So who exactly were the Puritans and the Separatists? They both came from England. In 1531, King Henry VIII established the Church of England in order to break away from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church—mainly for selfish reasons. This new English—Anglican—Church was England’s newly established state church with the king now as the Supreme Head. As we would imagine, this proved to bring about further power struggles between England and other nations who remained loyal to the papacy. Truth be told, crown-claiming and land-grabbing was usually an ulterior motive to their support of the Pope’s claim to the English. Regardless, this new state church now became a new target for those within.
What the Protestant reformers were to the Roman Catholic Church, the Puritans were to the Anglican Church. Reformers like Martin Luther, for instance, did not set out to split the church, or start a new one—he worked to reform the current one according to the Bible. So it was with the Puritans, fittingly named for those within the Anglican Church who wanted to purify the church according to the Bible. Not only did they oppose “the use of saints’ days, clerical absolution, the sign of the Cross, the custom of having godparents in baptism, kneeling for Communion,” etc., but their emphasis was on the sovereignty of God as Calvin had taught it, the infallibity of the Scriptures, ongoing reformation in the church and in the individual, and a “theology intended to soften the heart and enlighten the conscience” as historian Earle E. Cairns has documented.
Not everyone in the Anglican Church, however, felt that a purification of it alone was good enough. Some Puritans took this reformation to a level that demanded reform in its ecclesiastical government, but this included its ties to the secular government as well. They were opposed to the state church concept. Wanting a break from state rule and oversight, they advocated an independent and self-ruled style of church government. In a word, they came to be known as Separatists, or Separatist Puritans.
The Separatists can really be credited with the form of denominationalism that we know today, that is, a denomination that governs itself free from the oversight of the state. Further, it would be a denomination that was not hierarchical like the Episcopalian form of government.
This growing sentiment in the Anglican Church was threatening to the English monarchy as the state church concept could be and often was a critical and politically strategic matter of power and control. To the crown’s perspective, the Separatists were almost viewed as treasonous dissenters. In reality, “the major point of difference [for] . . . the Separatist Puritans was the idea of the church covenant by which the Separatists bound themselves in loyalty to Christ and one another apart from a state church.” This is why we hear the terminology around “covenanting together” still today—reminiscent of and based on the new covenant of the blood of Jesus Christ.
As was often the case at this point in history, “persecution of opposing religious beliefs became standard practice” as historian Robert V. Remini notes. This persecution actually drove many Separatists to Holland in 1608, but the way of life there was not ideal, leaving them wanting something better. They later received permission from the London Company to settle in Virginia and so departed Holland, sailing aboard the Mayflower—but they never made it.
Instead, they happened to land at Plymouth on Cape Cod on November 21, 1620. Before they departed the ship, though, the voyagers all signed what is known as the Mayflower Compact outlining their understanding of how everyone would operate as under a self-governed people. This Mayflower Compact, though political in nature, was an extension of their covenanting together as a body of believers. The seeds of American government were starting to take root already, even before their boots hit the sandy shores of the east coast.
The non-Separatist Puritans back home in England had a bit more of a straightforward commute to the New World. With permission from King Charles I, the Puritans formed a joint-stock company in England called the Massachusetts Bay Company where they were also afforded the opportunity to establish a satellite colony of this new company in America, namely what John Smith had earlier dubbed the New England. So began what has come to be known as the Great Migration where over 1,000 Puritans departed for the new colony and continued to grow.
With a healthy amount of these Calvinistic theologians who opted for a Congregationalist approach to church government, the churches that then followed were established in that way. It was from this breeding ground that the likes of Jonathon Edwards rose up to prominence in the next century where the Lord used him in a mighty way to convict people of their inherited sin in Adam, inform them of their sure judgment in Hell, and so offer them the free gift of the gospel of Jesus Christ by faith alone and in repentance of sin. His ministry was so effective that it contributed largely to the Great Awakening in America during an incredibly critical time. Biographer George M. Marsden notes that “there was no denial that many persons’ lives were being changed in ways that . . . seemed to meet sober tests for spiritual transformation.”
While Jonathan Edwards preached the Word of God in the pulpit, the likes of George Washington was trying to maintain the freedom of the American colonies. Thomas Jefferson was a young chap in this culture of Puritan preaching and undoubtedly influenced if even to a shallow social and political level. The great evangelist, George Whitefield, was about the same age as Edwards and also contributed mightily to the Great Awakening. Benjamin Franklin—not known for having an affinity for God or anything religious—was yet entranced by the passion of Whitefield. Rumor has it that someone asked Franklin why he ever went to listen to Whitefield since he didn’t believe a word he preached, to which Franklin replied, “But he believes what he preaches!”
Benjamin Franklin attested of George Whitefield in his own auto-biography: “It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants; from being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seemed as if all the world were growing religious; so that one could not walk through the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street.”
It is helpful to trace these overlapping lives of the Lord’s faithful preachers and America’s greatest statesmen because we see that there is no questioning whether the secular politicians were influenced by the preaching of the Puritans and other evangelists. The need for a single moral code to help shape the new and evolving governmental documents was a fact of life. They were self-evident truths.
As imperfect our documents are—they are in fact man-made and sometimes require amendments—that govern the United States of America today, they were first written down in pen by men who were under the direct influence of sound theological preachers who helped ensure that the entire social construct of the world in which they lived was operating under a biblical world-view. We can trace this lineage of biblical faithfulness back to the Puritans—whether Separatist or not—and remember that their impact on our American beginnings are uncontested and continue to remind all who call on the name of the Lord to this very day as to the power of the Word of God preached.
In His Sovereign Grip,
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Cairns, Earle E. Christianity through the Centuries. Michigan: Zondervan, 1996.
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