Thursday, October 14, 2010

These Ain't Your Mama's Puritans!

I was reading the book, "A Royal Passion: The Turbulent Marriage of King Charles I of England and Henrietta Maria of France," last night and was reminded of a lesson I taught at a local community college several years ago.  I was fresh out of school and had landed a part-time position, teaching two American history classes.  I was desperately trying to make history fun, while giving my students a different perspective of history and it's actors.

The topic that week wasn't easy.  There was no war, gruesome battles or exciting characters I could use.  "Darn, those Puritans," (I was more liberal in my word choice, but this is a family blog) I thought, "my students are going to fall asleep within the first five minutes, instead of the first ten!"  After all, most people think Puritans were religious extremists, who were judgmental, critical, stuffy and prudish. 

King Charles I of England certainly would not have argued with those statements.  As an Anglican, married to a Catholic, he sought to suppress those who wanted to "purify" the church, otherwise known as Puritans.  The Puritans felt that the Anglican church didn't go far enough during the reformation.  They detested the office of bishop in England, the elaborate masses, the communion of saints and other relics of "popery."

Charles felt the Puritans were dangerous and after several bad parliamentary sessions with the Puritans demanding that Henrietta's Catholic entourage be returned to France, he refused to call another Parliament for a decade.  Feeling that their rights as Englishmen had been violated, many Puritans emigrated to Massachusetts.  However some stayed behind in England, attempting to rid England of the corrupting influence of Archbishop Laud and Henrietta.

After a decade of exuberant spending, Charles needed money to fight the Scottish Presbyterians in the north.  With no money and thinking that the Minister's of Parliament would feel passionate about his crusade against the Scots, he called Parliament.  Making a long story short, the Puritans demanded greater freedom of religion, a regular meeting of parliament, the ability to chose the servants in the King's household and hold trails of those accused of treason.

Charles, not wanting to violate his conscious and unable to make decisions, wouldn't agree to their terms.  The Puritans, incensed, became radicalized and within a couple of years, the English Civil War would begin.  At the end of the war, Charles was a mere prisoner of parliament.  After a long argument on whether Parliament could even try a king for treason, Charles was sentenced to death.  After he was executed, Parliament, at the urgings of Oliver Cromwell, abolished the monarchy.

In the modern era, none of this seems shocking.  Few nations even have kings or queens, Congress meets regularly, we are free to worship as we chose and many kings, queens, czars and dictators have shared the same fate as Charles I.  We must remember, however, that Charles's execution by his own people was unthinkable during his day.  These rebellious Puritans in Parliament changed the way society viewed monarchy and paved the way for democracy.  Now what do you think of the Puritans?  Perhaps you still want to cling to the Nathanial Hawthorne version of the Puritans, but for those who desire a new view; take a drink of some hard cider.  The Puritans believed it was good for your health.

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