This article is a brief research undertaken into the rise, growth, and dominance of the Puritans from the United Kingdom to the whole of Europe. The Lord Jesus declared that he would build his church and the gates of Hades would not prevail against it (Matthew 18:16).
Consequently, in the story of the Puritans, we see the continual fulfilment of this verse. Who were the Puritans? The historian Dr Nick Needham puts it succinctly like this, “Puritans were by definition Anglicans. They were the party within Anglicanism who sought to reform their church further than had been achieved at the Elizabethan settlement of 1559.”1 Below we trace their story. The Reformation in England took a form very different from that on the Continent and in Scotland. It was carried out directly under Henry Tudor VIII (1509-47) who looked neither to Luther nor Calvin for a model. On the contrary, King Henry wrote against Martin Luther’s Reformation in 1521. His treatise entitled, “On the Seven Sacraments,” earned him the title of “Defender of the Faith” by Pope Leo X. But the break from Roman Catholicism came in 1534 through Acts of Parliament. The most important was the Act of Supremacy by which the king was declared to be the “Supreme Head of the Church of England”. It was also declared that “the Roman Pontiff has no greater jurisdiction bestowed on him by God in the Holy Scriptures than any other foreign bishop.”2 At first the change in England could scarcely be called a Reformation. Matters remained virtually as before, except that now the king was head of the Church, not the Pope.

However, in 1536, the king himself prepared Ten Articles of Religion. They claimed to be based on the Bible and the ancient creeds, but still retained Roman Catholic elements as regards to baptism and the Real Presence (in the Lord’s Supper). Nevertheless, at the helm of these major events were two prominent Protestant leaders Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Thomas Cromwell, the Chief Minister of State. The two made the English empire independent of the papacy. It included an English translation of the Bible in 1539 called the Great Bible. It was a great step forward when it was ordered that a large Bible should be placed in each church and that the people be encouraged to read it. Despite this, Henry VIII himself never embraced Protestantism, remaining a traditional devout Catholic in most of his beliefs (apart from his rejection of the papacy). John Brown writes, “The church service went on as it had done before and as those of their fathers before them.” When Henry VIII died in 1547, his son Edward Tudor VI (1547–1553) took over the monarchy. The youthful king, born in 1537, is described as the Josiah of the Old Testament. He was a youth of genuine piety and a frank and avowed friend of the Reformation, due in no small measure to Archbishop Cranmer’s training.4 The cruel Six Articles of Henry VIII and other repressive legislation were swept away and the people became free to form their own views on doctrine. The Lord’s Supper was now observed in Protestant fashion and the clergy were allowed to marry.

The publication of the First Prayer-Book of Edward VI (helped by Cranmer) in 1549 was a great step forward. The whole service was now in English for the first time and the new Prayer-Book had to be used in every church, replacing the Roman Catholic Missal (Service Book). The success of the transformation could also be attributed to the introduction of the printing press that made Reformed literature accessible to the masses. It was also due to the powerful preaching of the Scottish Reformer John Knox and men like Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and John Hooper, also styled as the forerunners of English Puritanism. These men greatly strengthened the hands of those who maintained that the Reformation in England was incomplete and that too much of the discipline, ritual, and ceremonial of the Roman Church still remained. They wanted to model the Anglican Church on the pattern of the continental Protestantism, especially on that of Geneva. Otherwise, the major influence on English Reformation came from John Calvin and the Swiss Reformers like Ulrich Zwingli, Peter Martyr and Martin Bucer. In 1552 came the Second Prayer-Book of Edward VI (again the work of Cranmer), the aim of which was to make the worship of England more like that of the continental Reformed churches and less like the Church of Rome.

Unfortunately, the death of the youthful Edward VI in 1553 led to a counter Reformation for the English Church. This was when Queen Mary I (1553–1558), nicknamed “Bloody” Mary, ascended to the Tudor throne. She was Roman Catholic. Hence, she restored Catholicism as a state religion and went on to abolish Protestantism. The persecution that she introduced claimed the death of nearly 300 men and women who were burnt at the stake. Prominent among them were Cranmer, Hooper, and Ridley. The other leading churchmen fled to the Continent in order to escape her wrath. Some found refuge in Germany and others in Calvin’s Geneva. Brown writes, “It has been truly said that her cruelties, her martyr-fires by the loathing which they produced in the minds of English men did more to establish the Reformation than any other single cause.” Of course, the exiled church later returned embracing the tenets of Zwinglian-type of simpler church polity and biblical and spiritual forms of worship, which were later to change the course of the English Church. Puritanism was still in its embryonic stage.

The death of “Bloody” Mary in 1558 ushered into power her half-sister Elizabeth Tudor I (1558-1603). She was a Protestant and so the English Church was reclaimed to Protestantism. Upon her accession, she enacted what is known as the “Elizabethan Settlement” of religion in 1559. It reintroduced the Act of Supremacy, which declared the Queen to be Supreme Governor of the Church of England and a new Act of Uniformity, which re-introduced the Second Prayer Book of Edward VI’s reign with a few omissions and additions. The Act of Uniformity made it obligatory for all to join in but one public worship according to the rules already laid down. Unfortunately, the Queen insisted that the law concerning vestments and ornaments should be as in the Prayer Book of 1549, which was much less Protestant than that of 1552. These impositions and others upon the clergy introduced divisions and dissentions. Those who accepted and
adhered to them were called “conformists” and the “non-conformists” were later to be known as the Puritans (or as Precisionists) for they objected and said the reformation of the church was not yet complete. They advocated further reformation. Among the non-conformist advocates was Thomas Cartwright who contended that the “Church was entitled to regulate its doctrine, polity, and worship by the Word of God without restriction by the State; the head of the Commonwealth was only a member of the Church, not its Governor; and Episcopacy, as then known in England, was of human growth.”8 These were the principles afterwards adopted by the Puritans as opposed to the Elizabethan Settlement that tended towards episcopacy. They were also adopted in the Westminster Assembly in the 17th century.

The insufficiently Protestant character of the Elizabethan (episcopal)
Anglican Church in the 1559 settlement is what subsequently led to the
emergence of “Separatist congregations” functioning outside of the
establishment of the state church. They registered the first great rift in the
English national church. The leaders in these Separatist congregations were mostly learned men from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. These cultured Puritans stood for simplicity in worship, strictly in accordance with New Testament teaching. They increased rapidly in numbers and influence during the Stuart monarchy that followed under King James I (1603–1625), Charles I (1625–1649), under the abolition of the monarchy by Oliver Cromwell (1648–1658), under the restoration of the monarchy with Charles II (1660– 1685), James II (1685–1688) and the accession of Mary II and William III (1688–1702).9 Under this umbrella were born the Presbyterians and other Independents or Congregationalists such as the Baptists, Arminians, Antinomians, Fifth Monarchists, Seekers, Levellers, etc. When the monarchy was restored in 1660, Charles II reenacted the Act of Uniformity (1662). This decision unfortunately led to the great schism of all time within the Protestant movement. It led to the ejection of the Non-conformist Puritans en mass often known as the great Dissent. However, in the Providence of God, victory finally came in 1689 when Parliament enshrined in its constitution the liberty of conscience and this is what gave rise to religious toleration and freedom for all Protestants and the English throne thereafter remained Protestant to date.

In conclusion, the Puritans arrested the growth of absolute government in England under the Tudors and the Stuart monarchy. They pledged themselves to resist to death all interference of the king or queen in the affairs of the church. They contended that King Jesus was the only rightful Head of the church of God and thus could not submit to the intervention of the country’s monarch in matters of church and conscience. Their ultimate achievement was the enactment of the liberty of conscience as contained in the Toleration Act of September 1650 under the Puritan Oliver Cromwell and in the 1689 enactment. This gave the freedom for all Protestants to practice their faith without interference or coercion by a king, bishops, parliaments, or presbyters. The Lord truly said, “I will build my church and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” Amen!

Brown, John. The English Puritans. Cambridge: University Press, 1910. WEB.
Houghton, S.M. Sketches From Church History. Edinburgh: The Banner of
Truth Trust, 1980. Print. WEB
Needham, Nick. 2000 Years of Christ’s Power, Vol.4: The Age of Religious
Conflict. Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2016. Print.
Renwick, A. M and A. M. Harman. The Story of the Church. Leicester: Intervarsity
Press, 1999. Print
10 Needham, 25