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Review: Hot Protestants

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Posted by Geoff Locke, 7 Aug 2020

Geoff Locke reviews Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America by Michael Winship.

Cover of Hot Protestants

This is a good year to read Professor Winship’s book. Four hundred years ago, on 6 September 1620, the Pilgrim Fathers finally set sail for America – an event that deserves to be celebrated.

“The hotter sort of Protestants are called Puritans” said Perceval Wiburn in 1581.  It was a term of abuse, much like “Methodist” or “God squad”.  The Puritans, in popular estimation, were grim-faced people who disapproved of anybody having fun.  On the other side of the Atlantic – as portrayed in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible – they executed innocent women accused of witchcraft.  What Winship seeks to do is to tell the tale of the Puritans accurately and sympathetically, relating how this side of the Atlantic came to influence the other.

This book is timely for another reason.  The gradual secularisation of English education has resulted in little by way of a Christian perspective on our history.  Pupils may “do” the Tudors (Henry VIII’s six wives, ho, ho, ho!) or the Stuarts (Roundheads and Cavaliers).  But do our schools impart understanding?  Too often, younger lay people in our churches have scant knowledge of the issues.  The situation for clergy (with the same schooling, plus church history squeezed into a crowded seminary timetable) may not be much better.  All credit to those able to redress the balance.

The Puritans encompassed a range of views, in the wake of Mary Tudor’s reimposition of Catholicism.  They argued that ministers at Communion should not wear vestments, indicative of the Roman Mass.  Nor should communicants venerate the elements, by kneeling to receive them.

Beyond these “moderate” Puritans were those more radical, who sought to reconfigure the Church of England along Continental lines.  They wished to rid the episcopate of prelacy and, for some, to replace it by presbyterianism.  They nearly succeeded, but Queen Elizabeth I refused.  A later attempt, following the Civil War, was undone by the third group of Puritans.

This group emphasised that the marks of a true Church included not only word and sacraments (Article 19) but also discipline.  The failure of the institutional Church in this respect drove them to form their own congregations, which were then persecuted.

For the separatist church at Scrooby in Nottinghamshire, it was a plight which led them to seek refuge first in the Netherlands and subsequently in the New World.  They saw it as a flight from “Babylon” or “Egypt” via the “wilderness” to “the Promised Land”.  On board ship, in company with a varied group of “strangers”, they framed what became known as the Mayflower Compact – the first attempt at a written constitution.  After arriving at Plymouth Rock, they were much indebted to the assistance of Native Americans – with whom they would agree a peace treaty.

Thanksgiving was a very meaningful celebration for these Separatists, commonly described as Independents or Congregationalists.  But they were not free of English control and, on both sides of the Atlantic, Puritan ascendency came to be eclipsed.  Winship tells the story of presbyterian-independent conflict, which produced a house divided against itself.

Winship might have made more of the Puritan foundation of American democracy, but that would lie beyond the historical limit he set himself.  More significantly, there is little about the Puritan contribution to the Scientific Revolution that took place in England throughout the turbulent seventeenth century.

Readers of footnotes may be pleased to spot Carl Trueman.  More particularly, Polly Ha is mentioned several times – somewhat critically.  I had the pleasure of meeting Dr Ha one Sunday morning in Cambridge, as she served coffee after church.  A reminder that, for the Christian, scholarship and service go hand-in-hand.

Geoff Locke has degrees in Philosophy and Religious Pluralism and is a former Chairman of EGGS; he also has O-Level History grade B.

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