The Puritans

by Randall Hillebrand

Puritanism was initially a movement starting within the Church of England under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The objective of Puritanism was to completely regenerate the English Church with Calvinistic reform.

The duration of Puritan history in England was from 1559 to 1660, with 1620 being the year that Puritans left England for America. From 1559 to 1593, the governing class of England became protestant. The House of Commons then raised up a Protestant National Church which Elizabeth decided would keep the Catholic distinctive of ruling bishops. This upset many that had already felt that the Church of England had preserved too many of the relics of the Catholic Church.  Total reform and absolution from the Catholic Church was called for by this group who wanted the Word of God to be the standard by which the church would be run. This radical group became known as the Puritans — ones who wanted to purify the church of all ceremonies, vestments and customs that were inherited from the medieval church.

Within the Puritan camp were many different views on how the church should be purified. Out of these many views there were two main divisions, the Separatists and the Nonseparatists. The Separatists, a very small group of Puritans from around the latter part of Elizabeth’s reign, were Christians that wanted a thorough reform in the church. When this group finally came to the conclusion that the Church of England was beyond purification, they separated themselves from the church and formed a number of small churches.

They then elected pastors and elders which would govern these newly-formed assemblies. The Separatists were a threat to the established church, though small in number, because they started to consistently
draw new converts. Because of this the Church of England started to persecute them which was one of the reasons they left for America.  The other division within the Puritan camp, the Nonseparatists, had a different philosophy by which to purify the established church. This group was more patient while waiting for reform. During this time of persecution of the Separatists under Elizabeth and James I, the Nonseparatists found freedom to carry out reform within the church. This was due to the fact that they did it in an agreed upon and organizational type format, which was accepted by both Elizabeth and James.

When pressure was applied to them, they would use the common-law courts to defend their rights. They also did not condemn the established church as a false church, although they did acknowledge its many problems and corruptions. This view was expressed well by a Nonseparatist named Francis Higginson who is reported to have said on board a ship leaving the shores of England for America:

“We will not say as the Separatists are wont to say at their leaving England, ‘Farewell Babylon, Farewell Rome’; but we will say, ‘Farewell dear England, Farewell the Church of God in England and all the Christian friends there.’ We do not go to New England as Separatists from the Church of England, though we cannot but separate from the corruption in it.”

(From Religion in America by Winthrop S. Hudson.)