Following the conclusion of the English Civil War (1642-1648), and the publishing of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), the Puritans continued to experience difficulties. Partly this was due to their becoming in control of the government along with seeking to influence the church.
Increased tensions occurred following the Puritan victories under the military leadership of Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658). Following the creation of a new Commonwealth, the political disagreements between Christians led to government gridlock. Therefore, Cromwell, as head of state, dissolved Parliament in 1653 and singularly ruled the country as Lord Protector. This continued until his death in 1658.
Religious freedoms flourished under Cromwell’s tenure. Leading Puritans, such as John Owen, were appointed to prestigious positions such as Oxford University. However, the political leadership which followed Cromwell, including his son Richard, failed. The English Monarchy resurrected in 1660 under King Charles II. This resulted in a return to the days of Puritan persecution. Many Puritan pastors, including John Bunyan and Richard Baxter, were imprisoned.
As Dr. Joel Beeke explains, “In 1662, the Act of Uniformity required Puritan ministers to repudiate their denominational ordinations, renounce their oath of the Solemn League and Covenant, and be re-ordained under the bishops. Nearly two thousand minsters (a fifth of all the clergy) refused to conform and were ejected from their parishes on St. Bartholomew’s Day, August 24, 1662.”
Additionally, The Conventicle Act of 1664 banned those who would not conform to government edicts from preaching in fields and in homes. The Five Mile Act of 1665 prohibited ministers from coming within five miles of their former churches or the town in which they were located.
However, the Puritans continued to preach, write, and defend the truth of God’s Word. Some of the most cherished classics were born during this intense time of persecution.
Sadly, the influence of the Puritans began to wane in the mid-17th century. While there would remain small vestiges of Puritan preaching, the widespread influence of Puritanism never reoccurred.
Matthew Henry (1662-1714)
Excerpt from Meet the Puritans
by Dr. Joel Beeke and Randall J. Pederson
Matthew was Philip Henry’s second son. Born prematurely to his mother Katherine Henry, he apparently suffered from a weak constitution during his childhood. But what he lacked in physical health he made up for in spiritual vigor.
Schooled by his gifted father till he was eighteen, Henry went on to study at a Nonconformist academy in Islington, then a village near London. After 1662, Nonconformists like Henry were barred from graduating from either of the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge. As a result, various Nonconformist academies had come into existence to provide a liberal arts education and training for ministry.
The tutor at this academy was an eminent Presbyterian scholar, Thomas Doolittle (1631-1707), who had been converted as a boy in Kidderminster under the preaching of Richard Baxter (1615-1691). In 1682, however, persecution forced the academy to move, and Henry returned home.
Henry was the author of a goodly number of publications, some of which had a wide circulation in the years following his death — for example, A Communicant’s Companion (a treatise on the frame of heart in which to receive the Lord’s Supper written in 1704) and Directions for Daily Communion with God (1712). But the work for which Henry is best known is undoubtedly The Exposition of the Old and New Testaments, otherwise known as Matthew Henry’s Commentary.
Henry had begun this massive work in November 1704. By the time of his death ten years later, the project had got as far as the end of the book of Acts. It would be finished by a number of ministers after his death.
The commentary is quintessentially Puritan. It focused on biblical spirituality and was alert to the need to glorify God in the whole of life. It was also chock-full of the terse and piquant aphorisms that the Puritans delighted to use to penetrate the hearts of their hearers and readers.
Soli deo Gloria!