Archive Ecclesiastical Polity Reformed Irenicism Sacred Doctrine W. Bradford Littlejohn

Rethinking “Stuart Anglicanism”

Correction/Retraction: In the original version of this post, it was assumed that Mark Noll’s summary of Michael Winship’s taxonomy was an accurate one, and both accordingly came in for some criticism.  Dr. Winship has contacted the author to explain that this is not the case, and that Noll’s remarks about “Stuart Anglicanism” are entirely Noll’s own.  The relevant sentences in the post have accordingly been modified, and we apologize for any mischaracterization of Dr. Winship’s scholarship in the original post.

Time was, not too many decades ago, when any decent (or supposed to be decent) book on late 16th or 17th century England or New England could be counted on to pontificate about “Puritanism” and its supposed nemesis, “Anglicanism.” Each member of this binary pairing relied upon contrast with the other element for its definition, since coherent definitions of either concept in terms of its own distinctive features were so hard to come by. To the extent that scholars did attempt to describe in positive terms what either “Anglicanism” or “Puritanism” stood for, their descriptions seemed difficult to match up either with one another, or with any of the primary source material. When you came right down to it, “Anglican” seemed to designate merely those who were on the whole loyal supporters of the established Church of England, and “Puritan” those who were dissatisfied with it in some fundamental way. And yet, given that this church evolved considerably from, say, 1560 to 1640, both in its prominent emphases and in its willingness to accommodate dissent, this is hardly a very useful definition.

Thankfully, the past five decades have witnessed a rich flowering of Puritan scholarship which has undermined the neat and vapid definitions of the past, and offered us a proliferation of different forms of “puritanism,” varying considerably both in their top theological priorities and in how strongly they opposed the status quo. In a recent review of Michael Winship’s Godly Republicanism: Puritans, Pilgrims, and a City on a Hill, Mark Noll offers a particularly helpful schematization of Winship’s elaborate taxonomy of puritanisms, discriminating between conforming puritans, presbyterian puritans, congregational puritans, determined congregational puritans, militant congregational puritans, moderate separatists, and radical separatists. Clearly, this division uses differences in ecclesiology as the litmus test for determining different strands of puritan opinion, and while other distinguishing criteria might be suggested, ecclesiology is probably the most helpful and historically significant. Of course one might object, as with any taxonomy, that the divisions are too neat, as each Puritan was unique and many would be hard to place, particularly as their views and emphases shifted over time. But on the whole, this is a very useful contribution to the definition and differentiation of Puritanism.

The problem with this classification lies in quite another direction—namely, in the blandly monolithic way in which Noll continues to identify Puritanism’s opposite, Anglicanism. Noll’s summary says only: “Stuart Anglicans were the monarchs, James I and Charles I, and their bishops who opposed Calvinism, promoted Arminian theology, and moved toward Catholicism in their rituals. To the Puritans they constituted a stupendous barrier to the biblical reforms that the English church so desperately needed.”

Now of course, one can’t attempt to do everything all at once, and in a book about Puritanism, it might seem excusable to make broad generalizations about non-Puritans. However, Noll’s sloppiness here merits comment because it is so representative of the problems that continue to dog the scholarship of this period. Whereas the category “Puritanism” has in recent decades finally received the attention it deserves, recognized as meriting careful definition and discrimination, its binary partner remains an elusive stereotype.  One wonders in part if this is due simply to our culture’s distaste for conformity and valorization of dissent. Any differences amongst those who broadly supported the status quo could not possibly be interesting, we assume; only those protesters, for Noll, “the great promoters of church reform” are really interesting and creative enough to merit close scrutiny. Of course, this way of putting things also tends to implicitly buy the Puritan claim that only they were interested in “reform”—which easily morphed into the claim that only they were Reformed. Noll certainly veers this way, when they say the “Stuart Anglicans… opposed Calvinism, promoted Arminian theology, and moved toward Catholicism in their rituals.” This is hardly a fair representation of all non-Puritans.

Accordingly, I would propose at the very least that we need to complexity the category of “Stuart Anglicans” at the same time as we try to complexity the category of “Puritans” (although it might be better to move beyond the binary opposition altogether, as I shall suggest below). In suggesting four subcategories, I shall not use the criterion of ecclesiology per se, but rather, why it was that they thought conformity and support of the established church to be, on the whole, a good thing. Much of this follows from the work of Patrick Collinson in his The Elizabethan Puritan Movement and The Religion of Protestants: The Church in English Society 1559-1625.

Hardline Conformists

This type, whose supreme representative was perhaps Richard Bancroft (Archbishop of Canterbury 1604-10), tended to believe in order for order’s sake, and to think that conformity and uniformity were goods that hardly required any external justification.  Bancroft’s predecessor John Whitgift (Archbishop of Canterbury 1583-1604) was of a similar temperament. This group, while they tended to be orthodox Calvinists in their doctrine, were not nearly so interested in the promulgation of right doctrine as their Puritan counterparts; indeed, they sometimes attempted to shut down doctrinal debates for the sake of preserving peace, leading ardent Puritans to accuse them (usually wrongly) of having no commitment to Reformed orthodoxy.

Happy Erastians (or, the Episcopalian Reformed)

This type, a large class that incorporated a considerable range of theological emphases, was united by their broadly irenic disposition, and their shared sense that the English Church deserved their loyalty because it was the authorized regional expression of the catholic Reformed faith. These men saw themselves as the English Reformed, or the Episcopalian Reformed, members of an international confederation of Reformed churches, but fiercely proud of their English distinctives and their royal patronage, which they believed were best suited to the order and edification of the English church. These men were essentially Calvinist in theology, and in agreement with the great Reformed confessions, although they tended to prefer avoiding contentious theological niceties such as those that agitated the Synod of Dort. This group could number among its ranks such illustrious names as James Ussher, John Davenant, Joseph Hall, and, in most respects, the Elizabethan Richard Hooker. It should be noted that there is considerable overlap between this group and the Conforming Puritans that Noll identifies; for instance, Archbishop of Canterbury George Abbot (1611-33) was a zealous Calvinist in doctrine, sharing many Puritan goals and emphases, but from within the very center of the establishment.


This group, although overlapping considerably with the previous category, undeniably represented a somewhat different set of interests and emphases. Like the Happy Erastians, they broadly considered themselves part of the international Reformed churches, though with certain reservations and suspicions, and like the Happy Erastians they were very proud of their English distinctives; indeed, perhaps more inclined to suppose their superiority to the Continental Reformed in certain respects. Their confidence in the virtues of the English church, however, was more specifically tied toward its liturgical and polity distinctives. That is to say, they did not merely consider the Book of Common Prayer and the institution of bishops to be wholesome, edifying, and particularly suited for the well-being of the English Church, but as representing an intrinsically superior way of churchmanship. Although basically Reformed in doctrine, therefore, they tended to major on the importance of liturgical or polity issues, holding at arms’ length the kind of theological concerns that dominated the early 1600s. However, we should avoid overstating these tendencies; such men as these had no interest in abandoning their Reformed identity, and should not be confused with the full-fledged Laudian strain (below). Undoubtedly the most well-known representative of this type was Lancelot Andrewes, although John Overall would be another good example, and Richard Hooker could be considered as having manifested some tendencies in this direction.


Finally, we come to the group that Noll and Winship (and most historians, it must be said) seem to have in mind when they speak of the “Stuart Anglicans.” These were men who were actively hostile to Calvinist doctrine, and actively wanted to downplay their Reformed identity. They were not about to forsake Protestantism altogether, to be sure, as their Puritan foes feared, but they were keen on rapprochement with Rome, and saw their church as something of a via media between mainstream Protestantism and Catholicism. They carried the enthusiasm for liturgical ceremony and episcopal polity considerably further than the Ceremonialists, turning ceremony from an adornment of worship to its main focus, and developing strong jure divino claims for the institution of bishops. This group, containing such men as Richard Montagu, John Cosin, Richard Neile, and of course William Laud, rose rapidly to ascendancy in the 1620s and 1630s, and it was their domination, and influence over Charles I, that was in many respects responsible for the outbreak of the English Civil War.

Now, what is striking about this classification is that it shows that from the standpoint of continental Reformed theology, a number of sub-groups on both the “Puritan” and “Anglican” side fell within the fold, plausibly laying claim to the “Reformed” identity, although divergent in their emphases (as, indeed, Reformed groups in other countries were in different respects). On the “Puritan” side, we might include the Conforming Puritans, Presbyterian Puritans, and Congregational Puritans. On the “Anglican” side, we could include all but the Laudians. This observation suggests an attractive alternative taxonomy, one that rests not on a fundamental dichotomy, but a trichotomy, defined in terms of the variegated mainstream who held to broadly Reformed doctrine and practice, whom we might call the English Reformed, and of only quasi-Reformed outliers on either side—the semi-separatists and separatists, and the Laudians. Although this need not trump altogether an approach like Winship’s (which helps highlight genuine commonalities across all “Puritans”), such a new schema could be a significant blessing to scholarship on this period. Why? Because it would help force scholars of early English Protestantism and scholars of early continental Protestantism to recognize themselves as studying two aspects of the same phenomenon. Neither a Thomas Cartwright nor a Richard Hooker nor a John Davenant can be properly understood except with respect to the broader constellation of European Reformed churches, of which they perceived themselves to be a part, and in whose debates and variations they took part, for all their distinctive Englishness. Such a new taxonomy, then, might look something like this:

I. The Anabaptistizing Tendency

A. Congregationalists

    • Determined Congreationalist Puritans
    • Militant Congregationalist Puritans

B. Separatists

    • Moderate Separatists
    • Radical Separatists

II. The English Reformed

A. Puritans

    • Presbyterian Puritans
    • Congregationalist Puritans

B. Conformists

    • Conforming Puritans
    • Hardline Conformists
    • Happy Erastians
    • Ceremonialists

III. The Catholicizing Tendency

A. Laudians


Obviously, any taxonomy has its weaknesses, this one included, but I expect that much historical and theological fruit could be gleaned by an attempt to fill out, nuance, and apply a schema something like this as part of research on the English church, c. 1570-1650.

By W. Bradford Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D, University of Edinburgh, 2013), is President of the Davenant Trust and an independent scholar, writer, and editor. He is researching the political theology of the Reformation, especially Richard Hooker (the subject of his dissertation), and other areas in Christian ethics, especially pertaining to economic questions.

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