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Being a Puritan was never an easy life

A Catalogue of the Severall Sects and Opinions in England and other Nations: With a briefe Rehearsall of their false and dangerous Tenents. (Broadsheet, 1647/Wikimedia)

The early modern Puritans belonged to a world, and a worldview, that we find hard to grasp, says Jonathan Wright

Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America
By Michael Winship
Yale University Press, 351pp, £20/$28

Hold on to your hats. Michael Winship has written one of the finest and most challenging studies of early modern Puritanism – and this in a field replete with gifted scholars.

The prose is excellent, but that’s not the main attraction. Winship’s tour through a “rich, dense, tumultuous history” stands out because of its chronological and geographical reach. One hundred and fifty years and events on both sides of the Atlantic are summarised in 350 pages, and the links (quite the muddle for any scholar to disentangle) between the self-styled godly in Britain and America are explored with great finesse.

On one level, the book is a superb primer. All the highlights are here. The early stirrings of the “proto-Puritans” are covered, with John Hooper taking centre stage: a man with no qualms about barking at kings and with a contempt for any sense of theological indifference or compromise. The promising days under Edward VI are followed by the times of exile under Mary Tudor and then, of course, the lunacy of Elizabeth I’s reign.

Bursts of Puritan radicalism, from the corridors of Parliament to parishes where religious debate “would spill out from the church into the streets and taverns”, are set against growing governmental suspicion of the hotter sort of Protestants. Seemingly tiny issues such as the wearing of surplices could lead to a decade’s worth of animosity, and bishops like Edmund Grindal could end up in head-on collisions with their monarch because of their devotional sensibilities.

Winship is very good when it comes to capturing the essence of Puritan thought: or, better put, the essences, since it was always a diverse tradition. The moralising and self-righteousness are not hard to spot but the “long stormy contest with sin” was not an easy path to follow. It was one thing to accept the “full, bone-breaking weight of God’s law” but quite another to determine whether you were on the right side of the soteriological balance sheet. Could you ever be assured of salvation or were you just kidding yourself?

In any event, those of Puritanical temperament became increasingly dismayed by England’s failure to embrace a suitably thorough Reformation and many of them headed for new pastures, most famously the American colonies.

London showed few signs of becoming another Geneva and, through the later years of Elizabeth’s reign and those of James I, the attempt to, as Winship puts it, “tame” Puritanism became ever more irksome.

Across the Atlantic, parts of New England were deliberately extremist. Congregationalism, with its disdain for any conventional ecclesiastical structures, was king in some places. An intense spirituality prevailed: “a good conversion narrative could reduce a church meeting to tears”. God’s law often trumped men’s laws and, since Exodus decried “man-stealing” you could get yourself killed for kidnapping (though, oddly, whipping usually seemed to suffice when it came to adultery).

But there were limits. People who pushed their luck too far – such as the radicals Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson – were not looked kindly upon and, for all the fine talk, it quickly became clear that the encounter between religion and politics was going to be as tricky in the New World as it had been in the old. Into the bargain, as Winship explains with great clarity, sustaining an amicable relationship with the authorities back home was something of a nightmare.

The later parts of this outstanding book summarise complex issues with aplomb: how events in America influenced and were influenced by the English Civil War; the encounters between Puritan missionaries and Native Americans; how, in the post-Restoration era, the attacks against Puritanism became increasingly energetic. As for the American Puritan outposts, they had to surrender to notions of pluralism and to some measure of toleration, so any idea of perfect religious unity was exploded – not that it had ever existed in practice.

Winship relates this giddy tale with a combination of deep scholarship and lively turns of phrase. It is nice, amid all the earnest analysis, to hear of “the zigzagging spiritual pilgrimage” of a preacher such as Lawrence Clarkson. Above all, however, Winship cuts through the stereotypes without abandoning the sense that Puritanism belonged to a world, and a worldview, that we find hard to grasp.

Take the Goodwin children of 1680s Boston. Poor Martha, 13, fell ill and, alongside some dreadful physical symptoms, said that she was ailing because she didn’t know if she was one of the Elect. The other kids followed suit and, before too long, there was talk of the Devil’s intervention and the parents fell into a pit of spiritual despair. Not a pleasant story, and Puritanism didn’t always lead to such dire consequences, but we can at least conclude that people took their religions seriously, back then.