Protestants behaving badly

Catholics had the Pope in Rome, King Philip in Spain, an armada, and schools of Jesuit missionaries to help them push back the English Reformation. Protestants who wanted to push it forward had only the unshakeable conviction of their own perfect righteousness. That was enough. England never returned to the Catholic fold, but Puritans drove the nation into civil war not forty years after Queen Elizabeth’s death.

John Calvin

John Calvin

Who were they?

The word ‘Puritan’ appears in print in 1565, according to the OED. It’s not a compliment, now or then. It indicates people who are overly punctilious in matters of religion, insisting on some self-defined ‘pure’ version of every last thing. They were also called ‘precisians,’ a word my mind’s ear rejects on aesthetic grounds. They called themselves the ‘godly,’ implying, of course, that everyone else was un.

They were English men and women who wanted to push the Reformation all the way, erasing every last trace of Romish superstition from every English parish and every English heart. They were mostly middle class: sturdy yeomen, skilled craftsmen, and merchants. A few members of the aristocracy shared their views, notably the Earl of Leicester and his brother, the Earl of Warwick. Sir Francis Walsingham, the Secretary of State, was another major supporter. “Opposed to this Protestant world-view [among the Privy Council]  was the secular, disengaged mind of the queen, shared in part by Burghley and more fully by Christopher Hatton and the earl of Sussex” (Collinson, p. 166.)

Puritan women, like Catholic women, were among the strongest supporters. “It was the women of London who occupied the front line in defense of their preachers, and with a sense of emotional engagement hardly exceeded by the suffragettes of three and a half centuries later (Collinson, p. 93.)” Remember that next time you read something about how helpless and oppressed women were. They had few legal rights, but that didn’t stop them from radical political action.

What did they want?

They wanted worship and life in general to be based as literally as possible on the word of the Bible. They loathed everything they perceived as Catholic and they were alert to any trace of idolatry. Among the things they wanted to reform were empty works, temporal excesses, prelatical pomp, the abuses of the ecclesiastical courts, images, prayers to the saints, pilgrimages and vows, feigned miracles like those at Canterbury and Walsingham, temple-works, good intents, blind zeal, superstitious devotion, painting of tabernacles, gilding of images, setting up of candles, unpreaching prelates, surplices, Maypoles, hot cross buns, Easter, and Christmas (two notoriously pagan holidays.) And stop that dancing.

Masters and students at Cambridge showed their colors, hissing at preachers who appeared in church wearing the traditional surplice and square cap. Puritan botanist William Turner trained his pet dog to leap up and snatch the square caps from heads of conforming clerics. Men sat in their pews hissing and knocking during sermons delivered from the Common Book of Prayers. Pickled sermons, empty babbling: a real preacher preached from the heart. An extremist might brag that he was ignorant of the contents of the prayer book. Yea, brother!

Puritans were highly sociable within their own circles. People called them gadabouts, since they loved to ride around to visit every preacher in the county; sermon-tasting, it was called. A preacher might go from house to house in the evening, enjoying a meal and afterwards prayer. Some preachers, famous for the super-hot sermons, lived hand-to-mouth in this fashion, traveling from parish to parish in between stints in the Clink for religious intransigence.

Both Puritanism and Catholicism were sustained in this manner, in a network of small groups. “The Elizabethan Commonwealth was no police state, and it was not thought acceptable that the law should interfere with the social gatherings of friends and neighbors” (Collinson, p. 376.) Remember that, next time you read a novel representing Elizabeth’s government as something like totalitarian East Germany. There was no such thing as Tudor despotism.

Very devout Asses

Ordinary people found them intolerable. They called them busybodies, fault-finding precisians obsessed with trivia. They were constantly poking their noses into other people’s business, criticizing anything that failed to conform to their idea of godly, scripture-based behavior and belief.  A popular saying of the day said it thus: “He loves God with all his soul, but hates his neighbor with all his heart.” Even Leicester was impatient with the “carping, curious Calvinist spirit.” He had never in his life seen “more envy stirring and less charity used” than in godly circles.donkey

These religious radicals were a serious problem, though. They divided communities, disrupted other people’s worship and traditional celebrations. Puritans had a strong presence in Parliament and tended to push harsher measures against Catholics, among other religious meddlings. They could not leave anything alone. Nothing was indifferent to them. They were absolutists who couldn’t wait for the church to evolve, for rising literacy to overtake superstition, for urbanization to snuff out village customs. They couldn’t let other people enjoy a good old-fashioned Sunday in peace. The only point in their favor was that they weren’t Catholics.

The literati made endless fun of them. Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is a hyper-critical, social-climbing fool. Angelo in Measure for Measure is another hypocrite, covering his lust with precisian criticism. Ben Jonson and Thomas Nashe were merciless. Nashe is so much fun on this theme, I’ll let him end this missive.

From the Unfortunate Traveller: “Very devout Asses they were, for all they were so dunstically set forth, and such as thought they knew as much of God’s mind as a richer men: why, inspiration was their ordinary familiar, and buzzed in their ears like a Bee in a bose everyhowever what newes from heaven, hell, and the land of whipperginnie: displease them who durst, he should have his mittimus to damnation ex tempore; they would vaunt there was not a peas’ difference betwixt them and the Apostles.”



Collinson, Patrick. 1967. The Elizabethan Puritan Movement. Berkeley: The University of California Press.

 Porter, Henry C. (1958.) Reformation and Reaction in Tudor Cambridge. Cambridge at the University Press.

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