An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church


The term has become an epithet without precise meaning. At one time it described a reform movement in the Church of England during the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It sought to carry the English Reformation beyond the stage reached in the reign of Elizabeth I. In this sense the term was first applied to those who wished to “purify” the church from the remnants of “popery.” Puritanism included representatives of a wide range of doctrines, from Presbyterians, independents, and separatists, through levellers and millenarians. Within English Puritan ranks there was much lively debate. Puritan literature of the seventeenth century was thus by definition polemic.

By the 1640’s, in an overheated atmosphere complicated by new ideas of political, economic and institutional reform, radical Puritanism could no longer be fitted into the constitutional structure of the English state.

Radical Puritans turned against the conservative element in Protestantism-against Presbyterianism, against the rule of elders, and finally against every form of authority in society, the state, or the law. The Puritan recognized only human experience-the authority derived from direct religious revelation, the “trying of the spirit.” In the Puritan view, the only true Christian person is the person who knows God. All that mattered was salvation and God’s light, wherever they might appear. Any person could find salvation. By the late 1640s radical Puritanism had spawned political radicalism in England and America.

Puritanism was an important force in England. It contributed to the idea of political liberty and democracy and to the development of the “nonconformist conscience.” However, in matters of religious life it spent its energies in sharpening distinctions with respect to questions of concern chiefly to students of political theory. In America, Puritans did not spend their energies debating with each other. They marked off the boundaries of new towns, enforced criminal laws, and fought Indians undistracted by theology or metaphysics. Allowing no dissent, they moved single-mindedly to the task of overcoming the unpredictable perils of the wilderness. If English Puritans were the precursors of modern democracy, those in America helped to found a nation.

Glossary definitions provided courtesy of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY,(All Rights reserved) from “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians,” Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.