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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

III. The Puritan Divines, 1620–1720

§ 3. Types of Church Polity Corresponding to Types of State Polity—Monarchical, Artistocratic, Democratic

Necessarily, therefore, the Puritan reformation was allied with political reformation, and the period of ecclesiastical reorganization was equally a period of political reorganization. Modern political parties were thrown up out of the ferment of religious dispute, and the inevitable cleavages of Puritan thought were determined broadly by the cleavages of political thought. The three parties in the ecclesiastical field, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Independent, reflected the current political ideals of tory, whig, and democrat. The first was monarchical in principle, the ecclesiastical expression of tory absolutism. It gathered to its support the hereditary masters of society, who held that there should be one authoritative church, to which every subject of the crown must belong, to the support of which all must contribute, and in the governance of which only the appointed hierarchy should share. The second party was aristocratic in principle, the expression of the rising ideal of whiggery, or government by property through the instrumentality of landed gentlemen. Country squires and prosperous London citizens desired a church system which they could control, and this system they discovered in Presbyterianism, newly brought over from Geneva, which gave the control of the parish to the eldership, composed of responsible gentlemen who should serve as trustees for the good of the whole. The third party was more or less consciously democratic in principle, the expression of the newly awakened aspirations of the social underling. The poor man wanted to be ruled neither by bishops nor by gentlemen, but preferred to club with the likeminded of his own class, and set up an independent church along democratic lines. That was the true Christian church, he believed, which withdrew from all communion with sinners and established a “Congregation of the Saints”; and so he called himself a Separatist. But whatever name he might call himself by, he was at bottom a democrat who demanded the right of self-government in the church, and who, when times were ripe, would assuredly assert the greater right of self-government in the state.

Broadly speaking, the Anglicans kept the situation pretty well in hand up to the accession of Charles I. During the long disputes between Charles and the Parliament, the rising party of Presbyterians was organizing its forces to break the rule of the bishops, and the early years of Parliamentary sovereignty marked the culmination of the middle period, dominated by the Presbyterian ideal. But no sooner was the ruthless hand of tory absolutism struck down than the long gathering forces of social discontent came to a head and broke with the moderate party of Presbyterian reformers; whereupon there followed the real Puritan revolution which had been preparing since the days of Wyclif. The Separatists seized control of Parliament and set about the work of erecting a government that should be a commonwealth of free citizens; the voice of the democratic underling, for the first time in English history, was listened to in the national councils, and the army of the democrat stood ready to enforce his demands with the sword. But unfortunately the strong wine went to the head; unbalanced schismatics endeavoured to set up impossible Utopias; zeal outran wisdom; and the Puritan movement broke at last into a thousand sects and went to pieces. But not before its real work was done; not before the political principles, which hitherto had been obscurely entangled in theological disputation, were set free and held up to the view of Englishmen; not before the new democratic philosophy had clarified its fundamental principle, namely, that the individual both as Christian and citizen derives from nature certain inalienable rights which every church and every government is bound to respect.