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The Historical Background of The Puritan Preaching

      

Puritanism was a genuine movement of renewal.  It was a renewal reacting to the institutionalized or nominal state church—the Anglican Church.  What characterized the movement was the renewal of preaching.  It was the Puritans who, in their historical context, renovated the expository, evangelistic preaching.  Indeed, their sermons were missionary proclamation. 
 

    The Historical Background of the Puritan Movement

  The direct factor of the Protestant Reformation in England was political one rather than pure religious one.  In the late 1520's and early 1530's Henry VIII was experiencing matrimonial and political difficulties such that, in 1533, he insisted that the Convocation of Canterbury declare his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled.  In the next year, Henry had the English Parliament declare him the Supreme Head of the Church in England, thus severing all ties with the Roman Church (Logan 1996).[1]   

   In less that a century of history of English Protestant Reformation, a renewal movement in a true sense of the word was arousing.  At first, the royal opposition against the movement was fierce.  Two hundred seventy- seven Christian leaders were burned to death at the stake during the reign of Queen Mary.  She earned the title 'Bloody Mary' during her reign from 1553 to 1558. Yet the cause of Christ grew and prospered.  It was during the reign of Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603) that the Puritan movement was born (Hulse 1996).  As Packer defines it Puritanism is “that movement in sixteenth and seventeenth century England which sought further reformation and revival in the Church of England than the Elizabethan settlement allowed” (1995:35).

    At first the Puritans received the name Puritan because they sought to purify the National Church of England. In later times they were called Puritans because of the purity of life that they sought. They set out to reform the Church of England. Their desire was to conform the national Church to the Word of God in government, worship and practice (Hulse 1996:154).  D. M. Lloyd Jones put it: “It was a purification, an effort, wise or unwise, to rid the Christianity of England from all adhesions to its power; an endeavour to remove everything in the doctrines, discipline, ceremonial, which during the Middle Ages had been added to the Gospel of Christ”(1962:11).

    The Puritans wanted to convert the Church of England; they sought after a Church that was theologically orthodox, spiritually alert, and joyously sure of salvation.  In addition, they believed in integrating into their lives the Christian faith.  For them, there is no distinction between the sacred and the secular.  They had a high view of women and marriage and encouraged family worship.  They wanted godly society and acted for it—schools they started for the poor is one of the examples.[2]

    Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558.  While her father may be said to have seized the church, her brother and sister tried to reform it—but with unhappy results.  She perceived that she must govern it or be ruined.  Her people were divided in faith.  The majority, especially in London, were Protestant, but a considerable number were still Catholic, and of these there was no telling how many might prove hostile to her authority.  There were, in addition, differences within the ranks of both parties.  Practically, everybody agreed that there could be but one true religion and that the church should be maintained by the state (Haller 1957:6).   

    In good contrast to her predecessor Mary who persecuted Protestants in favor of Catholicism, Elizabeth tried to maintain a uniformity policy.  What she was interested in was unity and stability. Haller observes it from its historical circumstances.  Her prior value was the continuance of ordered society for which the Christian church must play a role.  The church was inconceivable except as a single comprehensive institution uniform in faith and worship.  But since in fact her subjects could not agree as to what religion ought to be enforced as true, Elizabeth’s policy was to maintain at least the semblance of unity and the framework of the church without at the same time wrecking her government (1957: 6-7).   Paul Pierson observes that what she was interested in was unity and stability.[3] 

    Elizabeth affirmed the independence of, and the Puritanism within the English church.  As head of the nation, she asserted her control over church government.  She insisted that her bishops be men she could depend upon, and se saw to it that they asserted their authority and her own.  The only religious test she unfailingly insisted upon was willingness to sweat allegiance to herself as the church’s governor.  Such practices failed to please earnest reformers, bigots and doctrinaires, but they gave her people a taste of the practical advantages of toleration and patriotism (:7).  

    England under the rule of Queen Elizabeth won the battle against the invasion of Spain, the Catholic nation.  But she, who was also the head of the national Church, did not want to be too Protestant.  In this context the Puritans arose.  They wanted to purify the Church.[4]

    When James I (who reigned from 1603 to 1625) came to the throne there was hope that now reform would progress. Instead the struggle intensified. It did not improve when Charles I came to the throne in 1625. Ministers began to despair of improvement and some left for America where a new group of Puritans developed. The situation came to a climax when civil war broke out during the 1640s. During that time Oliver Cromwell became the supreme governor in place of the King. When Cromwell died there was no one suitable to replace him. The nation returned to the monarchy. Charles II came to the throne (Hulse 1996).

    A group of Puritans formed the Separatist movement.  Among the leaders of the movement,  John Robinson, William Brewster, and William Bradford were directly involved in the group of Separatists which, in 1608, left England for the Netherlands, and then later decided to emigrate to the New World, landing at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620.  Many (probably most) Puritans chose to remain within the English church working for reform, and it was from this group that a much larger group of emigrants left from England for New England in the late 1620's, establishing their colony at Massachusetts Bay (Logan 1996).

     Folowing the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the struggle in the Church was renewed with even more conflict than before. An act of Parliament was passed which required conformity to rules, which the Puritans simply were unable to follow. In 1662, over 2,000 ministers and leaders in the Church of England were forced to leave. Refusing to compromise their consciences, they left. Historians regard the Puritan period as coming to an end in 1662.  It is noteworthy, however, that it was after 1662 that the Puritans wrote some of their finest expositions (Hulse 1996).
 

    The Theological Background of the Puritan Movement

    Pierson suggests that the Puritans were influenced by Continental Reformers such as Calvin and Bucer.  Thus, we see them starting in order to foster preaching, biblical exposition and prayer.

    "Puritans" wanted to remain as part of the English establishment, working for biblical reform from within. Even as they emigrated to New England, they affirmed their "Englishness" and saw the main purpose of their new colony as being that of a biblical witness, a "city on a hill" which would set an example of biblical righteousness in church and state for Old England and the entire world to see.  As deeply committed covenant theologians, they emphasized especially strongly the corporate righteousness of their entire community before God (Logan 1996). 1996).

    The Puritans were passionately concerned for education and high academic standards. Almost all the Puritans were graduates of Oxford and Cambridge. Sidney Sussex College and Emmanuel College, Cambridge, were famous Puritan institutions of learning.

    Pierson comments that The Puritans wanted godly, learned pastors who are able to expound the Scripture, and who were resident in every parish.[1]  In the Anglican Church, there were priests who were appointed, but uneducated and even did not know where his parish was.  The Puritan ideal was the godly, well-trained preachers resident in the parish.[2]

 

    The Puritan Preaching as a Church Renewal Movement

    The Puritan movement was highly marked by the renewal of preaching.  The Puritans had brought a new, fresh understanding of preaching to the English pulpit of the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries.  They preached not only for the reformation of the Church of England but also for effective communication of the gospel. 

    The Puritan movement marked the age of perplexing change when many men and women, especially those of lowly position and simple understanding, were racked by anxiety for their future here and hereafter.  It was a period of storm and stress.  A group of Puritan preachers laid their learning aside in order to win the ear and confidence of all men.  Their function was to probe the conscience of the downhearted sinner, to name and cure the malady of his soul, and then to send him out strengthened for the continuance of his lifelong battle (Haller 1957:27).    

    The Puritans excelled in preaching in a practical way and many of their sermons reflect this concern to be practical.   They made them practical for both life application and pulpit communication.  The Puritans taught in more detail than Calvin that biblical principles must be applied to every aspect of life.  They proclaimed the gospel message to apply it to every realm of life of their audience.  They translated their profound exposition of the Bible into simple and accessible language for their audience.

 

 


  © This article is an excerpt from Dae Ryeong Kim's paper, "The Missionary Proclamation of the English Puritanism,"