placed on Laud’s shoulders. There are virtues in the anti-Laudian interpretation, too, for a historian like Patrick Collinson, who approaches the 1630s not backward from the Civil War but forward from the Elizabethan and Jacobean period. Collinson observes the success of pre-Laudian Puritanism in working within the Church, sees that the Puritan opposition to Arminianism in the 1620s involved no fundamental questioning of ecclesiastical institutions, and wonders how that cautious position was transformed into the Root-and-Branch sentiment of 1640-1.

The term ‘Arminianism’ has been much misunderstood. Like most 17th-century ‘isms’, the word often meant something both rude and vague, but it had a specific reference too. It alluded to the teachings of the Dutch divine Jacobus Arminius, the key figure in the late 16th-century European reaction against pre-destinarianism. Holland, the part of the United Provinces which paid most money for the Calvinist war of independence against Spain, but which perhaps stood least to gain from it, was fertile territory for ideological revisionism. Arminius and his disciples, denying that God was as tyrannical, or man as innately depraved, as Calvinism seemed to claim, appealed to the Humanist tradition of Erasmus. English Arminianism assumed different forms from those of its Dutch counterpart. Whereas, under Charles I, Arminians cried up divine-right monarchy, Dutch Arminians had defended their federalist constitution against the monarchical pretensions of the House of Orange. Whereas Laudianism was held to be intolerant (although there was nothing very liberal, in religion or in politics, about the Puritan clergy who opposed it), Dutch Arminians pleaded for liberty of conscience. And whereas the Laudians were clericalist, the friends of Arminius had resisted the clerical ambitions of Dutch Calvinism.

Despite the burden of historical explanation which Arminianism is now asked to bear, the story of its import into England has never, I think, been adequately told. (There is, however, a useful introduction to the whole subject in a little book written by the Arminian A.W. Harrison in 1937.) Why and when did Arminianism acquire its sacramentalist and clericalist character of the 1620s? There was no logical reason why it should have taken that form. After 1640 there emerged the Arminianism of the left, of Milton and of John Goodwin, anti-clerical, libertarian, republican, eager to divorce church from state. We have yet to understand, too, how doctrinal conflict became so sensitive in the politics surrounding Charles I’s accession. The arguments between Arminians and Calvinists about the salvation of souls were rather like the differences today between monetarists and Keynesians about the salvation of the economy: highly complicated, sometimes apparently very narrow and sharing more ground than they disputed, yet capable of inflaming and polarising barely-comprehending laymen.

The anxieties about predestination in the 1620s must be set against a political background, both foreign and domestic, in which Arminianism could be easily (and unfairly) identified with Popery: the background of the Catholic victories which threatened to extirpate Protestantism in the Thirty Years War, and of the marriage of Charles I to Henrietta Maria. In a recent essay (published in Past and Present, November 1983) Peter White has thrown the Tyacke thesis into question. He contends (as H.C. Porter has long done) that the pre-Laudian Church was never narrowly Calvinist. Yet at least White and Tyacke can find common ground in their emphasis on the 1620s: a decade which Hugh Trevor-Roper has compared, in his vivid re-creation of its effect upon the generation which lived through it, to the 1930s.

In politics, Arminianism was essentially a 1620s issue. It remained politically inflammatory in the 1630s, but by then Laud’s campaign for outward conformity had presented Puritan interests with a more concrete challenge. Laud himself was not fully committed to an Arminian stance on salvation. If he opposed the predestinarian position, it was less because of its content than because of the sort of people who subscribed to it. In Puritanism he saw a mask for selfishness and plunder. The Puritan gentry, recently abetted by the easygoing regime of Archbishop Abbot, had grabbed the Church’s wealth, allowed its fabric to decay, destroyed its constitutional independence, and trodden down the clergy: feats of sacrilege which, shrouded in cant, had made the Church unfit for God’s eyes.

Laud, who strove to rebuild the Church’s wealth, wanted to reclaim a political role for it too. In that respect Charles’s support for Laud was a source not merely of alarm to the gentry but of mystery. English kings had been made powerful since the Reformation in order to keep the Pope out and the clergy down. Yet Charles gave a free hand to an archbishop seemingly bent on destroying the supremacy which Henry VIII had won for the Crown. Puritans were bound to ask whether Charles was not being taken in by Laud. Were not the Laudians, outwardly so deferential to the king who backed their policies, using his support to entrench the Church’s power so deeply that no future monarch could break it? The political loyalty of bishops was always conditional, after the Reformation as before. That loyalty had looked doubtful in the 1590s, when the fear that Elizabeth’s successor would favour presbyterianism had prompted the argument that episcopacy was divinely appointed. It seemed questionable again late in James I’s reign, when the Arminians asked themselves what allegiance they would owe if his son Charles were to smile upon the Calvinists. The Seven Bishops’ defiance of 1688 had a long history of latent clericalist aspiration behind it – an aspiration whose existence in Elizabeth’s reign rises frequently to the surface of Collinson’s Godly People.

An important feature of the Laudian programme was the reinvigoration of the Church courts, whose work in the diocese of Bath and Wells, under the Laudian Bishop William Peirs, is studied in Margaret Steig’s book Laud’s Laboratory, a riot of statistical tabulation about the early 17th-century clergy. Laud also suppressed Puritan preaching. There are reminders in Steig’s book, as in Collinson’s, that the Laudians were not against preaching (or even ‘lecturing’) as such. Indeed they sometimes favoured it, provided it was ‘conformable’. Conformity meant avoiding the subject of predestination. To Puritans, preaching which explained the workings of grace was itself the essential medium through which grace was awakened in the believer. So here as elsewhere the imposition of outward conformity invaded inner belief.

We cannot assume that the Laudian programme was doomed to fail. Although the Puritans had captured much of the Establishment – of Parliament, of the Universities, of local government – they could never be confident that their austere religion, which made no concessions to the senses, had a popular base. Hence, largely, their neurosis about Popery. The activities and the popularity of the writers John Weever and then William Dugdale hint at a widespread nostalgia for pre-Reformation architecture and perhaps even for pre-Reformation society. It would have been possible for Laud to argue that his High Church alternative to Catholicism would close the vacuum into which the Papists might otherwise move. But the argument would have been dishonest, for Laudianism was never a populist religion. Its appeal was largely directed at young dons and clergymen, for whom it had an avant-garde air. There seemed no reason why the rising educational standards and the growing professional self-esteem of the clergy should not be channelled into High Church ideals which gave the priest a sacerdotal function.

The traditionalist case which Laud argued was an Anglican, not a Catholic – let alone a Papist – one. Seeing Laud brought down in 1640 by the Puritans, we instinctively place him on the ecclesiastical right. To Laud in the 1630s, the Catholic threat, the threat within the Court, may have seemed quite as great. There is no misrepresentation in portraying Laud as, intellectually, the heir to the adiaphoristic conception of the Church of England which had been articulated by Richard Hooker: a conception which refused the claims of Geneva and Rome alike. Laud’s mistake was to annex a programme of churchmanship, which might have won acceptance, to political and economic ambitions which enabled the Puritans who resisted them to look like defenders of liberty. After 1660, when the Church abandoned those ambitions, and when it succeeded at last in distancing itself from Popery in the public mind, the gentry (now admittedly re-educated by the trauma of revolution) eagerly embraced its neo-Laudian ceremonies, and made no fuss about Arminian doctrine. The Anglicans had learned their lesson.

William Hunt is among those who look back beyond Laud for the religious origins of the Civil War. He reacts, too, against the localist and provincial emphases of research which ‘helps us to see more clearly why revolution on a national scale was extremely unlikely in 17th-century England’, but which ‘does not do much to explain how such a revolution nevertheless occurred’. The Puritan Moment is a vigorously written, highly intelligent, enjoyably provocative, honourably flawed book. If in the end it seems to have more verve than solidity, we should rejoice in the ambition of an enterprise which, in a first book, takes in the political, economic and religious history of England from Elizabeth’s reign to the outbreak of the Civil War. Its thesis often echoes Christopher Hill’s work on Puritanism and the more recent suggestions of Keith Wrightson, but Hunt finds a voice of his own.

His concern is with ‘social puritanism’: with the ‘interpenetration’ of the ‘material and ideological causes’ of the Puritan Revolution. Puritanism, he maintains, was a response to the social and economic polarisation which occurred in Elizabethan and early Stuart England, and above all to the contrast between the growing (if precarious) prosperity of people who were economically independent and the conspicuous poverty and unemployment among the rest. Puritan preachers assured the prosperous that the saints could expect material as well as spiritual success (a claim also made by J.T. Cliffe, although the evidence seems to me ambiguous). Predestinarianism, thinks Hunt, afforded a justification, not of anything so dynamic – or anachronistic – as capitalism (‘we are not dealing with Victorian Lancashire’), but of steady agricultural profit-making. It also allayed the pangs of conscience brought on by the evidence of destitution, while sanctioning a programme of social control, or, as Hunt calls it, a ‘culture of discipline’, against those sexual and alcoholic pleasures which were deemed responsible for overpopulation and economic distress.

Hunt’s thesis, although subtler than a bald account must suggest, echoes the social preoccupations of the 1970s and 1980s as clearly as the Marxist view of Puritanism reflected the experience of the 1930s. Even if early Stuart England was as socially polarised as he thinks, his account of the relationship between the rise of Puritanism and the growth of hardship will need chronological refinement. His emphasis on the repressiveness of Puritan morality is certainly welcome. Some writers, rightly anxious to distinguish Puritanism from the 19th-century Nonconformity which has shaped our image of it, have called them ‘as different as wine and vinegar’. Hunt’s attention to Puritanism vinaigrette restores the balance of discussion. Yet there are problems – one of them hinted at in Collinson’s dig, in Godly People, at historians who write ‘as if only the poor and disreputable enjoyed a drink, or the children of the poor a romp on Sundays’. Another is that, as Steig’s book recalls, it was not only Puritans who suppressed drunkenness and bastardy – although what the Laudians aimed to do about them in Essex we can hardly tell, since Hunt, for all his emphasis on religion, evidently finds secular documents more congenial than ecclesiastical ones. If repressive morality was a response to economic problems, it was the response not of an ideology but of a generation: that troubled, sombre generation of the 1620s and 1630s which, when civil war came, was to distribute its anxieties fairly evenly between the two sides. By the time we reach the Essex riots of 1640-2, which helped to gain the county for the Roundhead cause, Hunt’s claims for ‘social puritanism’ are under considerable strain. Just how was it that Puritan ministers, who for decades had threatened sinners with hellfire, were able to rally and direct the looting mobs of drunken weavers?

At critical moments Hunt’s thesis fails to move beyond rhetorical gesture. It is not self-evidently helpful – and by now it cannot even seem fashionable – to say that Puritanism gave a ‘cultural validation’ to revolution. His description of early Stuart government as ‘an ancien régime in crisis’ merely plays upon the old prejudice which thinks history important only when it summons the taste of blood and the noise of riot. And the suggestion that the Puritan preachers were ‘structuralists avant la lettre’ does not ripen with reflection. Yet at least Hunt has faced the important questions. Why did men become Puritans, and what was the relationship in their minds between their dealings with God and their dealings with each other? If his answers are unconvincing, who has given convincing ones? Hunt’s book exposes the frailty of the assumptions which historians still bring to the word ‘ideology’, and the crudity of our approach to the relationship between self-interest and principle. We write confidently about ‘guilt’ and ‘legitimation’, as if the mental processes in which we place them were clearly established and understood. When a future age comes across ‘guilt’ in our explanations of past religious developments, it may learn more about the social qualms of late 20th-century middle-class historians than about the objects of their study.

If the problems concerning the social content of Puritanism are soluble, then their solution will require a prior recognition of the ways in which Puritanism was not a social religion. Or, if it was, it was one whose primary aim was not to make men economically productive but to save their souls. Even Wrightson, when he examines the Puritans in power, claims only that they made a ‘fitful’ attempt to impose the social morality which, in Hunt’s account, ought to have been high on their agenda. Puritanism was the most internalised of religions, unequal to the task of transforming the world which lay beyond the window of the soul. Hunt, to his credit, intermittently acknowledges the limitations of available sociological explanation. After a tentative effort to include the preachers’ condemnations of blasphemy within the scope of ‘social puritanism’, he concedes that

the real objection to blasphemy was that it offended God and might bring down divine punishment upon the community which tolerated it. Similarly, drunkenness and fornication were abominable not only because they caused distress and conflict but because, as a clerical cliché expressed it, they ‘stank in the nostrils of the Most High’ ... The reformation of manners was intended to do more than foster the patterns of behaviour necessary for social harmony, it was also designed to avert plagues, invasions, bad harvests, and other judgments inflicted by an angry God. The same considerations applied to the countenancing of popish survivals or idolatrous innovations.

It is easy enough to see why such providentialism aroused economic anxieties, but there is nothing in Hunt’s book to suggest why providentialism was so powerful in the first place.

One difficulty about ‘social puritanism’ is a methodological one. ‘Puritanism,’ as Collinson says, ‘will never lend itself to the statistical method of religious sociography.’ Puritans left few statistics – and very many words. We should listen hard to them, until we can tell an original phrase from a platitude, a keenly felt idea from a dutiful one. That literary approach is fruitfully adopted in Patricia Caldwell’s exquisitely written book The Puritan Conversion Narrative. The ‘conversion narrative’ was the statement of spiritual experience required of candidates for membership of Puritan churches, mainly in New England but sometimes in old England too. The virtues of a literary treatment also emerge from Collinson’s essay, in Godly People, ‘A Magazine of Religious Patterns’. He shows how far the Dissenting tradition, dependent as it was on the biographies which Puritans wrote of each other, was shaped by conventions and stereotypes which owed more to the classics than to Christianity. Once we have learned, like Caldwell and Collinson, to hear the Puritans speak, then we may be equipped to speculate about their hidden social motives.

The shoestring publisher of Godly People has had a simple and excellent idea. Collinson’s sometimes little-known essays have been photographically reproduced and bound into a single book (a service which has also been performed, in other volumes, for the readers of other leading historians.) So rich and so various are its themes that selection seems arbitrary, but some of them seem particularly to point the way to future inquiry. There is his protest against ‘the general failure to place English Puritan theology in its European reformed setting’. And there is his preoccupation with the sense of identity and of mission developed by the Puritan ministry: its eagerness to co-operate where possible with the Protestant magistracy, its determination, too, not to be overawed by it.

That spirited clericalist resolve is often illustrated in the volume: by the inspiration drawn by Elizabethan bishops from the anti-Erastian example of St Ambrose; by the reproofs directed by the radical clergyman Thomas Wood at Puritan magnates who seemed to have let him down; and, most enjoyably, by the rebuke administered by ‘godly master Dering’ to his patron Lord Abergavenny: ‘Though I know that our Saviour Christ hath given us a straight charge not to cast precious stones before swine, nor to give that which is holy to dogs, yet I see so many examples of his unspeakable mercies that I know not any swine so wallowing in the mire, nor any dog so returning to his vomit, of whom I have not some hope that he may be a pure and clean creature in Israel. This maketh me bold with a good conscience to write unto your honour ... I love you in the Lord and therefore I speak so plain.’

For Collinson, Dering is a favourite instance of a favourite theme: the ‘positive’, ‘evangelical’ Puritanism which set the propagation of the Gospel above wrangles over doctrine and church government, and for which the true enemy was not lukewarm Protestantism within the Church but Popery without it. Collinson finds that viewpoint distinctive of the Puritan tradition of Christ’s College, Cambridge, and traces it, too, in the careers of Grindal, of Leicester, of Sir Nicholas Bacon, and also of Burghley, who ‘was 75 years of age before a theological dispute in Cambridge obliged him to discover what Calvinism was about. He was apparently astonished to discover that theologians whom he had trusted with his patronage for many years should believe that God might be so cruel as to will the wickedness and consequent destruction of a portion of mankind.’ Collinson’s ecumenical perspective reminds us that for the Elizabethan reformers the fundamental problem, which could only be exacerbated by quarrels within the Protestant camp, was to build up a trained and able preaching ministry. The principal source of recruitment was the universities; and C.M. Dent’s scholarly monograph Protestant Reformers in Elizabethan Oxford shows that Oxford’s contribution, if less spectacular than that of Cambridge, was still significant. Generally speaking, Collinson plays down the theological content of English Puritanism. He stresses – here again Dent supports him – the indebtedness of Elizabethan reformers to the mentalities of Zurich and Strasburg, less dogmatic than that of Geneva. Yet by the late 1570s, as Dent observes, things were changing. The Calvinist influence in England was growing, while Calvinist teaching itself was hardening. Collinson’s relative indifference to what Caldwell calls ‘the morphology of conversion’, to the Calvinist preoccupation with the stages by which grace is located and fulfilled, may be warrantable enough before about 1580 and after about 1660: in the period of John Foxe, and then of Samuel Clarke. In the intervening age, the high period of Puritanism, the business of leading a godly life surely seemed inseparable from that incessant receptiveness to ‘awakening dispensations’ which is emphasised in Cliffe’s The Puritan Gentry. Otherwise the Arminian controversy of the 1620s becomes harder than ever to explain. And so does the Puritan Revolution.