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Assess the nature and threat posed by Puritanism

‘Puritanism’, which was first coined in the Vestiarian controversy of the mid 1560s, has not been associated exclusively with a single theology or definition of the church (although many were Calvinists), but there are certain characteristics which can be agreed upon. Puritanism was strongly anti-Catholic; for both Collinson and Lake, Puritans were Protestants, both lay and clerical, whose religious enthusiasm and zeal marked them off from their more lukewarm contemporaries. Paul Christianson limits his definition to ‘the hotter sort of Puritan’ – Presbyterians and hardened nonconformists who would not obey the orders of the bishops yet did not separate themselves from the Church of England (although this meaning does not encompass the end of Elizabeth’s reign, where the presbyterian movement had been destroyed).Lotherington argues, “the Puritans would seek to adapt the regulation set down in 1559 to create a more ‘Godly church’ like the Reformed churches abroad”; to encourage direct personal religious experience, sincere moral conduct, and simple worship services. Elizabeth saw certain types of Puritanism as a threat to her royal authority (religion, to her, was a branch of power politics) and so she tended to view all forms of Puritanism – whether conformist, separatist, presbyterian, moderate, or radical – with suspicion. They tried to reform the Church, first through the Church itself and then through Parliament, before turning to popular local movements such as presbyterianism and prophesying.Warren described Puritans as a “reforming group who saw the 1559 settlement as temporary and endeavored to obtain further installments of reform”. ‘The Godly’, such as Grindal and Cox, failed to recognize Elizabeth’s desire to create a ‘national church’ in her 1559 settlement, and the Vestiarian Controversy of the mid 1560’s describes the movement of these zealots resisting to conform to the conservative rubrics. It seems that many of the reformers were willing to bide their time in the hope that Elizabeth would allow for further measures of reform, but the controversy itself marked an irritation with Elizabeth’s doctrinal stagnancy. Some have argued, for example, that the Vestiarian Controversy was the climax of Puritan opposition in the decade, and posed a significant threat to Elizabeth.In 1563, the bishops petitioned Convocation on issues such as the abolition of holy days, the abolition of organ music, and the surplice could be accepted as sufficient for most services, and were only defeated by one vote, showing the strength for these reforming views within the Church, and the problems that could have faced Elizabeth. The ‘Puritans’ believed vestments were signs that the anti-christ was alive and well in the Church, and the 1563 articles became a trigger for more demand to purge the Church of Catholic ritual. In 1566 Archbishop Parker, on his own authority, but also under pressure from the Queen, issued the Advertisements which laid down fixed rules for the conducts of services and vestments. As a result, 37 of the most able clergy were removed from office. Variations over the interpretations of the new services had still not been settled, and therefore as some historians have argued, ‘represented a challenge to Elizabeth’s supremacy’.During this time Elizabeth’s control seems to have weakened, however, many historians argue that although this was some of the first signs of real discontent amongst Puritans, it was actually the last time the Church was attacked from the inside. argue that although this was some of the first signs of real discontent amongst Puritans, it was actually the last time the Church was attacked from the inside. These bishops also refused to resign as they were worried about letting in the auld enemy, the Catholics, and this was supported by Bullinger who saw that it might jeapordise the future of Protestantism had the Bishops resigned, stating ‘they should obey for the sake of Church unity”. So whilst the Vestiarian Controversy indicated the first sign of real opposition amongst Puritans, and the 1563 articles were only just passed by one vote, it is clear that this was never going to be a huge issue for Elizabeth, as the wiser amongst the Puritan leaders realised that resigning over Parker’s advertisements would simply allow the Catholics in, which would deny them further chance for reform later on in the reign.Next, we should address whether Puritanism can be seen as a political threat. Susan Doran argues that attempts made by Puritans to reform through parliament damaged rather than advanced their cause. This interpretation is supported by the events surrounding the 1571 ‘Alphabet bills’. Bishops hoped that the bills, designed to curb the evils of absenteeism and pluralism, would go through. However, Puritan MP William Strickland tried to yoke that legislation to a prayer book of his own devising which attempted to remove certain Catholic practice, such as the Catholic surplice and black rubric. All it achieved however was Elizabeth’s indignation, and thereafter a continual suspicion of parliament – she vetoed most of the alphabet bills – and consequently the bishops blamed Puritans for the loss of useful reforms, and put more pressure on them to conform. This pressure was cashed out in the form of license revoking through the power of convocation, unless the minister fully subscribed to the entire 39 articles, prayer book and surplice before the Ecclesiastical commissioners.It seems like all Puritan challenges in parliament henceforth, from 1570 to 1593, caused a virulent government backlash. Each attempt by Puritans caused a cumulatively diminishing ability for them to succeed. For example, the young John Field, who was central in the movement to organize a Presbyterian system for England, pleaded for compromise (to subscribe to everything but not to wear the surplice). However, his requests were outright rejected and in 1572, he was forbidden to preach. Fields response was to publish manifestos, ‘Admonitions to Parliament’, which hurled a plethora of criticisms at the established Church. His first book accused the Bishops of being enemies to true Christianity, that we need a “reforming of the disordered” through “excommunication”, and attached to it was his ‘A View of Popish abuses’ – which pointed the finger at the “Popish dunghill”, criticized the prayer book as being full of “Childish and superstitious toys”, and accused bishops of tossing the psalms in most places like “tennis balls”.Such unsubtle and brash writings characterized public Puritan attacks; they did little to sway Parliament, and the view of the Puritan tended to be shaped by enraged radical writers such as Field, which frustrated less vocal Puritans. A later example is the ‘Martin Marprelate’ tracts of 1588-9, or the ‘Martin Bishop-smasher’ tracts, from which Thomas Cartwright, a presbyterian lecturer at Cambridge in the 1570’s, was quick to disassociate himself. Whereas Strickland was merely banished from the commons a year before, as a result of his outcries, Field, and his colleague Thomas Wilcox, were imprisoned, and Puritan printing presses were destroyed – ‘uniformity’ was imposed by Bishops with more vigor than ever.Four years after, in 1576, Peter Wentworth was sent to the tower for similar offenses. Therefore, Puritanism was seen by Elizabeth to be threatening to her established Church for ideological reasons alone, because in practice, the Queen could, and did, employ formidable powers to suppress it successfully. Even if the Puritan bills had more support, Elizabeth had further powers such as the proroguing or dissolving of parliament. Perhaps Puritan Ideology was a leap in the dark to those whose power rested on stability and social control, and because it threatened too many interests of the ruling classes, establishing Puritanism through parliament was doomed to fail. Perhaps, therefore, Puritanism was to be more effective at grass roots level, where Anglican puritans, many of whom were alumni of Cambridge University, could preach out of the steely sight and control of Elizabeth.The existence of prophesyings, gatherings of clergy where preachers could practice their skills and obtain an assessment of their performance from colleagues, implied the wild and unbridled enthusiasm of would-be visionaries and prophets. The meetings were performed under supervision of a moderator (a respected preaching practitioner), and their value to inexperienced clergymen was enormous – Professor Collinson pointed out that they were seen as ‘universities of he poor ministers’, and they improved the morale of the clergy as well as their expertise. Some may have thought that Elizabeth would promote them because the Royal Injunctions of 1559 required non-graduate ministers to study the scriptures and other works. However, to the Queen, local meetings may have implied a lack of uniformity, which threatened her supremacy and the uniformity of the realm.The lack of control would have made her uncomfortable. Late in 1576, Elizabeth ordered her Archbishop at the time, the reformer Edmund Grindal, to suppress all Prophesyings and restrict the number of preachers to 3 or 4 per shire, and he refused. He saw the Queens attacks on Prophesyings an attack on an effective tool in enhancing his ministry’s preaching upon which the evangelizing of England depended. However, it was still a surprise that his response was to rudely canvas the opinion of his colleagues to try and sway his Queen’s opinions – he found that out of 15 asked, 10 approved, and only 1, Bishop Scory of Hereford, saw them as a threat. Grindal sent a letter to Elizabeth which defended prophesyings, discussed ways to control them, and finally implied that Elizabeth should recognize the need to please God and not just herself – “you are a mortal creature.Look not only upon the the purple and princely array”. Grindal was placed under virtual house arrest in his palace at Lambeth and was suspended from duty until his undignified and quiet death in 1583. Grindal’s fate shows that Elizabeth was serious about suppressing prophesyings, but it also shows how easy it was for her to cut down her opposition. The Queen sent a letter to bishops condemning Prophesyings, and the result was a clampdown on them. However, there were still ways of ministers getting together to hear and discuss sermons without the labeling them prophesyings – a ‘lecture’ could be permissible, for example.Later in Elizabeth’s reign she met with Puritanism in another form, Presbyterianism. Classical Presbyterianism, similarly to Prophesyings, was based on groups, or conferences, of local clergy who met regularly in secret to discuss the scriptures and common problems. However, it was probably more dangerous than Prophesyings because it directly challenged Elizabeth’s belief that Church and state government was the responsibility of the monarch. Thomas Cartwright, the lecturer most associated with presbyterianism, probably felt pressured because of the implications of his ideas to leave the country for Geneva.The Queen met the increased threat with increased severity; she appointed John Whitgift, a man with little or no sympathy for Puritanism, who had a sense of the importance of uniformity and authority in the Church, to succeed Grindal. His approach is reflected in his attempt to impose the three articles in 1583 on all ministers which required full acceptance of the RS, agreement that the Book of CP and the ordinal contained nothing contrary to the word of God, and agreement to the 39 articles. He forced an ‘ex officio’ oath armed with 24 questions, and this inflexibility caused uproar – within Canterbury alone, 300 ministers were suspended for refusing to subscribe.Doran suggests the effect of Whitgift’s aggressive pressure was to give stimulus and sympathy for the case of Presbyterianism, but adds that it is difficult to find evidence for this. The classical movement makes the situation more complex, for example, which occurred around the same time, has been described as the ‘presbyterian church system in embryo” – John Field thought it would be exactly that. The classical movement involved meetings, or ‘classes’, which originated in Suffolk, but spread to in Cambridge and Wetherham, but the best known one was in Deadham, Essex, June 1882. Historians have argued, however, that such ‘classes’ were probably not committed to a presbyterian system of ecclesiastical government but simply wanted to meet like-minded brethren to discuss day-to-day parochial concerns. Therefore, although such meetings may have had the potential to be forums for dangerous radical ideology, in reality the main problem for the Queen was non-uniformity.The Separatists such as Penny and Tasker were probably the most radical of opposition to Elizabeth, and it has been argued that these posed a threat, due to their belief that the Church and nation were identical, and refused the belief that the monarch should have influence into the Church’s issues. They were different to Presbyterians, as the Presbyterians were radical, but still keen on a ‘national church’. An important separatist group was the ‘Brownists’ (led by R. Brown and R. Harrison) in the late 1580s. Browne claimed the Church of England was so corrupt that a reformation without authoritative approval must be done. They argued that the Christian should set about reformation without waiting for the permission or guidance of anyone on authority. This is what gave them the name ‘Separatists’, as unlike other Puritans, they were actively divisive, and weren’t hoping for a Puritan church through reform and campaign, but rather it’s dissolution. The Separatists were treated with such suspicion that distributing their works was viewed as high treason, something that Barrow and Greenwood were imprisoned for. This shows that they were a threat in theory, but like other forms of Puritanism, they were politically insignificant due to their small base of support and inferior numerical presence.Warren also notes that Richard Hooker also played a significant role, his Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity was a monumental defense of the position often called ‘Anglicanism’. Hooker emphasized the value of tradition and continuity, with some Catholic undertones, and actually ignored Calvin mostly, but he still defended a more ‘unified Church’. Similarly, Historians have argued that the view of Puritans had changed by this point, now they were much more widespread and not the narrow individuals of the 1560’s, and a more Calvinist consensus had emerged, for example Whitgift’s Lambeth Articles in 1595. So while Separatism was viewed as a direct threat to Elizabeth’s control, the changing nature of Puritanism in the last 20 years of Elizabeth’s reign meant that the acceptance of a more Calvinist position, and therefore undermined the opposition of the Separatists, as more Puritans were happy with the position of the English Church by 1595.Doran points out that the majority of Puritans were neither Presbyterian or Seperatist, but simply ‘conformist Puritans’. Although Neale has argued for a ‘Puritan choir’ in parliament, the strength of Puritan opposition was clear by the condemning of Strickland’s admonitions to parliament in 1571. There was little support in Parliament for any of the measures – in 1584 the Queen employed the powerful oratory of Sir Christopher Hatton ensured the nervous ruling class that Peter Turner’s bill had failed, and the election in this year was not a puritan triumph. Despite the constant gnashing of teeth on both sides, it seems that Puritanism was little threat at all to Elizabeth. Firstly, historians have claimed that there was no organized Puritan ‘group’ as such, because attacks on the religious settlement were only in response to particular events, and not sustained throughout the period. Thus, the Puritan stance had neither the organization or the popularity to make it a serious threat.For example, Walter Travers was responsible for a book of the presbyterian discipline, but there was no exact agreement on the organization of the Presbyterian church. Also, Collinson has revealed that there were parts of the country where Puritanism had not made a meaningful impact (like in the north, Wales, west midlands and parts of the west country). The puritans failed to change the organization and hierarchy of the church, and there is very little evidence to suggest it had the potential to do so. Perhaps the most threatening aspect of Puritanism was the fact that it was not conducive to a united Church – it encouraged individualistic interpretation of scripture, and allowed for a certain amount of variation within the faith, which is what Elizabeth wanted to avoid. Moreover, the Puritan minister in his parish may have had a deeper and longer-lasting influence than some of the rituals to which he accommodated himself.

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