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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 (

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.

Devastated by Criticism

November 14, 2016 — 15 Comments

calvin-criticismHow do you feel when others criticize something you’ve written? Do you just want to tear your work up and start all over again? If you do, you have something in common with J.R.R. Tolkien, creator of Lord of the Rings. And he is not the only great writer with whom you share this hypersensitive trait.

Tolkien’s inability to accept constructive criticism is no secret; it is frequently noted in biographies.

Few people enjoy receiving criticism, and we are often suspicious of the mental health of those who do. Yet many writers actively seek out constructive criticism in order to sharpen their skills and improve their work.

That is a major reason for the existence of writers’ groups which pop up in varying expressions wherever serious writers live. While another benefit of such communities is the simple encouragement that comes from gathering with others who share your passion, it is the critical examination of each other’s manuscripts which provides the clearest concrete benefit. It’s no accident many such literary meetings are actually called critique groups.

Tolkien was a member of one of the most famous such fellowships that ever existed, the Inklings. It was in that setting where he first shared the stories of hobbits and elves who would make such a profound impact on Western literature. He said it was primarily through the encouragement of the Inklings—specifically his good friend, C.S. Lewis—that these amazing stories were ever published.

You see, Tolkien had a terrible and frequently fatal flaw . . . When his writing was criticized, he felt compelled to toss it aside and begin anew. Many other writers have been afflicted with this curse, and not all of them had a C.S. Lewis to rescue their words from the dust bin.

I have shared in the past Lewis’ description of his friend’s handicap.

No one ever influenced Tolkien—you might as well try to influence a bander-snatch. We listened to his work, but could affect it only by encouragement. He has only two reactions to criticism; either he begins the whole work over again from the beginning or else takes no notice at all.

Criticism of the Constructive Variety

As I said a moment ago, no one really craves criticism, and yet most serious writers actively solicit it. As I write this very column, it is with the intention of sharing it tomorrow with my friends in my own writing circles.

When you read it, it will likely have changed, probably in subtle, enriching ways. You can gauge the benefit of mutual critiquing by the amount and the quality of the criticism which is shared. And, should you feel violated, rebuke defensiveness and remind yourself that even the greats, like Tolkien and Lewis, gained from the comments and suggestions of their friends.

I recently learned of another individual who struggled with receiving criticism. It was John Calvin, the father of Reformed theology. Belonging to the Lutheran branch of the church universal, my readings in Reformed history have been limited. However, I’m currently reading two similarly titled books* and I discovered something that may be commonly known to Reformed clergy but was news to me.

He often tended to express his disappointment in extravagant terms. When he encountered an obstacle, his reaction was stark: he would burn his manuscript, never write again, never publish anything again. His decision to write was motivated by external factors: a request by his circle of friends and colleagues, or as the result of his emotional reaction to an event or a work that he read. . . . (John Calvin and the Printed Book)

The good news though is Calvin did not allow these obstacles to have the final say. Instead, he turned to those he trusted and sought their counsel.

Indeed, his extreme sensitivity meant that he needed to have the emotional support of close friends. As a Reformer and specifically as an author, Calvin never worked in isolation even though he was the dominant figure in his setting. While he was confident of the quality of his writings, Calvin still had no hesitation in submitting them to his colleagues before publication. (Ibid.)

Not that Calvin always welcomed suggestions. There was one particular Reformer to whom he sent some of his work whose “commend from Zurich were too numerous and detailed. Hence Calvin stopped sending his manuscripts to Bullinger prior to printing, although he maintained cordial relations with the Zurich Reformer.” I can almost read Calvin’s mind at the time: I asked for your suggestions, not a complete rewrite of the manuscript.

So, it appears those of us who feel discomfort at the sting of criticism—even when we request it—stand in good company. So don’t ever let that temporary pain discourage you from continuing to write.


* A 2005 volume is called John Calvin and the Printed Book, while a 2015 collection of essays is called Calvin and the Book.