The Puritans are a part of the fabric of our history. Many equate the values of founding with the values of Puritanism. This is incorrect, as we shall see.
Cromwell And The First Republic in England
America was not the first republic established by British leaders. After Elizabeth the First died, the Stewarts established a foot hold on the British monarchy, unifying Scotland and England when James the 6th became king, his new title being James the 1st. At the time strife between Catholics, Protestants, and the Anglican church were marked with torture and death, with each ruler forcing their subjects to reject the mores of the previous religion as specified by the former monarch. England experienced several civil wars from the 1603s until the 1660s, with the Puritans gaining the upper hand, headed by Oliver Cromwell, and they dissolved the monarchy to establish the Commonwealth of England in 1649.
The most interesting fact is that Cromwell executed King Charles – the first republic was formed by regicide. And while we would like to think that once the monarch was gone freedom was now the ultimate goal, this was not the case.
The actor who portrayed Oliver Cromwell is Richard Harris. An interesting thing to note is that Harris’ last role in Gladiator was also to portray an emperor who wanted to return Rome to the Senate to operate as a republic.
Calvinism and Reform
The Puritans were considered an extreme sect of Protestantism, following the teachings of John Calvin from Scotland. Their religious beliefs are characterized as the notion that one is chosen by God before birth to be saved or to be damned. This is known as Predestination, and it further stated that one must enter in direct covenant with God, and therefore much of the pageantry of the Anglican and Catholic church were unnecessary. “Austere” would be too mild a word to describe Puritan belief, as Man lives in the shadow of the original sin committed by Adam and Eve. Therefore while you may work to be a better Christian, you may not have been selected to be saved.
The Puritans hoped to establish a presbyterian style of church operations. This would operate separately from the Church of England, with a bicameral system of clergy and local church leaders.
Plymouth Rock Pilgrims were Actually ‘Separatists”
There was a faction of Puritans who felt that they needed immediate separation from the Church of England. These Seperatists are the Pilgrams who landed at Plymouth Rock, while their countrymen the Puritans would go on to establish the Commonwealth of England. This transpired prior to the Salem Witch trials that we discussed in Severed Conscience.
So who, then, were the Puritans? While the Separatists believed that the only way to live according to Biblical precepts was to leave the Church of England entirely, the Puritans thought they could reform the church from within. Sometimes called non-separating Puritans, this less radical group shared a lot in common with the Separatists, particularly a form of worship and self-organization called “the congregational way.”
While the Separatists sought freedom from the monarchs and Church of England, the Puritans hoped to work come with the proper rulers in place who would carry out their final religious reforms. In many ways it was like the federal and state system we have today.
The Puritans said, ‘It’s completely acceptable that this ecclesiastical structure is above us, but we’re going to operate as a congregation in this biblical way,’”
How Much Freedom Did the Puritans Bring to Their Countrymen?
We are taught that the Puritans sought freedom, but that was the freedom to enact what they felt were important religious reforms. While they believed that a Parliament was the ultimate form of governing England and instituting their rights to property, what resulted in many cases is not the same experiment that flourished after the American Revolution.
For example, prior to Cromwell leading Parliament and executing Charles the 1st for high treason, Parliament enacted a law that outlawed the practice of Christmas celebration. Puritanism was building to reshape society. The Parliament that Charles ordered to meet was the body who committed this act.
The fact that Christmas was made punishable by the Long Parliament in 1647, before Cromwell took power, is just one of the many myths surrounding Cromwell. In fact, it is more accurate to associate Cromwell with religious liberation, peace and political stability. Even his suppression of royalism was contextually sound and was nowhere near as cruel as is often argued.
Cromwell divided England in 11 sectors, each ruled by a General who had been loyal to Parliament and Cromwell. They were vested with the power to enforce the adoption of Puritanism. Several Constitutions were written, discarded, and during just a 7 year period. Again, vastly different than the American leaders after the American Revolution.
Cromwell’s first constitution, the Instrument of Government, could be said to be somewhat dictatorial, written by military man John Lambert and followed up with the subsequent rule of the Major Generals. The constitution was part of Cromwell’s quest for a ‘reformation of manners’ and was designed to punish ‘immoral’ behaviour among the general population. Among other things, it aimed to reduce drunkenness and sexual promiscuity, it is debatable how strictly this rule was enforced, and its effectiveness depended on the will and zeal of the individual Major Generals in each region. Furthermore, when it became apparent that this was unpopular and evocative of military power, it was repealed in favour of a new constitution.
Unlike America, Cromwell and the Puritans maintained a standing army of 30,000. Even Prince Charles did not have a standing army until the civil conflicts began. The largest was 18,000. Cromwell and the Puritans dissolved the House of Lords, and instead of maintaining elections for the House of Commons, representatives would be appointed based on merit. The irony here is that Cromwell was known for favoring ability of class of social station. Yet for the interim elections were suspended for Parliament.
The Protectorate – Not A Monarch
In 1653, Cromwell was at odds with his fellow Parliamentarians, and he established himself as the ruler of England. His son was to be given the title in case of his death.
Eventually the conflict between Cromwell and Parliament came to a head with Cromwell establishing the Protectorate (1653-58). This was essentially a monarchy by another name, with Cromwell at its head. His rule was a time of rigid social and religious laws on radical Protestant lines.
This was a time of rigid social restrictions, and while Cromwell was tolerant of Quakers and other sects, Puritan practices were to be enforced.
His belief in “Godly Reformation” led him to ban drunkenness, and other things he considered sinful activities. He banned enjoyment such as sports, inns, theatres, etc. as he believed if you worked hard you go to Heaven. Furthermore, Cromwell believed women and girls should dress in a proper manner. He banned the use of make-up and colorful dresses so women would wear long black dress that covered her from neck to toes. Furthermore, he banned Christmas as he wanted it to be about the birth of Christ instead of eating and drinking.
Why Is This Distinction Important?
While the work ethic and belief in merit and a ruling structure that is independent from a monarch are important part of the heritage we are vested with from the Puritans, the Commonwealth was in many ways a dictatorship. The rights of the individual were superseded by a rigid structure of religious dictates that lead to loss of property, loss of life, and loss of religious freedom which drove a continual swing of the pendulum between religious groups. 60 years after common rule by Parliament and the Great Restoration of 1660 brought back a monarch, who made promises of religious freedom, again.
In a post-modern society, those who wish to sweep Natural Law away equate the founding principles of the Constitution with the strict societal control of the Puritans. In fact, Natural Law was a wise reaction to the civil wars, torture and death. The Puritans would go on in the colonies to institute the same religious order that resulted in the deaths of the falsely accused.