James I and the Puritans

John Spiller assesses James I’s impact on the Puritans and the Puritans’ impact on James I.

The Puritans embraced a range of views on religion, society and the role of monarchy. There were especially important differences among them relating to how the state church should be governed, and these may have confused Elizabeth I regarding what the majority of them believed.

Separatists amongst them posed the greatest threat to the unity of the via media (middle way) Queen Elizabeth established in the Church of England in 1559. They maintained that congregations should be free to worship separately, outside a national church structure. Independents wanted to have some degree of congregational autonomy within a looser national church structure, while moderate Puritans generally supported the idea of a national framework, with the monarch as head of a state church buttressed by bishops. Presbyterians, who were not as numerous in England as in Scotland, agreed with a national framework but wanted bishops replaced by elders and national synods, and they were also against the idea of the monarch being head of the church. James VI of Scotland had had his fill of the Presbyterian Kirk, but he had been raised as a Calvinist and many English Puritans anticipated his arrival eagerly as King James I of England in 1603.

Most, though not all, Puritans believed in a Calvinist theology centred on predestination, sermons, the Bible and respect for the Sabbath. They emphasised individual faith and preaching, which they wanted to be based more on the Bible than the Book of Common Prayer of 1559. Most Puritans felt strongly that there should be some sort of ‘reformation of manners’ to stop drunkenness, fornication (intercourse outside marriage), adultery, swearing and immoral conduct. They also wished to remove certain abuses from the Church of England, including all traces of the old Catholic faith.

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