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Puritan Political Thought and the “Cases of Conscience”*

  • George L. Mosse (a1)

Extract

Looking back over the stormy times of Revolution and Civil War, Thomas Hobbes came to the conclusion that it was superior force which had been decisive. The sword rather than the heavens had passed judgment upon the people of the Lord. The holy zeal of the early Puritans had run its course; the crusade was ended. Had Thomas Hobbes looked across the Atlantic he would have seen another “Holy Experiment” in decline. The second half of the Seventeenth century saw a debacle of Puritanism of such dimension that not even their most purposeful enemies of an earlier date would have had cause to complain. One recent historian has even called the Restoration of Church and King a “Laudian triumph.” Yet for all this, the Revolution took place and triumphed, if only for a time. In evaluating the political ideas which the Puritans held before and even during their rise to power, subsequent events have too often been taken into account. Puritanism led to Revolution; thus doctrine of resistance to authority must be stressed. The movement failed to hold on to power largely due to the Utopianism of its proponents. This also must be explained. The first view has often led to stress upon a straight line of Puritan thought from Christopher Goodman to John Milton. The second contention based itself on the literal application of Scripture which Puritans were sometimes apt to make. It was their urge “to build Jerusalem on England's green and pleasant strand” which led them into all sorts of follies. We are still inclined to think of the Puritan in sombre dress, his intellectual equipment symbolized by the sword in one hand and the Bible in the other.

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1. Hobbes, Thomas, “Dialogue of the Common Law,” English Works of Thomas Hobbes, ed. SirWilliam, Molesworth (London, 1840), VI, 18.

2. Bosher, Robert S., The Making of the Restoration Settlement, (New York, 1951), 282.

3. Haller, William, The Rise of Puritanism, (New York, 1938), 25.

4. Downame, John, A Guide to Godliness etc. (London, 1622), 459, 460.

5. Meissner, Paul, Die Geistesgeschichtlichen Grundlagen des Englischen Literaturbaroks, (Muenchen, 1934), 13.

6. Quoted in Neale, J. E., Elizabeth I and IIer Parliaments (London, 1953), 266.

7. Perkins, William, “The Whole Treatise of the Cases of Conscience,” The Works of M. William Perkins, (London. 1631) (from now on cited as Works), II, 117.

8. Quoted in Croce, Benedetto, Riduzione della Filisofia della Diritto etc., (Naples, 1907), 38.

9. Marsden, J. B., The History of the Early Puritans, (London, 1853), 450.

10. Ames, William, Bellarminus Enervatus etc.. (London, 1629), 21, 22.

11. Sterry, Peter, Discourse of the Freedom of the Will, (London, 1675), 55, 105.

12. Perkins, William, “The Whole Treatise of the Cases of Conscience,” Works, II, 3.

13. e.g. Thomas Pickering summarizing Perkins' position in the Epistle Dedicatory, “The Whole Treatise of the Cases of Conscience.” Works, II. This view of sin has led to a confirmation of the belief that Puritanism was content with nothing short of absolutes; i.e. Miller, Perry, The New England Mind, (New York, 1939), 45. Perhaps the argument put forward here may serve to modify this judgment in some particulars.

14. Perkins, William, “A Commentary or Exposition Upon the Five First Chapters of the Epistle to the Galatians,” Works, II, 183.

15. Ibid.

16. An Abridgement of Dr. Preston's Works, etc. (London, 1648), 243. See here St. Augustine, De Mendacio, tr. Muldowney, Mary Sarah, “Treatise on Various Subjects,” The Fathers of the Church, XVI, (New York, 1952), 55. “For, a person is to be judged as lying or not lying according to the intention of his own mind, not according to the truth or falsity of the matter itself.”

17. Quoted in Huehn, Gertrude, Antinomianism in English History, (London, 1951), 94.

18. Perkins, William, “The Whole Treatise of the Cases of Conscience,” Works, II, 114.

19. Ibid, II.

20. Ames, William, Conscience with the Power and the Cases thereof, etc., (n. p. 1639), I.

21. Ibid, 2.

22. Reuter, Karl, Wilhelm Amesius, (Neukirchen, 1940), 126. This is the only full scale work on Ames and has useful comparisons with Perkins. The emphasis Puritans placed on a clear conscience explains partly why the resolving of troubled consciences was so important. Thomas Scales wrote in 1630 “… yet if the conscience be not ferme and free riches is trash and honour but a toy the peace of conscience is the perfect joy” “The Relation of Frances Spira,” 25. Scales Abridgement, H. M. 205 (Hastings Ms.), Huntington Library.

23. Dorrington who threw himself from the steeple of Sepulchre's, St.. John Gerard, tr. Philip Caraman, (London, 1951), 171.

24. I have made a detailed examination of Perkins's and Ames's thought in another context, “The Assimilation of Machiavelli in English Thought: The Casuistry of William Ames and William Perkins,” Huntington Library Quarterly, (08, 1954). Thomas Wood has written on English Casuistical Ditrinity During the Seventeenth Century, (London, 1952); however, he concentrates largely upon Jeremy Taylor. For an exploitation of the social aspect, see Wright, Louis, “William Perkins, Elizabethan Apostle of ‘Practical Divinity,’” Huntington Library Quarterly, III, (1941), 171196.

25. Ames, William, The Marrow of Sacred Divinity etc., (London, n.d), 152.

26. Ames, William, Conscience with the Power and the Cases thereof, etc., (n.p. 1639), 86.

27. Heussi, Thus Karl in his standard Kompendium der Kirchengeschichte, (Tuebiugen, 1913), calls Probabilismus “… in der I. Haelfte des 17 Jhds. bereits das herrsehende katholische Moralsystem.” 378. This statement seems to need revision in that some Protestants shared this concept.

28. Ames, William, Conscience with the Power and the Cases thereof, etc., (n.p. 1639), 16.

29. Calvin, John, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses called Genesis, tr. John King (Grand Rapids, 1948), 522.

30. The Bible and Holy Scriptures, etc., (Geneva, 1560), Genesis XII, 13.

31. Perkins, William, “A Commentary or Exposition upon the Five First Chapters of the Epistle to the Gallatians,” Works, II, 183.

32. Perkins, William, “A Direction for the Government of the Tongue According to God's Word,” Works, I, 450.

33. Perkins, William, “A. Cloud of Faithful Witnesses etc.,” Works, III, 171.

34. The Bible and Holy Scriptures etc., (Geneva, 1560), Exodus I, 19.

35. Perkins, William, “A Direction for the Government of the Tongue According to God's Word,” Works, I, 443.

36. Ames, Wlliam, A Fresh Suit of Human Ceremonies etc., (Rotterdam, 1633), preface.

37. Perkins, William, “The Whole Treatise of the Cases of Conscience etc.,” Works, II, 115, 116.

38. Perkins, William, “A Cloud of Faithful Witnesses,” Works, III, 175. I have outlined Perkins's and Ames's attitude towards the just war in greater detail in “The Assimilation of Machiavelli in English Thought; the Casuistry of Wiffiam Perkins and William Ames,” Huntington Library Quarterly, (08, 1954).

39. Perkins, William, “A Godly and Learned Exposition of Christ's Sermon on the Mount,” Works, III, 84 ff.

40. The Bible and Holy Scriptures etc., (Geneva, 1560), I Peter, II, 18.

41. Perkins, William, “The Whole Treatise of the Cases of Conscience etc.,” Works, II, 151.

42. Perkins, William, “A Treatise on Christian Equity and Moderation,” Works, II, 473.

43. Ibid, 439.

44. Perkins, William, “A Treatise of the Vocations or Callings of Men,” Works, I, 750.

45. It may be well to mention here that these ideas about the Magistrate come to approximate the concept of “reason of state” which was being accepted in Europe at the time. See my “Puritanism and Reason of State in Old and New England,” William and Maiy Quarterly, IX, (01, 1952), 6781.

46. Neale, J. E., Elizabeth I and Her Parliaments, (London, 1953), see especially the introduction.

47. Judson, Margaret Atwood, The Crisis of the Constitution, (New Brunswick, 1949), 319.

48. Ames, William, The Marrow of Sacred Divinity, etc., (London, n.d.), 314.

49. Michaelsen, Robert S., “Changes in the Puritan Concept of Calling or Vocation,” New England Quarterly, XXVI, No. 3, (09, 1953), 326,

50. Barth, Karl, (Reformation ais Eatscheidung), (Muenehen, 1933), 20 ff.

51. Ames, William, Conscience With the Power and the Cases thereof, etc., (n.p. 1639), to the reader.

* I am indebted to the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery for a grant in aid to further these researches.

See note, pg. 99.

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Church History
  • ISSN: 0009-6407
  • EISSN: 1755-2613
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