When the Reformation Came to New England

When the Reformation Came to New England

When most people think of the Protestant Reformation, their minds often latch onto the image of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the castle at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. From there, other names such as Calvin, Beza, Knox, and Zwingli are not too far behind. But what if I were to tell you that the Protestant Reformation had a strong and vibrant surge on the shores of America in the seventeenth century? Most Christian history textbooks all but forget the most radical of Reformers who fled persecution and settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts in the 1620s and 1630s.

In the wake of the Reformation, Europe had its hands full, trying to figure out what to do with the religious upheaval. Almost immediately, war erupted as the Roman Catholic Church lunged at the Reformers to snuff out the resistance and maintain control, but very quickly it became apparent that different measures were needed.

When a very Roman Catholic Queen Mary I came to power in 1553, she immediately lashed out at Protestantism, martyring 283 believers in 1555. But by 1560, Queen Elizabeth I had ascended the throne and worked to provide toleration for the dissenting Protestants. At this time, she established “the Elizabethan Compromise” which would draw together “Reformed or Calvinistic doctrine, the continuation of a liturgical and… Catholic form of worship, and an episcopal church government.”[1] Essentially, this move was designed to keep all parties happy, but the Puritan Reformers would have nothing of it. They were committed not only to reform the church, but also purify the church of the remaining elements of Roman Catholic liturgy and dogma.

But this task of purification was proving to be nearly impossible. Some of the English preachers were so unskilled and ignorant; others so puffed up and pretentious—they could barely lead the congregation in any sort of way of godliness. Historian Edmund S. Morgan notes,

“In England, they said, too many ministers substituted an affected eloquence for sound knowledge and indulged themselves ‘in [fond] fables to make their hearers [laugh], or in ostentation of learning of their Latin, their [Greek], their [Hebrew] tongue, and of their great reading of antiquities.’ Worse than these dilettante preachers were the ignorant and evil ministers, incapable of preaching at all.”[2]

Not only were the ministers awful, but the corruption in the church was prevalent. Regardless of one’s behavior, church membership was nearly freely granted, and since all disciplinary power was maintained solely by the bishops, there was no way for a church to rid themselves of sinning members. Therefore, church purification was impossible.

With no way for Puritans to reform the Church of England, many had no choice but to separate.

But the English Separatists were not simply able to dodge the Church of England at ease. Even the renowned King James I vowed to force the Puritans to conform or else he would “harry them out of the land.”[3] The Separatists were despised by their English countrymen, oppressed and derided. And for one congregation, the time to act was now.

In 1609, a group of Puritan Separatists in Scrooby, England decided to flee to Holland. Very quickly they realized that life was not much better there, and their children were still being exposed to the same revelry they found in England. And so, finally, they decided to set sail for the New World.

Most American schoolchildren grew up learning about the voyage of the Mayflower across impossible seas, landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620. We heard about their difficult first winter, the death of nearly half the settlers, and the first thanksgiving that followed once they had made contact with the native inhabitants. We know the stories; they seem almost like fairy tales to us now. But what was it that drove them to endure such hardship in fleeing England and Holland, braving the North Atlantic, and suffering tumultuous New England winters?

Purity of worship.

The Puritan believers were not just disciplined, they were also devoted. They valued good preaching, sound doctrine, holy living, and discipleship. The Church of England, even though technically “Protestant” in designation, still did not value faithfulness, righteousness, and individual soul liberty. Much of English religion was politicized. The fires of Reformation had simmered down to lukewarm coals. And while many migrated to American in the early 1600s for many reasons, many residents writing back to England argued that “the only valid reason for migrating to Massachusetts was religion.”[4] In short, the Puritans’ primary focus was to establish “pure” churches.

All of the best elements of the Reformation—sound doctrine, biblical preaching, church purity, education, the priesthood of all believers—these were the sought after elements in their striving for “pure” churches.

For a short season, the New England Puritans attained what they were striving for. While they failed to create “New Jerusalem” on American shores, they succeeded in creating a society that embraced Christianity.

However, this micro-utopia would not last…

 

[1] Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 7. Italics original.

[2] Edmund S. Morgan, Visible Saints: The History of the Puritan Idea. (New York: New York University Press, 1963), 7.

[3] B.K. Kuiper, The Church in History. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), 327.

[4] Everett Emerson, Puritanism in America: 1620-1750. (Boston: Twayne, 1977), 32.


For additional reading, see Nate’s book, Reviving New England.

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