99 Ultimate Puritans

islamic_state_of_iraqThe news from Iraq has filled us all with horror. Extreme Muslim groups under the banner of the Islamic State are killing and displacing all religious groups, including Christians, that do not agree with their version of Islam. As we ponder the senseless cruelty involved in these events, we need to ask what is at the heart of this savagery. The key to our interpretation of this tragedy is to be found in the title of this piece. The leaders of the Islamic State want to be the ultimate puritans.

The word puritan that we use today is one that has its origins in the 16th century and later. Groups of Christians believed that it was desirable and possible to separate from the contaminating influence of others, even fellow Christians who did not agree with their ‘pure’ version of the faith. There was a strong sense that mixing with non-believers would contaminate them with their ungodly beliefs and ways of life. The emigration to America on the Mayflower in 1620 was powered by the belief that to be ‘pure’ involved a physical separation from other human beings. I am not sure which is more important in this 16th century understanding of ‘purity’. Was it purity of doctrine or purity of community? The reality of life in America did not turn to be as pure as the Mayflower pilgrims would have liked. At least one dissident Quaker who failed to conform with the dominant theological beliefs of the colony was killed by the religious leadership in the 1640s.

Today the ideals of the early Puritans are still powerful among Christian circles and the self-description as puritan is a badge worn with pride by the leaders of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney. There is a verse in Scripture much quoted by people of a puritan turn of mind which goes along the lines of ‘separate yourself out from among them’. There was of course a strong tendency for seeking purity at all costs among the Jewish people of the post-exilic period in the 5th century BC. Ezra insisted that all non-Jewish wives and their children should be forcibly removed from the city of Jerusalem. We are not told what happened to them afterwards. There is an uncomfortable similarity between what happened among the returned exiles to Jerusalem and in the Islamic State today.

Returning to our own times there is an important moment in the history of Anglicanism in 1966 among evangelicals in London. Speaking from memory a large group of evangelicals wanted there to be a general withdrawal of evangelicals from the historical denominations to form a new grouping. This suggestion was led by Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Opposing him was John Stott, the Vicar of All Souls Langham Place, who argued for evangelicals to stay embedded in the denominations. John Stott won the argument and the Anglican church continues to be a home for many evangelical congregations, including some who would be proud to wear the puritan label in many other respects.

Puritanism as a working theological model belongs, in my opinion, to the realm of fantasy. It is impossible for practical reasons to link up only with people who believe identical things. Many times in history groups of Christians have gathered together with the best of intentions with others of the same persuasion. For a time these experiments seem to work. But it is only a short time before those in charge have to start making rules to keep everything together. Gradually the idealism and freedom of the beginning gives way to authoritarianism, if anarchy has not already destroyed it. I remember interviewing a woman for a section of my book, Ungodly Fear, that did not make the published version. She described the process of coming out of an Anglican parish with a group of 50 others to form a new House Fellowship. After 18 months, in their case, the group started to impose strict rules in an attempt to stop the fellowship disintegrating. The Anglican framework of episcopacy seems like a good deal when compared to charismatic anarchy at the one end or authoritarianism at the other. But the Anglican model does insist that Christians not only tolerate those who think like them but exist in a congregation or a denomination that is prepared to welcome diversity and difference. That is why Anglicanism has stood out against the attempt to make everyone think in an identical way. Elizabeth I famously said that she ‘did not pry into men’s souls’.

The puritan impulse exists in many forms, as we have seen, and across a wide spectrum of religions. At one extreme there is the total inability of some to have people of a different religious belief or behaviour living in your town or land. This is seen in the book of Ezra chapters 9 &10 as well among the Islamic State jihadists. This extreme is marked by violence and total intolerance. At the other end of the spectrum is a vague feeling of discomfort when forced to cope with people that are different from us. Many Christians occupy a place in, if not at the violent end, the intolerant manifestation of this common religious tendency. We prefer to have people around us who are like us, believe the same things and do not challenge us or make us ever feel uncomfortable. This desire can sometimes express itself in some quite unpleasant behaviour by Christian groups. Shunning and verbally maligning others because they are different from you is not as serious as killing them, but it is still damaging and harmful. I recorded in my book the behaviour of church members towards a couple who had left their fellowship. People would cross the road so as to avoid having to talk to them. Puritanism, the fear of being contaminated by ‘backsliders’, was alive and well among such people.

I need once more to emphasise that I do not accuse any Christians of the sort of horrific behaviour that we see today in Iraq. But I do see among Christians the same hankering for ‘purity’ whether of doctrine or community. People fear the different in terms of their colour, social position or belief system. We have to ask what would Jesus think about the underlying ideas that are implicit in the puritan thought world. The answer is, I believe, surprisingly simple. When Jesus said ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who despise you’, he was rejecting the very foundations of the separation doctrine. He wants us to mix with others, not on the grounds of whether they have the same beliefs and world views but on the grounds that they share our humanity. ‘Love your enemies’ makes impossible any cliques, any separation doctrines and indeed any justification for the whole puritan edifice. Of course the puritan impulse is wrong in jihadists; it is equally wrong in all of us as we practice it in a variety of ways within our own version of trying to separate ourselves from others.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

3 thoughts on “99 Ultimate Puritans

  1. Good article, thanks. It illustrate nicely in relation to other themes on this blog, that “what the Bible says” is not simple. It’s not enough to pick Ezra out of context, we must make the attempt to make Jesus’ life and teaching the cornerstone of our interpretation…. That still leaves us with all the work of not only seeing what disasters Puritan separatism can lead to, but trying to understand why living with difference is so difficult, how we can encourage a spirituality in society that is able to manage that, within what limits, and what the actual positives are in the creativity that acceptance of difference can produce. A big agenda!

  2. Thanks for helping me to take my thinking on this complicated subject further. At the heart of the topic is the struggle we all have to live with difference. But, as you imply, let us admit to the problem rather than put a pious gloss on our failure to do this or even to want to do it. To repeat, Puritanism seems to be a pious movement for hallowing people’s dislike of the different. That cannot be Christian and we can take Jesus’ words also to be an implied criticism of Jewish ultra-nationalism, both past and present. Somehow we have to find a balance between distinctiveness (itself a good thing) and excluding those who do not belong to the group. That is a very difficult balance. It is almost as difficult as deciding between Israel and Palestine in our own day!

  3. Thank you Stephen,
    The Puritan mentality seems to reject the concept that we are in the school of the soul and need to ask, why is this happening? What would be Jesus’ response?
    There is a world of things we have never done but, God wants us to try?
    Chris Pitts

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