The Puritans: Birth Pangs, Part 3.

One of the 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, devotion to God in the hearts of the people?

One of the ways the Puritans evaluated Christian’s personal piety and holiness was asking themselves the question of what kind of preaching were people receiving? Did the preaching really address what Christians are to believe and how they ought to live? The Puritans were concerned that this was not the type of preaching that was occurring in churches. Therefore, what the Puritans began to do was to create opportunities for people to hear preaching outside of the regular Sunday worship service. You might call these meetings “Bible Studies.” These meetings became known as Lectureships.

Another issue for the Puritans was the establishment of Sunday as a Christian Sabbath. They not only thought this was a continuation of obedience to the Fourth Commandment (Exodus 20), but also necessary for the health and wellbeing of the church. They had strong sense of the man’s need for a day of rest and worship. This perspective of a Christian Sabbath took hold of the Christian culture well on into the 20th century. I remember as a child that Sunday was a day of worship and no businesses or retail grocery or department stores were open. The day was distinctively different. What a dramatic change has occurred wherein many Christians only attend church when it does not interfere with their children’s dance recitals, sports clubs, the lake, or profession football games.

These reforms were pursued and took place while Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603) was Queen of England. The Puritans were hopeful that Elizabeth would support these, and other, reforms since she was technically the head of the Church of England. She was a most capable politician and the Puritans soon came to realize that she was not going to change anything out of concern of offending her other subjects who were not Puritans or in favor of Puritanism. The hope then was when Elizabeth died, her successor, James I, would further the Puritan reforms.

James (1566 -1625) became king in 1603. Raised by Presbyterians, He did not like his Presbyterian tutors because they believed they could tell or instruct the king. They were not submissive enough to suit his tastes.  Therefore, when the Puritans wanted the king to make the Church of England more like the Scottish Presbyterian Church, he refused. Both James, and his son Charles I, labored against the Puritans.

In attempting to deny that they were “schematics aiming at the dissolution of the English Church,” the Puritans presented new requests for church reform to King James in what was called The Millenary Petition (1603). Signed by thousands of ministers, it contained several proposed reforms. These included (1) changes in the administration of baptism; (2) the need for self-examination before Communion; (3) replacing bishops with clergy who would preach; and (4) installing greater restraints on excommunicating laypersons and suspending ministers.

King James responded to The Millenary Petition in 1604. In considering the Puritan’s requests, he finally concluded “No bishop, no king.” He correctly understood that to remove bishops and other church hierarchy was to eventually strip the king of his church authority as head of the Church of England. This James refused to do.

Although King James agreed to produce a new English translation of the Bible (the King James Version), he demanded that all clergy and pastors conform the established liturgy and government of the Church of England. The king enforced this through his bishops.

Between 1604 to 1609, nearly 90 ministers were suspended from their pastorates, including John Robinson (1575-1625), who would leave England for the Netherlands. Accompanying Robinson was William Bradford (1589-1657), future governor of Plymouth Colony. Also suspended was William Ames (1576-1633) one of the greatest Puritan theologians.

This conflict between the Puritans and the crown intensified when Charles I (1600 –1649) became king in 1625. He attempted to re-introduce Catholic liturgy and prayer books back into Puritan Churches in England and Presbyterian Churches in Scotland. King Charles did not care about personal piety in the churches, but only about order and respect given to the king.

As you can see, the Puritans desire for personal piety was not a non-controversial matter. More to come.

Brief Bio:

William Ames (1576-1633)

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

Prominent Puritan preacher and theologian of England and the Netherlands. Educated at Christ’s College, Cambridge (B.A. 1598, M.A. 1601), he stayed on to become a fellow and teacher of Christ’s. As a student he was converted by the Puritan preaching of William Perkins, and throughout his life he associated himself with the more extreme Puritans. In 1610 Ames was expelled from Cambridge because of his Puritanism, and thereafter his career was destroyed in England.

Ames took refuge in the Netherlands, joining the large English-Scottish refugee community. During his immigrant years he served first as a military chaplain and then as professor of theology at the University of Franeker (1622-33), where he earned a doctor of theology degree. He was a strong Calvinist and opposed the Arminians, which reputation drew him to the Synod of Dort (1618-19) as an adviser to the Synod president. He died at Rotterdam.

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