Sunday, January 5, 2014

'Puritan' Nickname Coined 450 Years Ago

It was in 1564, according to Thomas Fuller (The Church History of Great Britain, Vol. 2 (1854 ed.), p. 474), that the term 'Puritan' first began to be used by English Bishops who opposed those who desired a purer, Reformed religion in the Anglican Church (although the movement itself began earlier). Perhaps hearkening back to the name Cathari, or Puritan, which was applied to other sects at different times in church history, it was intended as an odious slur, as was 'precisian,' and 'Presbyterian,' as used by Archbishop Matthew Parker, for instance, in his letters to describe the reforming party of his church. As with many such labels, what was intended as an insult was eventually embraced by those so-called, although other more neutral terms such as 'dissenters' and 'nonconformists' were sometimes preferred. John Geree embraced 'Puritan' and 'Nonconformist' in The Character of an Old English Puritan, or Non-Conformist (1646):

The Old English Puritan was such an one, that honored God above all, and under God gave every one his due. His first care was to serve God, and therein he did not what was good in his own, but in God’s sight, making the word of God the rule of his worship. He highly esteemed order in the House of God: but would not under colour of that submit to superstitious rites, which are superfluous, and perish in their use. He reverenced Authority keeping within its sphere: but durst not under pretence of subjection to the higher powers, worship God after the traditions of men. He made conscience of all God’s ordinances, though some he esteemed of more consequence.

Robert Bolton, for example, spoke of 'Puritan' as "the honourable nickname of the best and holiest men" (Mr. Bolton's Last and Learned Worke of the Foure Last Things (1635), p. 12).

Robert Bolton, A Discourse About the True State of Happinesse (1631), p. 163:
I am persuaded there was never poor persecuted word, since malice against God first seized on the damned angels, and the graces of heaven dwelt in the heart of man, that passed through the mouths of all sorts of unregenerate men, with more distastefulness and gnashing of teeth, than the name of puritan doth at this day; which notwithstanding as it is now commonly meant, and ordinarily proceeds from the spleen and spirit of profaneness and good fellowship, as an honourable nickname, that I may so speak, of christianity and grace.

Elsewhere he is reported to have said:
All those nick-names of Puritan, Precisian, Hypocrite, &c. with which lewd tongues are wont to load the saints of God, are so many honourable badges of their worthy deportment in the holy path, and resolute standing on the Lord's side.

Samuel Rutherford, Letters (1894 ed.), p. 512:
I assure you, howbeit we be nicknamed Puritans, that all the powers of the world shall not prevail against us.

George Gillespie, English Popish Ceremonies (1846 ed.), Vol. 1., p. 39:
...they make godly and zealous Christians to be mocked and nicknamed Puritans, except they can swallow the camel of conformity....We know the old Waldenses before us were also named by their adversaries, Cathares or Puritans; and that, without cause, hath this name been given both to them and us.

Packer sums up the issues beautifully. J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, p. 114:

Because of their concern for preciseness in following our God's revealed will in matters moral and ecclesiastical, the first Puritans were dubbed 'precisians.' Though ill-meant and derisive, this was in fact a good name for them. Then as now, people explained their attitude as due to peevish cantankerousness and angularity or morbidity of temperament, but that was not how they themselves saw it. Richard Rogers, the Puritan pastor of Wethersfield, Essex, at the turn of the sixteenth century, was riding one day with the local lord of the manor, who, after twitting him for some time about his 'precisian' ways, asked him what it was that made him so precise. 'O sir,' replied Rogers, 'I serve a precise God.' If there were such a thing as a Puritan crest, this would be its proper motto. A precise God -- a God, that is, who has made a precise disclosure of his mind and will in Scripture, and who expects from his servants a corresponding preciseness of belief and behaviour -- it was this view of God that created and controlled the historic Puritan outlook. The Bible itself led them to it. And we who share the Puritan estimate of Holy Scripture cannot excuse ourselves if we fail to show a diligence and conscientiousness equal to theirs in ordering our lives according to God's written word.

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