Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America by Michael Winship

Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America cover imageSummary: A relevant history of a theological reform movement that became political.

Every once in a while, I come across history revealing areas where I did not realize I had a big hole, but once identified, many connections get made. I have read a number of English history books, but once I read Hot Protestants, I realized that they all seemed to stop around Elizabeth or James and not pick up again until George III. I had never read a book on the English Revolution and did not realize where that was in the timeline.

Hot Protestants is a history of Puritanism, a revival movement within the Church of England. Part of what struck me was how explicitly Puritans understood England to have a similar covenant as ancient Israel had with God and how that theological commitment led to many of their social and political commitments.

“Fasting was a public responsibility as well as a private one. It was widely accepted that a Christian country like England was a successor to ancient Israel. Just as Israel had the true church before the Jews rejected Jesus, England had God’s true church, thanks to the Reformation. Like Israel, England was in a covenant with God, and like Israel, it would be blessed or punished to the extent that it followed or defied God’s law. Therefore, when it strayed, it needed to collectively implore God’s forgiveness, just as the ancient Jews had done. The Church of England ordered public fasts when faced with signs of God’s wrath—plague, famine, war, and the like.34 Church of England fasts, however, were called too infrequently to satisfy puritans, and unless undertaken in a puritan manner, they were too formal and short to generate and express the humiliation and repentance that a jealous God expected. Puritan ministers asserted the dubiously legal right to call public fasts on their own. Zealous Protestants would travel 10 or 20 miles for a puritan fast, which could easily last an entire day between the many long prayers and sermons from the ministers present.” (p35)

Part of what kept coming up in my mind as I read Hot Protestants is that current advocates of Christian Nationalism seem to have a very similar theology and practice. Puritans understood their role as not only revivalists but also social reformers. Those social reforms were not simply to improve society but to enforce social norms to fulfill the covenant with God. Magistrates had wide latitude to enforce religious laws that either had not existed or had not been legally enforced. The Church of England restricted ordination and the role of revival preaching, but those restrictions chafed against people (both men and women) who felt the call of God. England did not have legal freedom or religious consciousness as the United States does, and because of covenantal thinking, religious and civil legal violations became intertwined.

Eventually, the monarchs became wary of these Puritans because their willingness to challenge the church hierarchies also led them to start challenging the civil hierarchies. Two streams of Puritanism eventually arose. Presbyterianism maintained a type of hierarchy where elders voted in legislative sessions, which bound all Presbyterian churches to the will of the sessions. While Congregationalists took voting to the local level and understood each church to be autonomous and all (male) members in good standing were eligible to vote on religious matters within the congregation, however, those votes only applied to the local congregation, not to other congregational churches.

While Presbyterian and Congregational movements were both being persecuted, they were able to work together because they were both strongly theologically Calvinist. But once the Glorious Revolution occurred, the infighting became much stronger. Congregationalists were stronger in North America, in part because of the independence and distance between churches. The leaders of the Glorious Revolution in England attempted to change the Church of England into a formally Presbyterian ecclesiology. This tied Presbyterian to a type of anti-monarchism, and when the revolution fell apart, there was a religious backlash against Presbyterianism because of how it was connected politically to the revolution. The congregational orientation of New England ecclesiology influenced its political organization of local direct democracy that eventually influenced the development of US political systems after the US revolutions.

What is particularly helpful about Hot Protestants is that he grounds the religious history in appropriate civil and economic history to help the reader understand the social events that influenced the religious events. It was not simply that Puritans moving to North America were seeking religious freedom; they were seeking to create utopian societies to show those back in England how God’s blessing would come when societies worked in harmony with their understanding of God’s covenants. Those religious motivations were real, but the population of England was booming, and economically, some non-Puritans were seeking to invest in colonization projects to gain wealth as Spain was doing. Politically, many minor nobles were seeking to gain political, economic, and religious influence for themselves and saw the Puritan movement as a viable means to gain personal influence.

Part of what Winship does well is show the problems of generational transfer of ideology. Coverts who were “hot” had children and grandchildren who were themselves influenced by those original coverts but may not have had the same motivation. Children who do not have a direct memory of events their parents are responding to may either react against their parents’ guardrails or harden themselves without understanding the original purpose. They may not have started as legalistic and controlling movements, but eventually, the covenantal thinking was not satisfied with personal piety and enforced their piety on others, which created a backlash and opened the Puritans up to charges of hypocrisy.

This is not at all an anti-Puritan book. In many ways, the handling of the Salem Witch Trials, I think, shows that the author respects his subject and is trying to give a broader understanding of the interaction of politics, theology, economics, and other social movements. Puritan New England, as well as Old England, had many witch trials. However, Puritans had strong guardrails on their judicial systems that had begun to be removed because the New England of the Witch Trial era had been forced to become more pluralistic because of English legal and political realities. Winship makes the case that the excesses, which were blamed on Puritanism, were actually a result of not following Puritan legal systems.

I am continually struck by how much of our current political and theological realities have echos in history. We just need to understand that history to have a level of humility about what reform movements can and cannot do in the light of human and systemic limitations.

Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America by Michael Winship Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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