The Covenanters shared certain principles with the English Puritans. There was an emphasis on the supreme authority of the Word of God in matters of worship and practice as well as doctrine. They shared a commitment to deepening the work of Reformation that brought them together in the Westminster Assembly. Their writings manifest the same spiritual maturity and true fear of God and preaching saturated with the Scriptures. They focus upon eternity, warfare against sin, family religion and practical godliness. Would it not be natural to think of the Covenanters as Scottish Puritans?
The short answer is: no, this would not be accurate. There are various reasons for this.
1. Puritanism is an imprecise term
Puritanism is notoriously difficult for scholars to define in terms of when the movement began and ended, what its main principles were and who can be given this label. It is not therefore a useful way of understanding the Covenanters and their principles. It is not helpful to think of New England as virtually identical to Scotland at this time.
Puritans could have different doctrinal views or positions on church government. The term Covenanter, by contrast is much more definite since it speaks of Covenanted Reformation and is clear in terms of church government, worship and doctrine.
The term Puritan does not indicate allegiance to a particular form of church government. Covenanters were, however, very committed to Presbyterian church government and suffered enormously in defending it. To call the Covenanters Puritans sets aside the importance that they placed on Presbyterian principles. It may well say far more about modern indifference to matters of church government than it does about the Scottish Church in the seventeenth century.
2. Puritanism was a short-lived term in Scotland
The term Puritan was never especially used in Scotland before 1618, whereas it was used in England from 1564. This was when changes were brought into the worship of the Church of Scotland to bring it in line with the Church of England. Those who resisted the changes were defending the status quo rather than seeking to change it.The Puritans in England were conversely trying to change the status quo to match the practice in Scotland. There was similarity in what they were defending but. Presbyterians were nicknamed Puritan by the Church authorities in order to smear their reputation. The name fell out of use after 1638 in Scotland because that is when the bishops and their supporters fell from power.
The Covenanter movement in Scotland was different to English Puritanism in its purpose. The Reformation under John Knox had not been a half-way compromise but rather something that Puritans admired. The Covenanters were resisting change away from the original position of the Church rather than trying to effect change. The Puritans, however, aimed to purify the half-reformed Church of England from its Roman Catholic practices. This is a significant difference.
3. Puritanism was rejected in Scotland as a term of abuse
Of course it was a term of abuse in England too at first. Yet the English Puritans came to accept it. Robert Bolton spoke of ‘Puritan’ as “the honourable nickname of the best and holiest men”. John Geree celebrated it in The Character of an Old English Puritan, or Non-Conformist (1646).
Samuel Rutherford, however, only used the word in reference to it as a term of abuse applied by the enemies of the Presbyterians (see Letters 11, 59 and 262). In one sermon he refers to those who are afraid of being nicknamed Puritans. This does not mean, however, that they welcomed it. George Gillespie objected to the fact that “they make godly and zealous Christians to be mocked and nick named Puritans except they can swallow the camel of conformity”. He makes the point that this was the term applied to an ancient heresy.
Our consciences bear us witness how without all reason we are branded with the name of those ancient heretics from whose opinions and manners O how far are we. And as for ourselves notwithstanding all this we shrink not to be reproached for the cause of Christ. We know the old Waldenses before us were also named by their adversaries Cathares or Puritans and that without cause hath this name been given both to them and us. But we are most sorry that such as are walking humbly with their God seeking eagerly after the means of grace and salvation and making good conscience of all their ways should be made odious and that piety, humility, repentance, zeal, conscience etc should be mocked and all by occasion of the ceremonies.
It may not seem a weighty point, but it is best nevertheless to avoid the growing mistake of referring to the Covenanters as either Puritans or Scottish Puritans. Let us instead, appreciate the distinctive difference.
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