Abstract

Historians are reluctant to find links between puritanism and the constitutional struggles of late Tudor and early Stuart England. “Legal/constitutional” and “religious,” it is now usually argued, are distinct categories. Scholars might allow that these categories “fused,” but only in the pressure cooker political atmosphere of the 1620s, when it was widely feared that a popish plot was undermining Protestantism and limited monarchy. “Freeborn (Puritan) Englishmen” argues that for puritans, “Legal/constitutional” and “religious” had never been separate categories. Elizabethan Presbyterians wished to reinstate the “olde constitution of the Church of God” in the Church of England. Both the recovery of that constitution and the bishops’ resistance to it were part of the true church's ancient struggle against Antichrist's lawless tyranny. By the late sixteenth century, puritan ministers and lawyers warned that the bishops’ antichristian lust for absolute power was endangering England's limited monarchy. One consequence of this heightened peril was that the most radical puritans, the separatists, concluded that presbyterianism itself was still structurally contaminated by antichristian power. That conclusion helped shape their own church order into congregationalism. In the aftermath of James I's rejection of further church reform, the then-presbyterian William Bradshaw tied these threads of alarm over Antichrist's power into a compelling unity that would shortly be mainstreamed: an antichristian master hand was at work behind a constitutionally-deluded monarch, divine right bishops, and popish doctrinal rot. The ecclesiastical and civic remedies against this lawless power, Bradshaw argued, were non-separatist congregationalism and the reinvigoration of Protestant limited monarchy.

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