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Presbyterianism’s Unusual Origins: A Review Article

Darryl G. Hart

Michael P. Winship. Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019, xiii + 351 pages, $28.00.

“Puritanism” is a word that has almost as many associations as “evangelicalism.” Likewise, Presbyterians in the United States have an awkward relationship with Puritanism if only because of the institutions that grew from it in North America. Although Puritanism as a reform movement in the Church of England could take Congregational, Presbyterian, or even moderate episcopal forms, in the United States the reformist English Protestantism that took root in New England left Congregationalism and the United Church of Christ as its denominational legacy. Once someone mentions the UCC (also known as Unitarians Considering Christ), conservative Presbyterians generally head for the doors. Indeed, ever since the 1801 Plan of Union between Presbyterians and Congregationalists to cooperate in planting churches in the Northwest Territory (which eventually became Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin), relations between the two denominations have been rocky. In 1837, Old School Presbyterians not only broke with their New School siblings, but they did so because of the infectious doctrines oozing into Presbyterian institutions thanks to New England theology taught at Yale Divinity School (for starters).

Thus, there are two roads—Presbyterian and Congregational—that American descendants of British Protestantism have traveled since the US founding. Michael Winship’s brilliant and original book Hot Protestants shows, from 1540 to 1700 relations between Presbyterians and Congregationalists were anything but smooth or straightforward.

Although contemporary conservative Presbyterians tend to look to Puritan sermons and devotional literature for instruction and inspiration, they rarely do so with an eye for historical context or ecclesiastical consequences. Puritanism as a form of Protestant devotion was the English-speaking equivalent of Pietism. It featured intense spiritual experiences, from conversion to daily Bible-reading, prayer, introspection, and more. Puritanism more narrowly was an effort, sometimes better-organized than others, to carry out reform of the Church of England. Originally it grew from frustration with what Queen Elizabeth and her advisors would allow. Often, the Puritan’s inspiration for further reform were the Reformed churches of Geneva and Zurich. Many English and Scottish Protestants experienced this firsthand while in exile, especially during Queen Mary Tudor’s reign (1553–58) as well as that of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542–67). The Stuart monarchy after Elizabeth only frustrated Puritans more. The Stuarts’ Scottish lineage gave Puritans additional political levers for pursuing ecclesiastical reformation thanks to alliances between the English and the Scots under a single crown. It was a very rough ride, and Winship’s book captures in wonderful and dramatic detail the difficult road that Puritanism traveled.

His story begins with John Hooper, a Cistercian monk at Cleeve Abbey, who converted to Protestantism around 1540 after reading tracts written by Reformed pastors from Zurich. Under Henry VIII’s reign and repression of some reformers, Hooper left England and settled in Zurich. When he returned to England, now under Edward VI, Hooper became a popular London preacher, known for his condemnation of England’s national sins. He also objected to the practices of wearing vestments and kneeling for the Lord’s Supper—hallmark offenses for hot Protestants. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, appointed Hooper to the bishopric of Gloucester but the former monk refused to wear vestments for the ceremony and went to prison for his convictions. Under threat of execution, Hooper relented and became Gloucester’s bishop.

About midway through the book is another episode involving the Presbyterian (by conviction since the Church of England was still Episcopalian) Christopher Love. He preached as a chaplain in 1645 to Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army and proclaimed the Lord’s blessing on the military’s recent victory in a battle against Charles I’s soldiers. But Cromwell’s military success proved costly for Presbyterians like Love. The New Model Army was home to Baptists, Independents, and Congregationalists. It reflected the sort of religious diversity that prevailed during the Commonwealth era (1649–60), a pluralism that Presbyterians opposed. As Cromwell gained more power, Presbyterians lost their standing and even had to meet surreptitiously. After the execution of the king, Cromwell’s government imprisoned Love for maintaining ties with Scots and seeking to hold England to the Solemn League and Covenant. For these treasonous acts, Love was beheaded.

These stories capture the flavor of Winship’s book—a series of episodes that reveal larger historical developments—and Love’s in particular underscores the inability of British Protestants to agree. All Puritans sought a reform of the Church of England that resembled the Reformed churches of Switzerland, not because Calvin or Heinrich Bullinger were international Protestant celebrities but because the Swiss had done the most to remove Roman Catholic elements from church practices. Even more, through Presbyterian polity they had implemented oversight of church members that encouraged holiness. The Swiss Reformation represented the reform of both institutions and persons. But the best path to implementing those ideals in England and Scotland was by no means clear. Presbyterians favored church polity that removed power from bishops and dispersed it to pastors and elders who could oversee congregational life according to biblical norms. Presbyterians also favored a national church. Congregationalists, in contrast, favored covenanted congregations, comprised of believers who could give evidence of their conversion experience. They also opposed a national church and favored religious freedom, which explains the religious diversity in Cromwell’s army.

From the beginning to the end of the seventeenth century, Presbyterians and Congregationalists usually found themselves at loggerheads not only about church reform but also about national politics. For Presbyterians, the Scots’ condition for joining the English parliament against Charles I, the Solemn League and Covenant, was the proverbial North Star. They hoped the Stuart monarchs would uphold their earlier vows to maintain and defend the true religion, first in Scotland and then in the Three Kingdoms (England, Scotland, and Ireland). As such, Presbyterians tended to be royalists while Congregationalists could wander into republicanism. New England’s state churches were another variation on Puritan religious and political policy. And one of the great strengths of Winship’s book is to tell the story of Puritanism on both sides of the Atlantic.

Hot Protestants also excels for putting British church-state relations into the context of early modern Britain’s tumultuous relations between crown and parliament. As much as contemporary Presbyterians debate two kingdoms, theonomy, or transformationalism, Protestants in the seventeenth century had access to political power and needed to make difficult choices for accomplishing reformation. Here the differences between Scotland and England are important since the Church of Scotland had achieved a measure of reformation, even back to the reign of James VI (then James I of England). The Second Book of Discipline (1578) gave the Scottish church many of the features of Presbyterian government. This was not true for England until Parliament, with the assistance of the Westminster Assembly, began to consider forming a Presbyterian Church of England. The political alliance with the Scots and the ratification of the Solemn League and Covenant gave additional appeal to Presbyterianism. But because of the diversity of English Puritans, and the appeal of Congregationalism and Independency to many, Presbyterianism never bore fruit in the form of an English national church.

In fact, the Civil War of the 1640s, the emergence of Cromwell, and the creation of the Commonwealth, insured that Presbyterianism in England remained a minority position. Meanwhile, from 1650 until the Glorious Revolution (1688–89), which relieved England and Scotland of the Stuarts and placed William and Mary on the throne, Presbyterians and Congregationalists vied for influence with kings, Parliament, and even bishops. Those political battles even took a toll on New England Puritanism, such that the royal charter (1692) that Massachusetts received from William and Mary, according to Winship, signaled the death of Puritan hopes for a godly commonwealth where church and magistrate closely cooperated. (Winship observes that Puritanism’s defeat was also a factor in the witch trials that afflicted Massachusetts towns in the 1690s.) The result of almost 150 years of hopes for and attempts at reform left Puritans far from what they had once envisioned. Presbyterianism prevailed in Scotland but lacked the vigor that earlier reformers had wanted.

How these alliances, controversies, and political schemes played out in the North American colonies and eventually in the United States are well beyond Winship’s account. At the same time, Winship’s book is essential reading for any Presbyterian curious about British antecedents to the rise and development of the church polity that American Presbyterians take for granted and that was implemented in America without any of the fanfare of civil war or regicide. Even better, Hot Protestants is a book that readers will not be able to put down.

Darryl G. Hart teaches history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, and serves as an elder in Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, January 2020

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