Archives For Puritans

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.

Most aspiring writers are sincere. The question is, does the earnestness of their work translate into excellence? In other words, does honesty correlate to quality?

C.S. Lewis addressed this question in an essay about John Bunyan (1628-1688). Bunyan was the English writer and Puritan preacher best known for The Pilgrim’s Progress. At the outset of the allegory Bunyan attempts to “show the profit of my book,” and encourage its reading.

This book is writ in such a dialect
As may the minds of listless men affect:
It seems a novelty, and yet contains
Nothing but sound and honest gospel strains.

While C.S. Lewis respected this classic work, he argues that its value is not simply a consequence of Bunyan’s honesty.

The other thing we must not say is that Bunyan wrote well because he was a sincere, forthright man who had no literary affectations and simply said what he meant. I do not doubt that is the account of the matter that Bunyan would have given himself. But it will not do. (“The Vision of John Bunyan”)

Lewis is not, of course, challenging Bunyan’s claim to honesty. What Lewis does, in fact, is challenge a common misconception. He dismantles the excuse for any who would dismiss grammar and literary rules as unimportant because they are writing earnestly. Basically, Lewis suggests we cannot justify creating a mediocre product and by burnishing it with the declaration that “it is an outpouring of our deepest passion.”

“If [candid honesty] were the real explanation,” states Lewis, “then every sincere, forthright, unaffected man could write as well.”

And we all know that is not the case. Lewis proceeds to offer an illuminating and curious illustration. It recalls the days of the First World War when one of the responsibilities of the officers was to review the correspondence of the troops before they accidentally divulged classified military information to their family at home.

But most people of my age learned from censoring the letters of the troops, when we were subalterns [lieutenants] in the first war, that unliterary people, however sincere and forthright in their talk, no sooner take a pen in hand than cliché and platitude flow from it. The shocking truth is that, while insincerity may be fatal to good writing, sincerity, of itself, never taught anyone to write well. It is a moral virtue, not a literary talent. We may hope it is rewarded in a better world: it is not rewarded on Parnassus.*

Lewis continues, praising Bunyan’s writing.

We must attribute Bunyan’s style to a perfect natural ear, a great sensibility for the idiom and cadence of popular speech, a long experience in addressing unlettered audiences, and a freedom from bad models. I do not add ‘to an intense imagination,’ for that also can shipwreck if a man does not find the right words.

A Lesson for Modern Writers

C.S. Lewis’ keen analysis of Bunyan’s writing is more than a mere history lesson. It offers a lesson to those of us who take up the pen today. By all means, we should exercise the moral virtue of sincerity in our writing. However, we should not rest on the strength of our integrity to ensure the quality of our writing.

We should hone our skills. Likewise, we should welcome the constructive criticism of our peers, as did the Inklings themselves.

Our work will also benefit when we intently listen. Learning the idiom and cadence of our characters (real or fictional) enables them to rise alive from the page.

Lewis’ essay on Bunyan offers another suggestion I would highlight. This will be true for any writer, but I think it is of particular import to Christian authors. Lewis affirms a forthright, honest, and powerful presentation of the truth as we perceive it. He cautions against pulling our punches because we are timid about how the austere truth may be received.

For some readers the ‘unpleasant side’ of The Pilgrim’s Progress [lies] in the intolerable terror which is never far away. Indeed unpleasant is here a ludicrous understatement. The dark doctrine has never been more horrifyingly stated than in the words that conclude Part I: Then I saw that there was a way to Hell, even from the Gates of Heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction.

In my opinion the book would be immeasurably weakened as a work of art if the flames of Hell were not always flickering on the horizon. I do not mean merely that if they were not it would cease to be true to Bunyan’s own vision and would therefore suffer all the effects which a voluntary distortion or expurgation of experience might be expected to produce. I mean also that the image of this is necessary to us while we read.

The urgency, the harsh woodcut energy, the continual sense of momentousness, depend on it. We might even say that, just as Bunyan’s religious theme demanded for its vehicle this kind of story, so the telling of such a story would have required on merely artistic grounds to be thus loaded with a further significance, a significance which is believed by only some, but can be felt (while they read) by all, to be of immeasurable importance.

Keeping this in mind—that we should be faithful to the truth of what we are professing—will serve us well in the final accounting. After all, it is the compromises of the tepid of which we must beware.


* Parnassus refers to a Greek mountain associated by the ancients with Apollo, the Muses and poetry.

The Pilgrim’s Progress is available in a variety of free versions.

The Pilgrim’s Progress, an Allegory features a “Biographical Sketch of the author, by Lord Macaullay.”

In an 1834 edition, we have Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Metrically Condensed: In Six Cantos.

The version with the most entertaining title has to be: The Pilgrim’s Progress [by John Bunyan] In Words of One Syllable.

The Child’s Pilgrim’s Progress can be downloaded in not one, but two volumes. It was published in 1860, with the preface:

No endeavour has been made in this little book to improve Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. To do so would be simply absurd. To bring prominently into view scenes supposed most attractive to children has been attempted; and, while the Dreamer’s narrative is preserved, others of less striking character have been thrown into the back ground. The quaint, simple language of the incomparable Bunyan is, for the most part, retained.

The Pilgrim’s Progress: for the Young was published in 1850. Its introduction includes commentary that echoes the theme of the post above.

John Bunyan, though a very pious and good man, was not a learned one ; for he was by trade a tinker, and had no opportunity to learn much more than to read, in his youth, and when a boy he was wild and wicked. But he made very good use afterward of what he knew ; and very diligently studied his Bible and other good books.

He was also what is called a genius, which means that he had great natural talent. He wrote many works, and one of his books, called the Pilgrim’s Progress, has been read and admired by more people than any other book except the Bible. Learned and unlearned men have read it again and again, and it has been translated into all modern languages.