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Hot Protestants: A history of Puritanism in England and America, by Michael P. Winship

17 May 2019

Jonathan Clark finds the obituary of Puritanism written prematurely

PURITANISM was inescapable: it led to vicious conflict, rebellion, and civil war on both sides of the Atlantic from the 1540s onwards. Michael P. Winship has written an admirable and fascinating survey of this movement, learned and full of insight. Moreover, he frames it as an international study. Puritanism, in this transatlantic perspective, was not one thing: it was made up of many contrasting and conflicting strands, often drawn from the very different English exiled communities in Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Geneva, and Zurich.

A problem remains: how we define Puritanism predetermines how we analyse it. The term “Puritan” emerged late, as an insult hurled indiscriminately: there were no clearly identifiable “members” of a “party”. Winship excludes the hottest of all, groups, such as antinomians, Baptists, Fifth Monarchists, Quakers, and Ranters.

So Puritanism appears here as fairly moderate: religiously zealous, yes, but practical and responsible, even recruiting the gentry. It attempted a reformation of people’s lives, true, but by using the Established Church in alliance with state power. Its ideal was “a Christian commonwealth governed and guided by an intolerant state and a purified Calvinist church establishment”. Puritans were, in their own eyes, “exemplary Englishmen and women”.

Even so, Puritanism, in Winship’s account, failed. Why? Here I was left with doubts. By ending the American part of the book with the witch trials of 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, he can blame its failure on the schism between Presbyterians and Congregationalists, “two groups of puritans”, the second going disastrously beyond moderate Presbyterianism and discrediting itself.

RB 148140, The Huntington Library, San Marino, CaliforniaLaudian church furnishings regarded as “Popish” are destroyed by soldiers in 1640, in a detail from John Vicars, A Sight of ye Trans-actions of these Latter Yeares (London, 1646)

In England, Winship argues, Puritanism died with the conflicts between Congregationalists and Presbyterians during the civil wars, their failure to reunite after 1688, and the waning of the century-old alliance between Nonconformist ministers and the aristocracy or gentry. With the Revolution of 1688, after 150 years of “Puritan struggle . . . something like victory was in sight”; but Parliament betrayed this hope, abandoning the policy of “comprehension” (the inclusion of as many sects as possible within the national Church). A Bill that would have re-established “Massachusetts’ puritan quasi-republic” was dropped. Convocation blocked changes to the Book of Common Prayer. “It was thus the end of English puritanism.”

But was it? In the northern and middle colonies, the Revolution of 1776 was often led by Bible-bashing bigots. As Winship acknowledges, Evangelical revivals into the 19th century continued something similar under new labels. Has Puritanism failed, or evolved? Today, environmentalists preach conversion and predestination; erring academics are the victims of witch hunts. As Jean Calvin might have said, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Dr Jonathan Clark is Emeritus Hall Professor of British History at the University of Kansas.


Hot Protestants: A history of Puritanism in England and America
Michael P. Winship
Yale £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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