Hot Protestants

A History of Puritanism in England and America

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Michael P. Winship
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , February
     2019.
     368 pages.
     $28.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780300126280.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

With Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America, Michael Winship has produced one of the best introductions to puritanism that currently exists. Here is an accessible narrative spanning 150 years that never bogs down while still providing enough detail to understand what the puritans were all about.

And what were they all about? Winship centers the movement on a single question: “how to respond when your monarch or other authorities make a demand of you that you believe violates the laws of England and/or of God—with defiance, compliance, subterfuge, martyrdom, or even rebellion?” (4-5) To answer this question, Winship chooses to dwell on vignettes and biographies that get at broader implications. We walk through the English Civil War, for example, by following the changing fortunes of Christopher Love, a popular minister whose star rose rapidly—before a change in power led to his execution. Such an approach allows for a clear account of how puritanism divided within itself, especially between Congregationalists and Presbyterians. After all, it was puritan Congregationalists who put Love, a puritan Presbyterian, to death. At the same time, Love’s life allows Winship to offer a brief, yet extraordinarily clear account of the complicated circumstances underlying the English Civil War. He carefully unfolds vastly complex scenarios through lively, well-chosen biographies that bring to light how puritanism began, evolved, divided, and collapsed.

That development is stunning. Take the Book of Common Prayer, for example. Here was a Protestant innovation—inspired by Continental reformers—that intended to make over the Church of England after its separation from the pope. When Catholic Queen Mary I took power, she of course abolished it. Yet, after its restoration under Elizabeth I, it was puritan reformers—reformed and always reforming—who found the Book of Common Prayer far too formal and false, hiding a lingering longing for Catholic inventions of ceremony and belief. When King Charles I later tried to force the Book of Common Prayer on Presbyterians in Scotland, he caused an outbreak of civil war—the first in a series of defeats that led to his beheading. By decree of puritans in Parliament, the Book of Common Prayer was banned from use in 1645, as it had been abolished under the Catholic Mary. Too Protestant for some, too Catholic for others, the Book of Common Prayer defined boundaries of belief, practice, and allegiance for over a century. It is one of many stories that weave through Winship’s history.

In telling the broader story of puritanism’s rise, reign, and ruin, Winship is most at home in issues of authority, offering a well-balanced view of political effects. When Massachusetts attempted to institute God’s laws, for example, we learn that small thefts could no longer be punished with death. On the other hand, adultery now could—and it was, three times, before both magistrates and the population at large seemed unable to stomach anymore such hangings. Repeatedly, Winship demonstrates how puritan reforms cut in two ways at once. On one hand, puritans increased aid to the poor with higher taxes on the rich, and they exempted no one from the laws they imposed, regardless of social status; on the other, those laws could be draconian. They could take away the pleasures of the population—like the theatre, the maypole, or even the celebration of Christmas—while at the same time creating governmental structures that tended toward “popularity” (41). That is, their ideas of how government should be structured in both the church and the state were frequently seen as an appeal to ordinary people, a calling upon consent—an idea which horrified many in the hierarchical society of their times. As Winship puts it succinctly: “[y]ou could have kings or you could have puritans, but from Charles’s viewpoint, you could not have both” (77).

A history so focused on politics is not, however, without theology. As Winship’s book makes clear, theology often guided the politics. When the immortal soul is at stake, the smallest demands on conscience can become, well, unconscionable. What counted as “things indifferent” to one set of believers were, to others, insurmountable barriers of practice and belief. 

Consider the issue of the Lord’s Supper, one of two Protestant sacraments, and “what was for many puritans the heart of church reform” (119). Just who should be allowed to take it, and how? The Apostle Paul seemed to condemn anyone who took it unworthily (1 Corinthians 11:27), which raised the stakes of getting it right. In the Church of England, the sacrament was offered broadly—much too broadly for most puritans, who advanced a series of reforms to restrict it. Yet puritans were divided among themselves about just how restrictive they should be. How do you tell who is worthy? That question led not just to theological treatises, but to competing institutional structures meant to provide checks and guidance to the breaking and eating of sacred bread and wine.

While Winship seems especially well balanced in his account of political reforms and their theological underpinnings, his account of puritan devotion becomes much less evenhanded. We hear a great deal about the puritans’ agonizing self-torture, their unending anxiety, their groans and murmurs and moans of deep despair. We hear much less about their warm communal gatherings, their uplifting psalm-singing, or their frequent experience of peace, joy, and assurance. William Perkins, perhaps the most influential puritan divine of the late 1500s and early 1600s, frequently extended comfort to readers, insisting that even the mere desire to believe constituted a sure sign and seed of saving faith. It is not surprising that he had such wide appeal. Surely, the dismaying side can be found in his writings as well—including the need to extend such comfort—but the comfort extended was no less great, nor any less shocking. There are occasional moments in Winship’s study where we run into a mocking, almost sarcastic tone accompanying depictions of puritan piety—not unlike the first opponents who named and scorned the puritans.

In one instance, Winship even extends the depiction of despair with an “extreme form”: Nehemiah Wallington’s ten attempted suicides (56). This move is unfortunate. It plays to stereotype by using an atypical case to sensationalize the dark side of puritan devotion in a book that is presumably about the representative, the norm. Wallington is not a norm. One could have easily turned to the many rapturous depictions of “unspeakable joy” that fill out puritan writings. The dark was there, to be sure, and it should not be diminished, but there was also a great deal of light. Getting to the heart of puritanism, for puritans, always meant getting to the heart. Winship’s book could do more to give a balanced view of how their piety worked, and how the dramatic political effects that he traces so well flowed from personal devotions filled as much with comfort and assurance as with anxiety and dread.

The choice of an ending, in this respect, becomes highly significant. Determining where puritanism ends means determining, in effect, what puritanism is. For Winship, puritanism’s fundamental feature lies, again, in its politics: the movement came to an end in the closing of “the long, intermittently bloody, and entirely unsuccessful puritan campaign to reshape the Church of England along the lines of the continental Reformed churches” (267). Installing a new government in the Massachusetts Bay colony “confirmed that puritanism’s long political struggle with England’s monarchs was over on both sides of the Atlantic” (267). Yet to that end, Winship makes the entirely persuasive claim that the Salem witch trials, rather than being the ultimate expression of puritanism, were actually the consequence of puritanism’s collapse. They were the death throes of puritanism, the result of a loss of authority. They would most likely not have happened had puritanism remained in power. 

In a book so focused on political developments and the desire for control of church and state, Winship closes with a final surprising turn. He reflects on the religious treatises, tracts, sermons, and texts that survived long after puritanism died. When revivals broke out in the 1730s, leaders of this movement turned to old puritan texts in order to understand and pioneer a new form of piety. “On both sides of the Atlantic,” Winship writes, “puritan books were eagerly rediscovered and reprinted by Calvinist and even Arminian revivalists, sometimes in abridged and adapted form to speak more readily to new religious audiences. They have continued to speak to those audiences down to the present day” (279). 

On multiple levels, Hot Protestants reminds us why puritanism matters—and why it has drawn so much attention through so many years. An extraordinary religious and political movement that set up a series of dynamic and dramatic crises and controversies, puritanism lies at the heart of so much of what happened in 17th century England and New England. For anyone interested in who the puritans were, what they worried about, what they hoped to achieve, and what massive historical consequences resulted from those desires, Winship’s book offers one of the very best places to begin.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Abram Van Engen is Associate Professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael P. Winship is E. Merton Coulter Professor in the Department of History at the University of Georgia. He is the author of numerous books, including Godly Republicanism: Puritans, Pilgrims, and a City on a Hill. He lives in Athens, GA.

Comments

Michael P. Winship

I appreciate Professor Van Engen’s generous, perceptive, and skillfully crafted review of Hot Protestants.

BTW, Hot Protestant’s account of Nehemiah Wallington ends with Wallington, long after his suicide attempts, writing in his diary about his assurance of salvation and experiences of heavenly joy.

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