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ONE wishes there were a history of English Puritanism, the last of all our heroisms, but sees small prospect of such a thing at present.” So wrote Carlyle in the introduction of his Letters and Speeches of Cromwell. This wish will probably go unfulfilled till the task is taken in hand by some genius like Carlyle himself, but with more genuine religious insight and sympathy.
It seems superfluous, and yet perhaps it is necessary, to say, in view of possible misjudgment, that this work does not purport to be “a history of English Puritanism.” It originated in the idea of bringing together, and presenting in a succinct and readable form, the best, or the substance of the best, which has been written concerning Puritanism and Independency—their genesis in England and New England, their growth and vicissitudes and struggles, till, at the close of the seventeenth century, Puritanism lost its distinctive name, and became incorporated in the life of the nation as a whole. I have not altogether departed from this intention, but have made
it my business to consult the writings of authors of acknowledged eminence and repute, with a view of collecting the most weighty pronouncements and opinions touching the character of Puritanism, and the work which Puritanism did. I have found it necessary, however, to weave these opinions and judgments into a narrative or monograph of my own, so that in its present form this book may in some sense (a very slender and modified sense, I am well aware) fairly claim to be an independent and original work. I have endeavoured to cast it into the form of a handbook, so that to those wishing to form a general acquaintance with the history of the period to which it relates, and to those wishing to pursue their inquiries further it may serve as a useful and, it is hoped, trustworthy guide. With a view to the requirements of the latter, a somewhat lavish apparatus critici, in the shape of notes, has been introduced, but not more unsparingly, it is believed, than the importance of the subjects they are introduced to illustrate seems to justify.
The literature of Puritanism is sporadic and fragmentary, either buried in antiquated and unreadable tomes,--for even Neal's history is hard reading in these days, or in more bright and vivacious books (happily not few), treating the subject in too piecemeal a fashion to present any adequate conception of what Puritanism was, or what it contributed to the making of the England of to-day. My aim has been to give as complete and
comprehensive a view of the subject as possible, bringing into one conspectus what Puritanism accomplished in the Old World and in the New, and showing how in both it became the parent of free institutions, and the founder of modern democracy.
I am not solicitous to clear myself from the imputation of being biassed, nay, of being very strongly biassed, in favour of the Puritans, and that for which the Puritans contended. It can serve no good purpose to lay claim to the merit of impartiality. Indeed, the parade of impartiality is always suspicious, and the assertion of it on the part of writers and authors, I have generally found to be in inverse relation to its real existence and exhibition. I fear I must be content to incur the reproach of such writers as the author of Religious Thought in England. In the preface to that able work, a work to which I gladly record my indebtedness, Mr. Hunt says: “I am dissatisfied, and I suppose most men are, with the spirit in which the history of religion in England is generally written. If it is the work of a Churchman, it takes the form of a defence of the Church of England; if by a Nonconformist, it is a defence of Nonconformity. And thus a subject which, in proper hands, might be prolific for good, is sacrificed to the glorification of a sect or a party.” I trust I am as fully alive to the peril here indicated as Mr. Hunt himself; but the remedy is not to be found, as he appears to think, in endeavouring to steer a middle course, and inclining neither to the one
side nor to the other. For men of strong convictions and principles, and who do not hesitate to avow them, this is clearly impossible. Notwithstanding all that may be urged to the contrary, it is possible to take sides, and yet be scrupulously just and fair. One may believe in Puritanism intensely, and yet be keenly alive to its vices and shortcomings; and one may deal out even-handed justice to its enemies and oppressors, without shutting ones eyes to their redeeming virtues and qualities. It is for others to judge how far this aim has been realised in the presentment of Puritanism given in the following pages.