C.S. Lewis, Puritanism & Prudes

Puritans often get a bad rap from people who don’t know their true history. Reading C.S. Lewis can help correct that error.

Digital History describes the problem in the following way.

Few people, however, have been as frequently subjected to caricature and ridicule. The journalist H.L. Mencken defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy.”

In truth, Puritans enjoyed having a good time as much as anyone. They only objected to sinful activities. Drinking, fine. Drunkenness, sinful. Sexual intimacy in marriage, wonderful. Fornication and promiscuity, iniquitous. As C.S. Lewis writes in his essay “Tasso,” the Puritans were not about eliminating pleasure.

Asceticism is far more characteristic of Catholicism than of the Puritans. Celibacy and the praise of virginity are Catholic: the honour of the marriage bed is Puritan. (Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature)

In English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, C.S. Lewis includes Puritans in his description of the broader Protestant Reformation landscape.

Nearly every association which now clings to the word puritan has to be eliminated when we are thinking of the early Protestants. Whatever they were, they were not sour, gloomy, or severe; nor did their enemies bring any such charge against them. . . .

For [Thomas] More, a Protestant was one “dronke of the new must of lewd lightnes of minde and vayne gladnesse of harte.” Luther, he said, had made converts precisely because “he spiced al the poison” with “libertee.” Protestantism was not too grim, but too glad, to be true. . . . Protestants are not ascetics but sensualists.

Within the contemporary American Christian community, Puritanism has many defenders. This is due, I believe, to the prominence of Reformed theology within Protestant churches, something traceable to the nation’s beginnings.

Contrary to common understanding, the Puritans were not “separatists” who rejected the established church. In contrast, they remained members of the Church of England throughout the late sixteenth century. They did, however, believe that the Anglican Church retained too many extrabiblical Roman Catholic Church elements and ceremonies.

Much confusion derives from failing to distinguish between the Pilgrims and Puritans.

The main difference between the Pilgrims and the Puritans is that the Puritans did not consider themselves separatists. They called themselves “nonseparating congregationalists,” by which they meant that they had not repudiated the Church of England as a false church.

But in practice they acted – from the point of view of Episcopalians and even Presbyterians at home – exactly as the separatists were acting (History.com).

While the far more numerous Puritans began arriving in the colonies in the 1630s, the Pilgrims (who referred to themselves as “Saints,” not “Pilgrims”) arrived on the Mayflower a decade earlier. The previously quoted article describes the denigration of the Puritan theology, in the following manner.

As they gained strength, Puritans were portrayed by their enemies as hairsplitters who slavishly followed their Bibles as guides to daily life or hypocrites who cheated the very neighbors they judged inadequate Christians.

Sadly, nowadays any serious Christian – anyone who honestly reads the Bible and tries to live according to God’s teachings – is regarded with similar disdain. This sad fact was recognized by C.S. Lewis long ago.

To be sure, there are standards by which the early Protestants could be called “puritanical;” they held adultery, fornication, and perversion for deadly sins. But then so did the Pope. If that is puritanism, all Christendom was then puritanical together (English Literature in the Sixteenth Century).

So From Where Does the Puritan Label Come?

C.S. Lewis answers this question in an essay, “Edmund Spenser, 1552–99.”

By purity the Elizabethan Puritan meant not chastity but “pure” theology and, still more, “pure” church discipline (Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Studies).

In “Donne and Love Poetry” he elaborates on Puritan focus on ecclesiastical, rather than moral, matters.

We have come to use the word “Puritan” to mean what should rather be called “rigorist” or “ascetic,” and we tend to assume that the sixteenth-century Puritans were “puritanical” in this sense. Calvin’s rigorist theocracy at Geneva lends colour to the error.

But there is no understanding the period of the Reformation in England until we have grasped the fact that the quarrel between the Puritans and the Papists was not primarily a quarrel between rigorism and indulgence, and that, in so far as it was, the rigorism was on the Roman side (Selected Literary Essays).

Returning to the essay on Edmund Spencer, we see Lewis elaborating on the ecclesiastical hopes of the Puritans.

We must picture these Puritans as the very opposite of those who bear that name today: as young, fierce, progressive intellectuals, very fashionable and up-to-date. They were not teetotallers; bishops, not beer, were their special aversion. . . .

There was no necessary enmity between Puritans and humanists. They were often the same people, and nearly always the same sort of people: the young men “in the Movement,” the impatient progressives demanding a “clean sweep.” And they were united by a common (and usually ignorant) hatred for everything medieval . . . (Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Studies).

Some readers may be surprised to see Lewis, an Anglican, speak so favorably of Puritans. To those of us who are interested in genuine history, his words are illuminating. And, his warning – which is applicable to many other historical movements – is appreciated.

I must immediately guard against a possible misunderstanding. Both words have so changed their sense that puritan now means little more than ‘rigorist’ or ‘ascetic’ and humanist little more than ‘the opposite of puritan.’

The more completely we can banish these modern senses from our minds while studying the sixteenth century the better we shall understand it.

That is sound advice for every circumstance. Accurately understanding what we are discussing is a necessity. Just think how much disagreement could be dispelled in our polarized world, if we only followed C.S. Lewis’ example.

15 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis, Puritanism & Prudes

    1. Shifts in meaning… sometimes to intentionally distort historic definitions (which is even worse).

      In religious conversations it’s particularly important to make sure people are working with the same understanding of a word. “Baptism,” is a great example. It means one thing to a Roman Catholic, and something completely different to a Missionary Baptist..

  1. The brilliant Welsh Harley Street specialist and Westminster Chapel expository preacher, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, wrote “The Puritans – Their Origins and Successors” which I read many years ago. A brilliant exposition… I mention this for any interested followers of your blog. Thanks for this excellent reminder of their worth by Lewis, Rob.

    1. Thank you for the recommendation, Erroll. I’m sure that title is extremely informative, and far more comprehensive than what most American theologians would write. (They would approach the subject focused on the Puritans’ arrival in the “colonies.”)

    1. “Purer” in that sense, but even non-liturgical services have their own favored, and repeated, patterns and elements of worship. Ritual itself is not the problem. Seems to me it’s quite possible to worship God in spirit and in truth in a broad range of contexts.

      But, yes, they did take such matters seriously. (And most of us just go with the flow, as they say.) In many ways, they set a commendable example for us today.

      In some though, as they say, “not so much…”

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds

    Among other things this happily gives some encouraging samples of how readable and enjoyable Lewis’s literary-critical and -historical works are! I often wonder how the booklet-length Introduction to English Literature in the Sixteenth Century would do as a separate publication, if someone could persuade the OUP and the Estate to try it. Its discussion of Reformation and Roman complexities in thinking about ‘sovereignty’ or its discussion on magic in the Renaissance, for two examples, are so fascinating and thought provoking… And, as a follow up to this post, readers could do worse than find a library which has a copy of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century and read Lewis’s discussion in Book III, Chapter II, Section III about the “puritan clergy” and the “disagreement between their conception of the Church and Elizabeth’s” as a backgound and his discussion of Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity which follows – 23 packed and fascinating pages in the first edition and the 1973 OUP paperback version (pp. 441-63).

    1. Hear! Hear! I hope that readers of Mere Inkling will, indeed, desire to read C.S. Lewis’ literary works. They are brilliant, and offer so many wonderful insights into literature… history… and the Christian life.

      Perhaps you should approach the copyright holders about making the volume more readily available to readers today, as an independent publication? Even released as individual “monographs,” they would be precious.

      1. David Llewellyn Dodds

        I just did a quick bit of checking around – the Cambridge UP still seems to have Selected Literary Essays and Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature available for less than $20 each in paperback, while I find what is now called Poetry and Prose in the Sixteenth Century available new at Amazon for $210 and at global.oup.com “printed to order” at 155 pounds sterling! Sadly, I have no direct Oxford University Press contacts, but I do know a couple people who do, so maybe I should try to ask and nudge a bit… I see Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia and James Como’s C.S. Lewis in the Very Short Introduction series (with 160 pages) in paperback at global.oup for ten pounds or less each.

      2. Thank you for the research, David. Hopefully some folks will pursue the leads you provide.

        I paid far less for my personal copy of the original (1954) edition of the volume edited by Lewis. But then again, that was a few years back.

        I just found an announcement that HarperCollins plans to reissue the volume in August of this year for a penny less than forty dollars. That’s quite reasonable.

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