Holy Horrors: A short history of the Puritans

Witchcraft at Salem Village. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Excerpt from Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness, by James A. Haught (Prometheus Books, 2002). Reprinted with permission from the author.

England had the double misfortune to suffer two religious splits. The first, when the Church of England was severed from Rome, produced a famous parade of executions. The second, when Puritans broke with the Church of England, was more lethal.

Although Puritanism had been officially outlawed under Queen Elizabeth I, it continued to grow, turning increasingly rigid in its attempt to “purify” the Anglican Church by purging hints of Catholicism. Historian J. R. Green wrote:

“The absolute devotion of the Puritan to a Supreme Will tended more and more to rob him of all sense of measure and proportion in common matters. Little things became great things in the glare of religious zeal, and the godly man learned to shrink from a surplice, or a mince pie at Christmas, as he shrank from impurity or a lie. Life became hard, rigid, colorless, as it became intense.”

Puritans renounced frivolity. Lord Macaulay noted that Puritans “hated bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.”

When Puritans called upon King James I to reform the church, he furiously bade them conform to Anglicanism. “I will make them conform or I will harry them out of the land, or else worse—hang them.” His harsh measures caused some Puritans to begin moving to Holland and New England.

James was succeeded by his son, Charles I, whose ruthless archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, persecuted Puritans. He tried them in the secretive Star Chamber and had them scourged, pilloried, or imprisoned—and sometimes had their ears cropped, their foreheads branded, or their noses split.

Laud sought to impose an Anglican prayer book on Scottish congregations. They rebelled in the Bishops Wars in 1639. Charles summoned parliament to raise money for an army to fight in Scotland. But this “Short Parliament” hesitated, and the king dissolved it. Then he summoned another, the “Long Parliament”—which was his undoing.

The Parliament contained a majority of Puritans, and they began dismembering Charles’s government. Archbishop Laud was jailed and later executed. The Star Chamber was abolished. A petition was passed giving Parliament control over the Anglican Church. Charles made an abortive attempt to arrest the top Puritan legislators. This spurred them to form a rival government and raise troops. The king fled and rallied his regiments. Civil war was on.

Parliament member Oliver Cromwell rose to leadership of the Puritan army (which also contained Presbyterians and dissidents of other sects). Cromwell knew that religious fervor could produce the fighting spirit that won battles. His soldiers, called “Ironsides,” carried Bibles and sang hymns. He delayed battles to lead prayer or chant psalms—then sent his troops to kill with holy zeal. All his victories were attributed to the Lord. After slaughtering an Anglican force, Cromwell said that “God made them as stubble to our swords.”

The victorious Cromwell obtained the execution of King Charles. Then he took his soldiers to Ireland to kill rebellious Catholics. The English forces were a death machine. Irish historian Seumas MacManus recounted:

“[A]ll 17,000 of the flower of the Puritan army … were extraordinary men, his Ironsides—Bible-reading, psalm-singing soldiers of God—fearfully daring, fiercely fanatical, papist hating, looking on this land as being assigned to them, the chosen people, by their God. And looking on the inhabitants as idol-worshiping Canaanites who were cursed of God, and to be extirpated by the sword. They came with minds inflamed. …”

First these holy warriors captured Drogheda, and Cromwell ordered the execution of surrendered Catholics and their priests, calling it “a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches.” Then the same treatment was inflicted upon town after town until the Catholic resistance was destroyed. Women and priests were massacred. British writer Thomas Carlyle later rhapsodized: “Oliver Cromwell came as a soldier of God the Just, terrible as Death, relentless as Doom, doing God’s judgments on the enemies of God.”

Cromwell returned to England and made himself a holy dictator, the Lord Protector. But his death in 1658 was followed by an Anglican backlash called the Restoration. Cromwell’s body was unearthed and hanged, and his head mounted on a pole above Westminster Hall. Anglican uniformity laws were passed, forcing 1,800 Puritan rectors out of their posts. Puritan, Presbyterian, and other dissident worship was outlawed. Baptist minister John Bunyan was imprisoned twelve years, during which he wrote Pilgrim’s Progress. Troops were sent to find non-Anglicans worshiping in fields.

Eventually, the death penalty was imposed for attending a non-Anglican service. Women and children were tortured to make them reveal the whereabouts of men running from arrest. An 18-year-old girl was drowned in Solway Inlet for refusing to renounce Presbyterianism. Small religious uprisings occurred in 1666 and 1679. During the reign of King James II in the 1680s, the hunt for hardline Presbyterians called Cameronians was known as “the killing time.”

Meanwhile, Puritans who went to Massachusetts to escape religious persecution became notorious for persecuting others. They created a religious police state where doctrinal deviation could lead to flogging, pillorying, banishment, hanging—or cutting off ears, or boring through the tongue with a hot iron. Preaching Quaker beliefs was a capital offense. Four stubborn Quakers defied this law and were hanged. In the 1690s, fear of witches seized the colony. Twenty alleged witches were killed and 150 others imprisoned.

Excerpted from Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness by James A. Haught. Copyright © James A. Haught, 2002. All rights reserved.

James A. HaughtJames A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s The Charleston Gazette-Mail and a senior editor of the Free Inquiry magazine. He is also the author of numerous books and articles; his most recent book is Religion is Dying: Soaring Secularism in America and the West (Gustav Broukal Press, 2010). Haught has won 21 national newswriting awards and thirty of his columns have been distributed by national syndicates. He is in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the World, Contemporary Authors, and 2000 Outstanding Intellectuals of the 21st Century. His website is haught.net.

Holy Horrors
By James A. Haught
Prometheus Books (30 May 2002)
ISBN-10: 1573927783
ISBN-13: 978-1573927789

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