Putting Elizabethan Puritans in "The New Paradigm"

Article excerpt

Dewey Wallace's perceptive remarks on "the paradigm shift" in late Tudor historical and religious studies appeared in this journal a short while ago. The old paradigm was sturdy, as Wallace acknowledges; decades of effort were required to dismantle its depiction of the Elizabethan Church of England as a via media, a compromise between Geneva and Rome. Jacobean divines in the seventeenth century tried out that idea; the Oxford Movement in the nineteenth spruced it up. Patrick Collinson, Nicholas Tyacke, Peter Lake, Wallace, and others took it down and proposed the new paradigm in my title, relocating the Elizabethans' reformed churches between Geneva and Wittenberg-"closer to Geneva," as Wallace says, although "with hankerings after Lutheranism."1

Elizabethan puritans shift about as well and, in this new paradigm, tend to melt into the mainstream. They had caused quite "a ruckus," Wallace admits; they complained about vestments in the 1560s, experimented with alternatives to the prevailing parish and diocesan administrations in the 1570s, and demanded discipline and further reform of the ministry in the 1580s. Collinson chronicled it all in his compendious Puritan Movement in 1967, but he was soon through with the old paradigm, which emphasized the "ruckus" and dissidence. He even wondered whether the puritans had earned their capital "p". As for the presbyterians among them, on Collinson's watch, they distinguished themselves from less restless and more conformist reformers not by "ecclesiological dogma" but by their temperament or "intensity." "The mainspring of presbyterianism" was "an intensely felt," "fraternal spirit."2

To many at the time, the puritans' "consistorian" Calvinism was something far more dangerous than fraternal feeling. Richard Bancroft, in a sermon that has become emblematic of the conformists' reaction, dubbed the dissenters' villainy a "wonderfull insolencie." Others piled on. Thomas Nashe was notorious for overstating the puritans' extremism. But Bancroft perhaps was the most relentless; as Collinson says, there was something of Joseph McCarthy in him.3 Felicity Heal calls him "the Rottweiler of the English establishment" in her recent survey, Reformation in Britain and Ireland, one of the turn-of-the-century textbooks to have adapted the new paradigm. Heal explains that Bancroft stoked "the paranoia" of the 1580s and overlooked the many agreements that united conformists and their critics. On her watch, "the contrast between the godly and conformists in England was more one of temperature, of the intensity of commitment[s] to spiritual regeneration-rather than of doctrinal substance."4

Other recent surveys exhibit the guild's satisfaction with the paradigm shift and new paradigm. Among the most readerfriendly and revealing, Norman Jones' English Reformation, concentrates on accommodation rather than polarization. Jones attends to the ways ideological tensions were managed so that common interests of confessional communities to which Elizabethan elites belonged were well served. In this wonderful study of "cultural adaptation," many of the maladapted are gone. Many of the dissidents Bancroft found disagreeable are gone. William Fulke, John Field, Dudley Fenner missed the cut, as did Bancroft himself. And one of Jones' typically telling illustrations suggests that late Tudor puritanism could well have been a family squabble more often than it was a comprehensive, consuming conflict. Nicholas Bacon "fear[ed] rapid religious change" and, as Lord Keeper, had a part in punishing "people whose faith carried them beyond the law." Bacon's first three sons, though, "rejected their father's moderation." Nicholas, Nathaniel, and Edward were determined to see their realm permanently delivered from "poperie" and patronized puritan clergy in Suffolk and Norfolk.5

Warnings about a resurgent Roman Catholicism probably punctuated the puritan sermons the Bacon boys heard, though the preachers' agitation for further reform would have appeared increasingly inconsequential and inconspicuous from the late 1580s. …