The Puritans: Birth Pangs.

What were the religious and political issues which existed in 16th and 17th century England which led to the origination of a loose group of Christians known as the Puritans?

One of the first issues was the Puritans love for the Word of God. Before the Puritans even existed, ignorance of the Scriptures was widespread, especially in England. It was here that William Tyndale (1495-1536) defied a law which forbade Bible translation. Tyndale had run afoul of religious and political authority because of his commitment to the Scriptures. Regarding his passion in ministry Tyndale said to a religious leader, “If God spare my life, ere many years, I will cause that a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of Scripture than that thou dost.” 

As one Tyndale biographer comments, “William Tyndale was a talented theologian. His theological writings were gathered and published in 1572. Tyndale’s work represents a formative contribution in the development of Protestant Christianity, especially on the central issue of justification by faith alone, by grace alone, which can be seen in a competent reply made to Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), English Lord Chancellor, who wrote books against Tyndale.” 

Tyndale  was successful in translating and printing the New Testament, plus the Pentateuch and the Book of Jonah, into English. While living in Europe, Tyndale was persecuted everywhere he lived. Eventually, due to betrayal, he was sentenced to prison. He was executed by strangling and burning in 1536.

One of Tyndale’s associates, Miles Coverdale (1488-1568), fled England for Switzerland where he used Tyndale’s work to translate the entire Bible into English. Henry VIII approved this endeavor. By 1537,  two editions were published in England of what came to be known as the Geneva Bible. It was the Bible the Puritans used. From 1579 and 1615, there were printed in England at least 39 editions of the Geneva Bible.

Tyndale’s work, and those who followed him, were some of the effects the Protestant Reformation had upon England.  However, the country’s eventual break from Roman Catholicism as its official church occurred for less than noble reasons.

The impact of the word of God through Martin Luther and others eventually reached the attention of England’s King Henry VIII (1509-1547). King Henry used the Reformation as a pretense to break free from the Roman Catholic Church in order for him to obtain a legal divorce, remarry, and eventually produce a male heir.

Following Henry’s death, and during the reign of Henry’s son King Edward VI (1547-1553), Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) introduced Reformed Theology into the Church of England. However, Edward’s successor, his Catholic sister Mary Tudor (1553-1558) also known as “Bloody Mary,” overturned many of the Protestant reforms, reinstated the Latin Mass, and enforced allegiance to the Pope by executing 270 Protestant martyrs, including Thomas Cranmer. Many pastors and Protestants fled to the continent to escape persecution.

When Mary’s Protestant sister Elizabeth (1553-1603) succeeded her, many who had fled to Europe returned to England hoping for a continuation of the religious reforms begun under King Edward. Even though Elizabeth’s Acts of Uniformity (1659-1662) were praised, many believed it left the church only half-reformed. Many of the trappings of Catholicism remained in churches. Many Christians were longing for the biblical preaching they had heard in Europe.

It was at this time that Thomas Cartwright’s (1553-1603) Book of Discipline was circulated. It contained new suggestions for religious public worship which supported and encouraged the expositional preaching of the Word of God and the proper observance of the ordinances of believer’s baptism and Communion.

Even though Queen Elizabeth fought against any further organized efforts to purify the church, a groundswell movement of pastors, many believe initiated by William Perkins (1558-1602) began to form. Puritan pastors and educators began to train many pastors of the next generation to purify the church.      

While reforming and purifying the Church of England remained a key goal of the Puritans, one of the other strong concerns which emerged in the 17th century among those within the Church of England, in the aftermath of the 16th century Protestant Reformation, was the issue of personal piety or holiness. The lingering question was how do you encourage true piety once you have reformed the church?

The Protestant Reformation had accomplished much in changing the organization of the church and the theology of the church. The growing issue became that now that the externals of the church were being reformed, how was the church to ensure true piety and devotion to God in the hearts of the people?

The issue became one of formalism. Formalism, so to speak, is going through the motions of personal devotion to God, but truly lacking the inner desire. It is people coming to church, but just taking a nap. You can have a worship service organized to the minutest detail with no impact whatsoever on those attending. The movement known as Puritanism was also concerned about this issue.

Let me ask you a question. Are you a Puritan? The Puritans were concerned as to how there could be true piety, holiness and faith in the life of the church. Therefore, are you concerned about whether there is true piety, holiness and faith not only in your own life, but also in the life of your church? If so, then you are a Puritan at heart.

Brief Bio:

William Perkins

Excerpt from Meet the Puritans
by Dr. Joel Beeke and Randall J. Pederson

William Perkins was born in 1558 to Thomas and Hannah Perkins in the village of Marston Jabbett, in Bulkington parish, Warwickshire. As a youth, he indulged in recklessness, profanity, and drunkenness. In 1577, he entered Christ’s College in Cambridge as a pensioner, suggesting that socially he nearly qualified as gentry. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1581 and a master’s degree in 1584.

While a student, Perkins experienced a powerful conversion that probably began when he overheard a woman in the street chide her naughty child by alluding to “drunken Perkins.” That incident so humiliated Perkins that he gave up his wicked ways and fled to Christ for salvation. He gave up the study of mathematics and his fascination with black magic and the occult, and took up theology. In time, he joined up with Laurence Chaderton (1536–1640), who became his personal tutor and lifelong friend. Perkins and Chaderton met with Richard Greenham, Richard Rogers, and others in a spiritual brotherhood at Cambridge that espoused Calvinist and Puritan convictions.

From 1584 until his death, Perkins served as lecturer, or preacher, at Great St. Andrew’s Church, Cambridge, a most influential pulpit across the street from Christ’s College. He also served as a fellow at Christ’s College from 1584 to 1595. Fellows were required to preach, lecture, and tutor students, acting as guides to learning as well as guardians of finances, morals, and manners.

On July 2, 1595, Perkins resigned his fellowship to marry a young widow. That motivated Samuel Ward, later Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity, to respond in his diary, “Good Lord, grant…there follow no ruin to the college.” Men such as Ward counted it a great blessing to sit under Perkins’s teaching and to witness his exemplary living.

Perkins served the university in other capacities. He was dean of Christ’s College from 1590 to 1591. He catechized the students at Corpus Christi College on Thursday afternoons, lecturing on the Ten Commandments in a manner that deeply impressed the students. On Sunday afternoons, he worked as an adviser, counseling the spiritually distressed.

Perkins had exceptional gifts for preaching and an uncanny ability to reach common people with plain preaching and theology. He pioneered what was known as Puritan Casuistry—the art of dealing with “cases of conscience” by self-examination and scriptural diagnosis. Many people were convicted of sin and delivered from bondage under his preaching. The prisoners of the Cambridge jail were among the first to benefit from his powerful preaching. Perkins “would pronounce the word damn with such an emphasis has left a doleful Echo in his auditors’ ears a good while after,” wrote Thomas Fuller.

In time, Perkins as rhetorician, expositor, theologian, and pastor became the principle architect of the Puritan movement. His vision of reform for the church, combined with his intellect, piety, writing, spiritual counseling, and communication skills, enabled him to set the tone for the seventeenth-century Puritan accent on Reformed, experiential truth and self-examination, and their polemic against Roman Catholicism and Arminianism.

Perkins writings include The Works of William Perkins, A Commentary on Hebrews 11, The Art of Prophesying, and The Foundation of Christian Religion Gathered into Six Principles.




One Reply to “The Puritans: Birth Pangs.”

  1. Who would ever have thought a mother chiding her naughty child and alluding to drunken Perkins would have such a profound impact on William Perkins life and the history that followed. God moves us in strange ways , at least to us.


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