Democratic Thinker: History of the Puritans: Preface, Vol I

Background of the American Revolution

No one can understand the foundations of the American nation without understanding the Protestant Reformation—in particular the Dissenters (or Puritans) who brought the ideals of religious toleration and individual accountability with them to America. Daniel Neal, their chronicler, documented their history in a four volume series during the 1730s. The prefaces to each volume contain a brief synopsis of the volume.

I have endeavoured to acquaint myself thoroughly with the times of which I write; and as I have no expectations from any party of Christians, I am under no temptation to disguise their conduct.

Preface to VOL. I;
The History of the Puritans.


Daniel Neal.

THE design of the following work is to preserve the memory of those great and good men among the reformers, who lost their preferments in the church, for attempting a farther reformation of its discipline and ceremonies; and to account for the rise and progress of that separation from the national establishment which subsists to this day.

To set this in a proper light it was necessary to look back upon the sad state of religion before the Reformation, and to consider the motives that induced King Henry VIII. to break with the pope, and to declare the Church of England an independent body, of which himself, under Christ, was the supreme head upon earth. This was a bold attempt, at a time when all the powers of the earth were against him; and could not have succeeded without an overruling direction of Divine Providence. But as for any real amendment of the doctrines or superstitions of Popery, any farther than was necessary to secure his own supremacy, and those vast revenues of the church which he had grasped into his hands, whatever his majesty might design, he had not the honour to accomplish.

The Reformation made a quick progress in the short reign of King Edward VI., who had been educated under Protestant tutors, and was himself a prodigious genius for his age; he settled the doctrines of the church, and intended a reformation of its government and laws; but his noble designs were obstructed by some temporising bishops, who, having complied with the impositions of King Henry VIII. were willing to bring others under the same yoke; and to keep up an alliance with the church of Rome, lest they should lose the uninterrupted succession of their characters from the apostles. The controversy that gave rise to the Separation began in this reign, on occasion of Bishop Hooper’s refusing to be consecrated in the Popish habits. This may seem an unreasonable scruple in the opinion of some people, but was certainly an affair of great consequence to the Reformation, when the habits were the known badges of Popery; and when the administrations of the priests were thought to receive their validity from the consecrated vestments, as I am afraid many, both of the clergy and common people, are too inclinable to apprehend at this day. Had the reformers fixed upon other decent garments, as badges of the episcopal or priestly office, which had no relation to the superstitions of Popery, this controversy had been prevented.—But the same regard to the old religion was had in revising the liturgy, and translating it into the English language; the reformers, instead of framing a new one in the language of Holy Scripture, had recourse to the offices of the Church of Rome, leaving out such prayers and passages as were offensive, and adding certain responses to engage the attention of the common people, who till this time had no concern in the public devotions of the Church, as being uttered in an unknown tongue. This was thought a very considerable advance, and as much as the times would bear, but was not designed for the last standard of the English reformation; however, the immature death of young King Edward put an end to all further progress.

Upon the accession of Queen Mary, Popery revived by the supremacy’s being lodged in a single hand; and within the compass of little more than a year, became a second time the established religion of the church of England: the statutes of King Edward were repealed, and the penal laws against heretics were put in execution against the reformers; many of whom, after a long imprisonment, and cruel trials of mockings and scourgings, made a noble confession of their faith before many witnesses, and sealed it with their blood. Great numbers fled into banishment, and were entertained by the reformed states of Germany, Switzerland, and Geneva, with great humanity; the magistrates enfranchising them, and appointing churches for their public worship. But here began the fatal division; some of the exiles were for keeping to the liturgy of King Edward, as the religion of their country, while others, considering that those laws were repealed, apprehended themselves at full liberty; and having no prospect of returning home, they resolved to shake off the remains of antichrist, and to copy after the purer forms of those churches among whom they lived. Accordingly the congregation at Frankfort, by the desire of the magistrates, began upon the Geneva model, with an additional prayer for the afflicted state of the Church of England at that time; but when Dr. Cox, afterward Bishop of Ely, came with a new detachment from England, he interrupted the public service by answering aloud after the minister, which occasioned such a disturbance and division as could never be healed. Mr. Knox and Mr. Whittingham, with one half of the congregation, being obliged to remove to Geneva, Dr. Cox and his friends kept possession of the church at Frankfort, till there arose such quarrels and contentions among themselves, as made them a reproach to the strangers among whom they lived. Thus the separation began.

When the exiles, upon the accession of Queen Elizabeth, returned to England, each party were for advancing the Reformation according to their own standard. The queen, with those that had weathered the storm at home, were only for restoring King Edward’s liturgy, but the majority of the exiles were for the worship and discipline of the foreign churches, and refused to comply with the old establishment, declaiming loudly against the Popish habits and ceremonies. The new bishops, most of whom had been their companions abroad, endeavoured to soften them for the present, declaring they would use all their interests at court to make them easy in a little time. The queen also connived at their nonconformity, till her government was settled, but then declared roundly, that she had fixed her standard, and would have all her subjects conform to it; upon which the bishops stiffened in their behaviour, explained away their promises, and became too severe against their dissenting brethren.

In the year 1564, their lordships began to show their authority, by urging the clergy of their several dioceses to subscribe the liturgy, ceremonies, and discipline, of the church; when those that refused were first called Puritans, a name of reproach derived from the Cathnri, or Puritani, of the third century after Christ, but proper enough to express their desires of a more pure form of worship and discipline in the church. When the doctrines of Arminius took place in the latter end of the reign of James I. those that adhered to Calvin’s explication of the five disputed points were called Doctrinal Puritans; and at length, says Mr. Fuller, the name was improved to stigmatise all those who endeavoured in their devotions to accompany the minister with a pure heart, and who were remarkably holy in their conversations. A Puritan therefore was a man of severe morals, a Calvinist in doctrine, and a Nonconformist to the ceremonies and discipline of the church, though they did not totally separate from it.

The queen, having conceived a strong aversion to these people, pointed all her artillery against them; for besides the ordinary courts of the bishops, her majesty erected a new tribunal, called the Court of High Commission, which suspended and deprived men of their livings, not by the verdict of twelve men upon oath, but by the sovereign determination of three commissioners of her majesty’s own nomination, founded not upon the statute laws of the realm, but upon the bottomless deep of the canon law; and instead of producing witnesses in open court to prove the charge, they assumed a power of administering an oath ex officio, whereby the prisoner was obliged to answer all questions the court should put him, though never so prejudicial to his own defence: if he refused to swear, he was imprisoned for contempt; and if he took the oath, he was convicted upon his own confession.

The reader will meet with many examples of the high proceedings of this court, in the course of this history; of their sending their pursuivants to bring ministers out of the country, and keeping them in town at excessive charges; of their interrogatories upon oath, which were almost equal to the Spanish Inquisition; of their examinations and long imprisonments of ministers without bail, or bringing them to a trial; and all this not for insufficiency, or immorality, or neglect of their cures, but for not wearing a white surplice, for not baptizing with the sign of the cross, or not subscribing to certain articles that had no foundation in law. A fourth part of all the preachers in England were under suspension from one or other of these courts, at a time when not one beneficed clergyman in six was capable of composing a sermon. The edge of all those laws that were made against Popish recusants, who were continually plotting against the queen, was turned against Protestant Nonconformists; nay, in many cases, they had not the benefit of the law; for as Lord Clarendon rightly observes, Queen Elizabeth carried her prerogative as high as in the worst times of King Charles I. “They who look back upon the council-books of those times, (says his lordship), and upon the acts of the Star-Chamber then, shall find as high instances of power and sovereignty upon the liberty and property of the subject, as can be since given. But the art, order, and gravity, of those proceedings (where short, severe, constant rules, were set, and smartly pursued, and the party felt only the weight of the judgment, not the passion of his judges) made them less taken notice of, and so less grievous to the public, though as intolerable to the person.”

These severities, instead of reconciling the Puritans to the Church, drove them farther from it; for men do not care to be beat from their principles by the artillery of canons, injunctions, and penal laws; nor can they be in love with a church that uses such methods of conversion. A great deal of ill blood was bred in the nation by these proceedings; the bishops lost their esteem with the people, and the number of Puritans was not really lessened, though they lay concealed, till in the next age they got the power into their hands, and shook off the yoke.

The reputation of the Church of England has been very much advanced of late years, by the suspension of the penal laws, and the legal indulgence granted to Protestant dissenters. Long experience has taught us, that uniformity in doctrine and worship, enforced by penal laws, is not the way to the Church’s peace; that there may be a separation from a true church without schism; and schism within a church, without separation; that the indulgence granted by law to Protestant Nonconformists, which has now subsisted above forty years, has not been prejudicial to Church or State, but rather advantageous to both; for the revenues of the Established Church have not been lessened; a number of poor have been maintained by the Dissenters, which must otherwise have come to the parish; the separation has kept up an emulation among the clergy; quickened them to their pastoral duty, and been a check upon their moral behaviour: and I will venture to say, whenever the separate assemblies of Protestant Nonconformists shall cease, and all men be obliged to worship at their parish churches, that ignorance and laziness will prevail among the clergy; and that the laity in many parts of the country will degenerate into superstition, profaneness, and downright atheism. With regard to the state: it ought to be remembered, that the Protestant Dissenters have always stood by the laws and constitution of their country; that they joined heartily in the glorious revolution of King William and Queen Mary, and suffered for their steady adherence to the Protestant succession in the illustrious house of his present majesty, when great numbers that called themselves churchmen were looking another way; for this, the Schism-Bill and other hardships were put upon them, and not for their religious differences with the Church; for if they would have joined the administration at that time, it is well known they might have made much better terms for themselves: but as long as there is a Protestant Dissenter in England, there will be a friend of liberty, and of our present happy constitution. Instead therefore of crushing them, or comprehending them within the Church, it must be the interest of all true lovers of their country, even upon political views, to ease their complaints, and to support and countenance their Christian liberty.

For though the Church of England is as free from persecuting principles as any establishment in Europe, yet still there are some grievances remaining, which wise and good men of all parties wish might be reviewed; not to mention the subscriptions which affect the clergy; there is the act of the twenty-fifth of King Charles II. for preventing dangers arising from Popish recusants, commonly called the Test-Act, “which obliges, under very severe penalties, all persons, [of the laity] bearing any office, or place of trust or profit (besides taking the oaths of allegiance and supremacy, and subscribing a declaration against transubstantiation), to receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper according to the usage of the Church of England, in some parish church, on a Lord’s Day, immediately after divine service and sermon, and to deliver a certificate of having so received it, under the hands of the respective ministers and churchwardens, proved by two credible witnesses upon oath, to be recorded in court.” It appears by the title of this act, and by the disposition of the Parliament at that time, that it was not designed against Protestant Nonconformists; but the Dissenters in the house generously came in to it, to save the nation from Popery; for when the court, in order to throw out the bill, put them upon moving for a clause to except their friends, Mr. Love, who had already declared against the dispensing power, stood up, and desired that the nation might first be secured against Popery, by passing the bill without any amendment, and that then, if the house pleased, some regard might be had to Protestant Dissenters; in which, says Mr. Echard, he was seconded by most of his party. The bill was voted accordingly, and another brought in for the ease of his majesty’s Protestant dissenting subjects, which passed the Commons, but before it could get through the Lords, the king came to the house and prorogued the Parliament. Thus the Protestant Nonconformists, out of their abundant zeal for the Protestant religion, shackled themselves, and were left upon a level with Popish recusants.

It was necessary to secure the nation against Popery at that time, when the presumptive heir of the crown was of that religion; but whether it ought not to have been done by a civil rather than by a religious test, I leave with the reader. The obliging all persons in places of civil trust to receive the holy sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, seems to be a hardship upon those gentlemen, whose manner of life loudly declares their unfitness for so sacred a solemnity, and who would not run the hazard of eating and drinking unworthily, but that they satisfy themselves with throwing off the guilt upon the impostors. Great Britain must not expect an army of saints; nor is the time yet come, when all her officers shall be peace, and her exactors righteousness. It is no less a hardship upon a great body of his majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, who are qualified to serve their king and country, in all offices of civil trust, and would perform their duty with all cheerfulness, did they not scruple to receive the sacrament after the usage of the Church of England, or to prostitute a sacred and religious institution, as a qualification for a civil employment. I can see no inconvenience either to Church or State, if his majesty, as the common father of his people, should have the service of all his subjects, who are willing to swear allegiance to his royal person and government; to renounce all foreign jurisdiction, and to give all reasonable security not to disturb the Church of England, or any of their fellow-subjects, in the peaceable enjoyment of their religious or civil rights and properties. Besides, the removing this grievance would do honour to the Church of England itself, by obviating the charge of imposition, and by relieving the clergy from a part of their work, which has given some of them very great uneasiness: but I am chiefly concerned for the honour of religion and public virtue, which are wounded hereby in the house of their friends. If therefore, as some conceive, the sacramental test be a national blemish, I humbly conceive, with all due submission, the removal of it would be a public blessing.

The Protestant Nonconformists observe with pleasure the right reverend fathers of the Church owning the cause of religious liberty, “that private judgment ought to be formed upon examination, and that religion is a free and unforced thing.” And we sincerely join with the Lord-bishop of Lichfield and Coventry, in the preface to his excellent Vindication of the Miracles of our Blessed Saviour, “in congratulating our country on the enjoyment of their civil and ecclesiastical liberties within their just and reasonable bounds, as the most valuable blessings;” though we are not fully satisfied with the reasonableness of those bounds his lordship has fixed. God forbid that any among us should be patrons of open profaneness, irreligion, scurrility, or ill manners, to the established religion of the nation; much less that we should countenance any who blasphemously revile the founder of it, or who deride whatsoever is sacred! No; we have a fervent zeal for the honour of our Lord and Master, and are desirous to “contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints” with all sorts of spiritual weapons; but we do not yet see a necessity of stopping the mouths of the adversaries of our holy religion with fines and imprisonments, even though, to their own infamy and shame, they treat it with indecency: let scandal and ill manners be punished as they deserve, but let not men be terrified from speaking out their doubts, or proposing their objections against the Gospel revelation, which we are sure will bear a thorough examination; and though the late ungenerous attacks upon the miracles of our blessed Saviour, may have had an ill influence upon the giddy and unthinking youth of the age, they have given occasion to the publishing such a number of incomparable defences of Christianity, as have confirmed the faith of many, and must satisfy the minds of all reasonable inquirers after truth.

Nor do we think it right to fix the boundaries of religious liberty upon the degree of people’s differing from the national establishment, because enthusiasts or Jews have an equal right with Christians to worship God in their own way; to defend their own peculiar doctrines, and to enjoy the public protection, as long as they keep the peace, and maintain no principles manifestly inconsistent with the safety of the government they live under.

But his lordship apprehends he has a chain of demonstrable propositions to maintain his boundaries: he observes, “1. That the true ends of government cannot subsist without religion, no reasonable man will dispute it. 2. That open impiety, or a public opposition made to, and an avowed contempt of, the established religion, which is a considerable part of the Constitution, do greatly promote the disturbance of the public peace, and naturally tend to the subversion of the whole Constitution.” It is here supposed that one particular religion must be incorporated into the Constitution, which is not necessary to the ends of government; for religion and civil government are distinct things, and stand upon a separate basis. Religion in general is the support of civil government, and it is the office of the civil magistrate to protect all his dutiful and loyal subjects in the free exercise of their religion; but to incorporate one particular religion into the Constitution, so as to make it part of the common law, and to conclude from thence, that the Constitution, having a right to preserve itself, may make laws for the punishment of those that publicly oppose any one branch of it, is to put an effectual stop to the progress of the Reformation throughout the whole Christian world: for by this reasoning our first reformers must be condemned; and if a subject of France, or the ecclesiastical states, should at this time write against the usurped power of the Pope; or expose the absurdities of transubstantiation, adoration of the host, worshipping of images, &c., it would be laudable for the legislative powers of those countries to send the writer to the galleys, or shut him up in a dungeon, as a disturber of the public peace, because Popery is supported by law, and is a very considerable part of their constitution.

But to support the government’s right to enact penal laws against those that opposed the established religion, his lordship is pleased to refer us to the edicts of the first Christian emperors out of the Codex Theodosianus, composed in the fifth century, which acquaints us with the sentiments of that and the preceding age; but says nothing of the doctrine of Scripture, or of the practice of the Church for three hundred years before the empire became Christian. His lordship then subjoins sundry passages out of a sermon of Archbishop Tillotson, whom he justly ranks among the greatest of the moderns. But it ought to be remembered, that this sermon was preached at court in the year 1680, when the nation was in imminent danger from the Popish Plot. His lordship should also have acquainted his readers with the archbishop’s cautious introduction, which is this: “I cannot think (till I be better informed, which I am always ready to be) that any pretence of conscience warrants any man, that cannot work miracles, to draw men off from the established religion of a nation, nor openly to make proselytes to his own religion, in contempt of the magistrate and the law, though he is never so sure, he is in the right.” This proposition, though pointed at the Popish missionaries in England at that time, is not only inconsistent with the Protestant Reformation (as I observed before,) but must effectually prevent the propagating of Christianity among the idolatrous nations of the Eastern and Western Indies, without a new power of working miracles, which we have no ground to expect; and I may venture to assure his lordship and the world, that the good archbishop lived to see his mistake: and could name the learned person to whom he frankly confessed it after some hours’ conversation upon the subject. But human authorities are of little weight in points of reason and speculation.

It was from this mistaken principle that the government pressed so hard upon those Puritans whose history is now before the reader; in which he will observe how the transferring the supremacy from the pope to the king, united the Church and State into one body under one head, insomuch that writing against the Church was construed by the judges in Westminster-Hall, a seditious libelling the queen’s government, and was punished with exorbitant fines, imprisonment, and death. He will observe further, the rise and progress of the penal laws; the extent of the regal supremacy in those times; the deplorable ignorance of the clergy; with the opposite principles of our church-reformers, and of the Puritans, which I have set in a true light, and have pursued the controversy as an historian in its several branches, to the end of the long reign of Queen Elizabeth; to all which I have added some short remarks of my own, which the reader will receive according to their evidence. And because the principles of the Scotch Reformers were much the same with those of the English Puritans, and the imposing a liturgy and bishops upon them gave rise to a confusion of the next age, I have inserted a short account of their religious establishment; and have enlivened the whole with the lives and characters of the principal Puritans of those times.

A history of this kind was long expected from the late reverend and learned Dr. John Evans, who had for some years been collecting materials for this purpose, and had he lived to perfect his design, would have it done to much greater advantage; but I have seen none of his papers, and am informed, that there is but a very small matter capable of being put in order for the press. Upon his decease I found it necessary to undertake this province, to bring the history forward to those times when the Puritans had the power in their own hands; in examining into which I have spent my leisure hours for some years; but the publishing those collections will depend, under God, upon the continuance of my health, and the acceptance this meets with in the world.

I am not so vain as to expect to escape the censures of critics, nor the reproaches of angry men, who, while they do nothing themselves, take pleasure in exposing the labours of others in pamphlets and newspapers; but as I shall be always thankful to any that will convince me of my mistakes in a friendly manner, the others may be secure of enjoying the satisfaction of their satirical remarks without any disturbance from me.

I have endeavoured to acquaint myself thoroughly with the times of which I write; and as I have no expectations from any party of Christians, I am under no temptation to disguise their conduct. I have cited my authorities in the margin, and flatter myself that I have had the opportunity of bringing many things to light relating to the sufferings of the Puritans, and the state of the Reformation in those times, which have hitherto been unknown to the world, chiefly by the assistance of a large manuscript collection of papers, faithfully transcribed from their originals in the University of Cambridge, by a person of character employed for that purpose, and generously communicated to me by my ingenious and learned friend Dr. Benjamin Grosvenor; for which I take this opportunity of returning him my own, and the thanks of the public. Among the ecclesiastical historians of these times, Mr. Fuller, Bishop Burnet, and Mr. Strype, are the chief; the last of whom has searched into the records of the English Reformation more than any man of the age; Dr. Heylin and Collyer are of more suspected authority, not so much for their party principles, as because the former never gives us his vouchers, and yet the latter follows him blindly in all things.

Upon the whole, I have endeavoured to keep in view the honesty and gravity of an historian, and have said nothing with a design to exasperate or widen the differences among Christians; for as I am a sincere admirer of the doctrines of the New Testament, I would have an equal regard to its most excellent precepts, of which these are some of the capital, that “we love one another; that we forgive offences; that we bear one another’s infirmities, and even bless them that curse us, and pray for them that despitefully use us and persecute us.” If this spirit and temper were more prevalent, the lives of Christians would throw a bright lustre upon the truth and excellency of their Divine faith, and convince the atheists and infidels of the age, more than all their arguments can do without it.

I would earnestly recommend this temper to the Protestant Nonconformists of the present age, together with a holy emulation of each other in undissembled piety and sanctity of life, that while they are reading the heavy and grievous sufferings of their ancestors from ecclesiastical commissions, spiritual courts, and penal laws, for conscience’ sake, they may be excited to an humble adoration of Divine Providence, which has delivered them so far from the yoke of oppression; to a detestation of all persecuting principles; and to a loyal and dutiful behaviour to the best of kings, under whose mild and just government they are secure of their civil and religious liberties. And may Protestants of all persuasions improve in the knowledge and love of the truth, and in sentiments of Christian charity and forbearance towards each other, that being at peace among themselves, they may with greater success bend their united forces against the common enemy of Christianity!


London, February 1st, 1731-2.

Used with the permission of Democratic Thinker.

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