The Demise of Puritanism

The failure of Parliament to assert itself in 1660 is just one aspect of the collapse of Puritanism - the intellectual and spiritual force accredited with bringing the collapse of the Caroline monarchy by the nineteenth century Whigs and even an astute a contemporary mind as that of Thomas Hobbes. With the Restoration in 1660 Puritanism began to ebb, at least relative to the religio- political power it had commanded during 1640-60. Many perceptions concerning the power of Puritanism have been fuelled by contemporary Royalist attacks on the phenomenon. Reaching its apogee in 1648-9, the Puritan cause was betrayed by its 'right wing' and the Army grandees. Thereafter millenarianism became associated with radical sects and radical political groups such as the Levellers, and commanded but a small minority of the population, while at the same time strengthening the conservatism of the Presbyterians and movements towards a national and conventional system of church government. The conditions of the Restoration and the association of Puritanism with Regicide in the public mind led to a reaction against 'enthusiasm' among Protestants under Charles II.

Thought to have a large number of Presbyterians, the 1660 Convention Parliament could not even secure the 'liberty for tender consciences' Charles II had promised from Breda. Presbyterians were as much against toleration for the Nonconformist sects (regarded as lower class political incendiaries) as were the Anglicans. Predictably, it was here with the sects that the scapegoat for the worst excesses of the Civil Wars and Interregnum was found during the 1660s. The Fifth Monarchists' rising of 1661, with its slogan 'King Jesus and their heads upon the gates' consolidated this interpretation of events.

Puritanism was attacked further by a new wave of persecution - the legislation of 1660-64 collectively known as the 'Clarendon Code'. The 1661 Corporation Act obliged all local government officers to take oaths of allegiance and supremacy - the 'non resistance oath' (i.e. that 'it is not lawful upon any pretence whatsoever to take arms against the king') and that abjuring the Solemn League and Covenant. The Uniformity Act (1662) imposed all of the above oaths on the clergy with the additional obligations to accept the Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty-Nine Articles, and ordination by bishops. Parliament was acknowledged a right to determine the parameters of the national faith - something English monarchs had steadfastly resisted since the Elizabethan Settlement of 1558. The refusal by Parliament to restore the Court of High Commission removed a significant element of royal control over the clergy. The ejection of ministers in 1662 and replacement by men nominated by local gentry marked the basis of the eighteenth century alliance of the squire and the parson.

In 1664, the first Conventicles Act provided legal measures for the suppression of Dissenters, and the Five Mile Act of the following year restricted the activities of dissenting ministers. These measures were intended to curb religious dissent but contained measures of toleration - allowing freedom of worship in private and freedom of activity for dissenting ministers who stayed away from towns.

Despite these measures, the idea of a Nonconformist 'plot' to subvert and capture the establishment, in both religion and politics, continued to be a political issue up to 1688. Events such as Venner's Rising (1661) and the Derwentdale Plot (1663) fuelled such fears. After a lapse, the Rye House Plot (1683) and Monmouth's Rebellion [5] (1685) revived the idea at the end of Charles II's and the beginning of James II's reigns. It is somewhat ironic, given the political quietism of Nonconformists during the years after 1660, that there should have been such great fear of a repeat of 1640-60 from this section of the nation. Indeed, when offered freedom of worship by Charles (1672) and James (1687), the sects experienced a serious dilemma whether to accept it or not. At the Restoration Puritans faced the overwhelming fear of the return of a Stuart line that promoted Popery, rejected the true faith and hindered the successful completion of the Reformation. John Milton's work epitomises this position. When taken together, Samson Agonistes and Paradise Regained (both 1671) represent Milton's advocacy of a new approach for 'the godly'; the failure of the martial Cromwellian regime provides the lesson that men cannot be reformed by force. These views concord with the ideas Milton articulated in The Readie and Easy Way to Establish a Commonwealth (published on the eve of the Restoration, May 1660), namely that the reformation of individuals must precede that of the Church and the state.

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