These Godless days, the word ‘Puritan’ has come to be more of an adjective than a collective term. ‘Mr Brown had rather a Puritan nature’ said the newspapers of the dignified but unelected English Prime Minister. Given his childhood in a Scottish manse, his nature should come as no surprise.
Puritans, however, were English Protestants of an extreme nature, by no means satisfied with settlements made by the recently established Anglican Church. Deep hatred of anything smelling of incense, incensed your typical Puritan. He or she desired absolute ‘purity’ within the Church of England – no Popery, no Jargon. Catholic elements needed expulsion. There is some irony to be found here, because as we know the Anglican Church was founded for political reasons encouraged by an impure, lusty and cruel monarch.
The Puritans followed the teachings of John Calvin (1509 – 64) who was French, a leading figure in the second wave of Protestant reformers. At first they limited their actions to an assault on ‘Popish’ practices such as ornaments in church, rich vestments worn by priests changing colour according to the religious calendar, singing in church, organ playing etc. but by 1570 the more extreme among them were attacking the episcopacy (authority) of bishops, and even government.
James I of England (himself a Scottish King) resisted the Puritans when they tried to change Anglican dogma, ritual and organization. Their answer to this was to denounce England as a country where a person could be hounded for his religious belief, but then all extremists believe in going to extremes.
In the early 1620 a group of Puritans set out for North America, got there, and set about making life even more complex (and at times bewildering) for the settlers. Much later, the policies of William Laud (1573 – 1645), Archbishop of Canterbury, combined with those of King Charles I (James’s son), breathed new life into Puritan opposition of anything connected with religion that they disagreed with. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose as Alphonse Karr said around about 1850.
There was no lack of argument between the Puritans themselves; a major source of contentious debate was the doctrine of Predestination (God ordaining who shall receive salvation after the sounding of the Last Trump). This is a fundamental article of faith, and the Arminian faction rejected it. The English Civil War (q.v.) between Parliament and King was in fact largely caused by religious unrest, not merely a selfish king and an ambitious Parliament.
The Civil War produced the New Model Army (modelled by Oliver Cromwell and others), and Puritanism was strong within it. During the 1640s and 50s, many Puritan objectives were realised, encouraged by Cromwell himself.
But time passed, as it does: Charles was beheaded (q.v.), his fugitive son was recalled from exile and crowned Charles II, Cromwell died warts and all, his son Richard refused any idea of a succession, and the Restoration Puritans found themselves absorbed comparatively painlessly into the Anglican Church, or the larger nonconformist new groups such as the Methodists. They lost their identity. Their name, however, stayed in the language as a description of anything tending towards extremism: ‘He’s all right, I suppose, except for that Puritan attitude of his!’