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5 - A ticklish business: defining heresy and orthodoxy in the Puritan revolution

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 February 2010

John Coffey
Affiliation:
Reader in Early Modern History, University of Leicester
David Loewenstein
Affiliation:
University of Wisconsin, Madison
John Marshall
Affiliation:
The Johns Hopkins University
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Summary

I knew how ticklish a Business the Enumeration of Fundamentals was, and of what very ill Consequence it would be if it were ill done.

– Richard Baxter

Puritanism is often equated with strict Reformed orthodoxy. Historians typically depict the godly as purveyors of hardline Calvinism, driven by intense predestinarian convictions. Indeed, one of the most popular definitions of Puritans dubs them “experimental [i.e. experiential] Calvinists.” Whatever their differences on other matters, we tend to assume that the godly shared a common theology, one profoundly shaped by the writings of John Calvin, Theodore Beza, and William Perkins, whom some have called “the trinity of the orthodox.”

Yet as recent scholarship has demonstrated, the godly were often at odds with each other in matters theological, and such doctrinal consensus as existed did not come easily. As early as the mid-sixteenth century, some zealous Protestants rejected predestinarianism, to the embarrassment of the martyrologist John Foxe, who covered over deviations from Reformed orthodoxy among the martyrs. In the early seventeenth century, the General Baptists, who emerged from a strongly Puritan milieu, also embraced a free-will theology under the influence of Dutch Mennonites. Although the subculture of the godly was typically characterized by conventional Calvinist orthodoxy, it could throw up spectacular cases of heterodoxy, such as that of Edward Wightman, who in 1612 was burned at the stake in Lichfield for his “Heretical, Execrable … Opinions,” thus becoming the last person to be executed for heresy in England.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2006

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