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The Puritan's Convictions
Puritanism generally extended the thought of the English Reformation, with distinctive emphases on four convictions: (1) that personal salvation was entirely from God, (2) that the Bible provided the indispensable guide to life, (3) that the church should reflect the express teaching of Scripture, and (4) that society was one unified whole.
The Puritans believed that humankind was utterly dependent upon God for salvation. With their predecessors in England and with Luther and Calvin they believed that reconciliation with God came as a gift of his grace received by faith. They were Augustinians who regarded humans as sinners, unwilling and unable to meet the demands, or to enjoy the fellowship, of a righteous God apart from God's gracious initiative.
But Puritans also made distinctive contributions to the general Reformed idea of salvation. They advocated a "plain style" of preaching, as exemplified in the masterful sermons of John Dod (1555 - 1645) and William Perkins (1558 - 1602), which was consciously designed to point out simply the broad way of destruction and the strait gate to heaven.
They also placed a new emphasis on the process of conversion. In the journals and diaries of leaders like Thomas Shepard (1605 - 49) they charted the slow, and often painful, process by which God brought them from rebellion to obedience. They also spoke of salvation in terms of "covenant." In the notes to the Geneva Bible, the translation of proto - Puritans completed during the reign of Mary Tudor, emphasis was on a personal covenant of grace, whereby God both promised life to those who exercised faith in Christ and graciously provided that faith, on the basis of Christ's sacrificial death, to the elect.
Later Puritans expanded the idea of covenant to take in the organization of churches, seen most clearly in the rise of Congregationalism (or Independency) and the structuring of all society under God, of which the "Holy Commonwealths" of Massachusetts and Connecticut were the major examples.
With the early English Reformers the Puritans believed, second, in the supreme authority of the Bible. The use of Scripture, however, soon came to be a great cause of offense between Puritans and their Anglican opponents and among Puritans themselves. Puritans, Anglicans, and the many in between all believed in the Bible's final authority. But Puritans came to argue that Christians should do only what the Bible commanded. Anglicans contended rather that Christians should not do what the Bible prohibited. The difference was subtle but profound. Among Puritans considerable differences eventually appeared over what Scripture demanded, especially in questions relating to the church.
Some (mostly in England) contended for a presbyterian state - church organization, others (in Massachusetts and Connecticut) supported a congregational organization in league with the state, while still others (English Independents and Baptists as well as Roger Williams in New England) believed that the Bible mandated congregational churches separate from the state.
In short, Puritans disagreed with Anglicans about the way to interpret the Bible, but they differed among themselves about which biblical interpretations were best. The former disagreement dominated English religious life so long as the king and his episcopalian allies were in control. The latter came to the fore after the success of the Puritan Revolution, and it led to the disintegration of Puritanism in England.
These disagreements should not hide the Puritans' overriding commitment to the authority of Scripture. They made as serious an attempt as has ever been made in the English - speaking world to establish their lives on the basis of biblical instruction. When Puritan efforts to reform the kingdom of England faltered in the last years of Elizabeth's reign, they turned to the one sphere they could still control, their individual families.
It was during this period around 1600 that Puritans began to place new emphasis on the sabbath, to revive family worship, and to encourage personal acts of mercy to the sick and dying. When Puritan prospects brightened in the 164os, this "spiritualization of the household" emerged into the open.
Puritans believed, third, that the church should be organized from Scripture. Anglicans contended that episcopacy, since it was tried and tested by time and did not violate any command of Scripture, was a godly and appropriate way of organizing the church. Puritans responded that the defenders of episcopacy missed the point, for they neglected to follow the positive teachings of the Bible.
Puritans argued that Scripture laid down specific rules for constructing and governing churches. Furthermore, the Bible taught a system of church order that was not based on bishops. Puritans maintained this conviction even when they failed among themselves to agree on what that biblical system was. But even these disagreements were fruitful, for they grounded the modern polity of Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists as well.
The reason that Puritan beliefs concerning salvation, Scripture, and the church created such upheaval was their fourth basic conviction, that God had sanctioned the solidarity of society. Most Puritans believed that a single, coordinated set of authorities should govern life in society. The result was that Puritans sought nothing less than to make all England Puritan. Only late during the Puritan Commonwealth did ideas of toleration and of what is known today as pluralism arise, but these ideas were combated by most Puritans themselves and firmly set to rest for another generation by the restoration of Charles II.
From a modern vantage point the intolerance entailed by a unified view of society has harmed the Puritans' reputation. From a more disinterested perspective it is possible also to see great advantages. The Puritans succeeded in bursting the bonds of mere religiosity in their efforts to serve God. Puritanism was one of the moving forces in the rise of the English Parliament in the early seventeenth century.
For good and for ill, it provided a foundation for the first great political revolution in modern times. It gave immigrants to Massachusetts a social vision whose comprehensively Christian character has never been matched in America. And, for such a putatively uncreative movement, it liberated vast energies in literature as well.