The Puritans, Part 1

Phil Jensen


Puritans_AmericaThe Puritans were people who wanted to purify the Church of England from within.  For years they stayed and tried to do just that. There were some positive benefits from staying:

As the Puritan movement grew older in the first two decades of the seventeenth century, it matured considerably.  Adherents from all social classes and walks of life began to be attracted—including Oxford and Cambridge-trained clergy, and some of the most brilliant scholars and theologians of the age. [1]

However, while the Puritan movement was growing, the attitude of the Bishops towards the movement was getting worse.  For while the Puritans were committed to bring about the purification of the Church from within, the Bishops:

Rick Kriebel 2016


saw no need for any purification and resented the Puritans for what they considered to be their intrusive, presumptuous, divisive, and holier-than-thou ways. The more the Puritans pushed, the more the Bishops resisted until there was open enmity.[2]

This would be like the conflict in some denominations today such as in the United Methodist Church, where you have liberals on one side and evangelicals on the other.  Back when I was a pastor in the United Methodist Church, which was 1977 to 1989, the debates at Iowa Annual Conference would get pretty intense at times.  The opposition I faced as a Bible-believing pastor was the main reason I left the United Methodist Church.

Something similar but more severe was happening in the Church of England.  It wasn’t terrible yet.  It wasn’t like the persecution the Pilgrims experienced before they left England. But it was getting worse. And it was just a matter of time before the Puritans would see it was time to leave.

Woodrow Wilcox


Another concern the Puritans had besides the persecution they were beginning to experience was the conviction they had that the wrath of God would soon be  poured out on England.  For as they looked at the state of the nation, and saw how corrupt and wicked it had become, it just made sense that a judgment from God was on the horizon.  And  they didn’t want to be in England when it happened.  They wanted to find a hiding place, a place they could remove themselves to, and in so doing, be seen by God as not wanting to be a part of this nation that refused to repent.

However, they would stay as long as they could see themselves as having some opportunity to purify the Church.  For they definitely felt that this is what God wanted them to do. But when the day came that the opportunity to do that was no longer available, they would leave.

That day came when King James the First died.  Peter Marshall and David Manuel explain why:

As long as James I had been King (1603-1625) the persecution had been bearable, since the Archbishop of Canterbury was both moderate and sympathetic to the Puritan cause.

But the situation changed under Charles I (1625-1649). No sooner had he made William Laud the Bishop of London in 1628, than Laud presented the King with a list of English clergy. Behind each name was an O or a P.  If orthodox, they were in line for promotion; if if Puritan, they were marked for suppression.

For a number of Puritans, this was the watershed.  It appeared no longer possible to reform the Church of England from within. [3]

But still despite the fact that the Puritans were certain this was the case, there was that inner struggle.  For they had tried for so long to purify the church from within.  Therefore, how could they leave?  For they still desired to see the Church purified.  And so, they wrestled with the issue, searching for an acceptable solution.

To separate or not to separate… Out of this sharpening tension grew a startling alternative—one so radical that at first it was hard to contemplate, let alone pray about The possibility: the Church could still be reformed from within—but from a nine hundred league remove. It could be done in America. [4]

And so, the decision was made.  And to carry out this decision, the Massachusetts Bay Company was formed, and the partners of the company sought a charter from the King.  This charter would endow them with the powers and the authority to carry out their business and give them legal standing in the eyes of the Crown.  Edmund Morgan in his book, The Puritan Dilemma, helps us to see how important the charter was:

In the charter the King had granted authority “to make, ordain, and establish all manner of wholesome and reasonable orders, laws, statutes, and ordinances, directions, and instructions, not contrary to the laws of this our realm in England, as well for settling of the forms and ceremonies of government and magistracy fit and necessary for the said plantation, and the inhabitants there, and for the naming and installing of all sorts of officers, both superior and inferior, which they shall find needful for that government and plantation, and the distinguishing and setting forth of the several duties, powers and limits of every such office and place.” [5]

Notice here, if we were a group of Englishmen at that time, and we were fortunate enough to be given a charter signed by the King, we would have broad powers.  We pretty much could run our own small country.  The only restriction was that the company, in this case, the Massachusetts Bay Company could not make laws that were contrary to the laws of England.  Therefore, to get a charter was a big deal.

However, the limitation on these powers being given was that invariably the charter stipulated that the company’s meetings would have to be held in some specific city in England.  And this meant the governor of the company would have to stay in England.  And as a result, he would be far removed from the colony; so he wouldn’t be able to do much “hands on governing.”  And the general court of the company, the body which helped the governor implement the authority they had been given, would also be far removed from the people in the colony.  And that would limit them as well.

This being the case, it would be an extra big deal if the company did not have to hold its meetings in England.  For if they did not have to hold their meetings in England, then the officers would not have to stay in England.  They could move to one of the cities that would be established in the Massachusetts Bay area, and they could rule the company from there.  Edmund Morgan shares what this would mean:

In this way the governor of the company could become himself the governor of the colony, and the general court of the company could become the legislative assembly of the colony.

This daring proposal would effectively remove the colony from control by the Crown.

As long as the company held its meetings in England, the King and his ministers could easily keep the members under surveillance.….But if the company moved lock, stock,  and barrel to the New World, who would ever know what they were up to? [6]

Think of what this would mean.  For the governor and the general court to be able to live in New England, it would be a dream come true.  For it would truly be like having a country of their own.  Edmund Morgan gives a sense of what this would mean to the Puritans:

If the company moved to New England, it could become in effect a self-governing commonwealth, with the charter a blank check  justifying everything it did. It would thus be able to enforce the laws of God and win divine favor.

The colony would not be a mere commercial enterprise, nor would it be simply a hiding place from the wrath of God.  It would be instead the citadel of God’s chosen people, a spearhead of world Protestantism. [7]

Marshall and Manuel, in their book, The Light and the Glory, make some of the same points, but also add:

Not since God had brought the first Chosen People into the first Promised Land had a nation enjoyed such an opportunity. [8]

For the Puritans of that day, it definitely would be a dream come true.  For they wanted to build the kingdom of God on earth.

[1] Peter Marshall and David Manuel, The Light and the Glory, (Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 1977), p. 150. Used by permission.

[2] Ibid. p. 150.

[3] Peter Marshall and David Manuel, The Light and the Glory, (Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 1977), p. 152. Used by permission.

[4] Ibid.

[5] MORGAN, EDMUND S., THE PURITAN DILEMMA; THE STORY OF JOHN WINTHROP, 3rd Ed., © 2007.  Reprinted by permission of Pearson Education, Inc., New York, New York,  p. 77.

[6]  MORGAN, EDMUND S., THE PURITAN DILEMMA; THE STORY OF JOHN WINTHROP, 3rd Ed., © 2007.  Reprinted by permission of Pearson Education, Inc., New York, New York,  , p. 42

[7]  Ibid.

[8]  Peter Marshall and David Manuel, The Light and the Glory, (Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 1977), p. 155. Used by permission.



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Bob Wittstruck was a pastor for 33 years, was the associate director of the Black Hills Creation Science Association, and is a supporter of both Christian schooling and home schooling. His latest book, The Forgotten Factor of History God Rules, is being printed in February or March of 2016. His email address is [email protected]
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