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 full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in