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The Puritans and the return of Christ

July 1999 | by Crawford Gribben

The hope of the return of Jesus is always presented in Scripture as the great purifying hope of the church. ‘For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ’ (Titus 2:11-13). Nevertheless, the briefest glance at church history will demonstrate that teaching about the Second Coming has often been perceived among Christians more as of a source of contention than of common hope. This was never more so than when differences over the biblical millennium brought about the collapse of the Westminster Assembly in the late seventeenth century.

The Westminster Assembly was a synod appointed by the Long Parliament to reform the English church and was attended by over 300 delegates of various ecclesiastical persuasions. It began in 1643, continued to meet for some six years, and led to the formulation of the Westminster Confession.

Two attitudes commonly prevail when Christians divide over eschatology. One group of believers immerse themselves so fully in eschatological studies that they lose sight of the place of such teaching within the overall tenor of Scripture, while the other group ignores such teaching altogether. It goes without saying that both attitudes miss the point, but the history of the church reveals few who have successfully maintained a scriptural balance.

While the revival of interest in Puritan theology has curbed many excesses in eschatological investigation, many Reformed Christians have moved so far from the biblical emphasis on the second advent that they regard any talk of the Second Coming with suspicion. In this they have moved far from the Puritan tradition.

Foundation and failure

Eschatology – the doctrine of the last things – was very much a foundation of the seventeenth-century Puritan movement. But it was also a significant feature of its collapse. The millenarian spirit of the Puritan brotherhood was clearly demonstrated in the build-up to, and failure of, the Westminster Assembly. A great deal of the eschatological interest of that gathering had been generated by the collapse of Scottish episcopacy. English Puritans certainly understood the Scottish revolution in apocalyptic terms. John Bastwick’s tract entitled The Beast is Wounded. Or, Information from Scotland, concerning their Reformation (1638) informed his English readership of the Scottish challenges to the ‘Antichristian power’ of prelacy and the ‘idol-book’ of Common Prayer. For those groaning under the totalitarian yoke of prelacy, the destruction of episcopacy in Scotland seemed like reformation come again.

Common enemy

It was this sense of working together against a common enemy which drew the Puritan brethren from both sides of the border into an alliance. By the beginning of the 1640s the informal links which had existed between the various non-episcopal Calvinistic groups in Scotland and England were evolving into a ‘Puritan pact’ intended to unite the Presbyterians and Independents in both countries against their common enemy.

Events were moving at great speed. In May 1641, the London Puritan Stephen Marshall had been serving with Archbishop Ussher, the greatest primate of the Irish church, on a Long Parliament committee working towards a modified episcopacy. By September, Marshall was anticipating the fall of the bishops, breathlessly wondering ‘whether God ever did such a thing for matter and manner, as he hath now done for these two unworthy Nations’.

Jeremiah Burroughs, Marshall’s colleague, shared his excitement at the imminent collapse of Anglicanism. Both preachers understood the eschatological importance of the event, ‘the great work of the Lord that He is doing in this latter age of the world’. For these English divines, the proceedings which led to the Westminster Assembly were grounded in the apocalyptic union of England and Scotland, an eschatological alliance against the bishops.

The end of all things?

The Scots had long anticipated this type of thinking. In the 1630s Samuel Rutherford had exploited apocalyptic images to consolidate his vision of a Protestant kingdom united against the bishops: ‘England and Ireland shall be well-swept chambers for Christ and his righteousness to dwell in; for he hath opened our graves in Scotland, and the two dead and buried witnesses are risen again, and are prophesying’.

Burroughs agreed on the three-kingdom concept, though he quietly pointed to England’s pre-eminence in reformation. Although ‘England was the first Kingdom in all the world that received the Gospel with the countenance of supreme authority’, he claimed, her future lay in a union with the Scots.

Burroughs had no doubt that the proposed union would utterly destroy the bishops. As he understood it, their influence was the influence of Antichrist. His opposition to Christ’s church had been allowed to prevail, but ‘this time God intends to ruin him’, Burroughs told MPs. ‘You come at the time of his downfall, when he is falling, in God’s very day of recompensing vengeance for all the blood he hath shed, and all the mischief he hath done’.

This iconoclastic temper was set in a robustly apocalyptic context: ‘that which God hath begun to doe amongst us, we hope is the beginning of that great work that he intends to doe in this latter age of the world’. The fall of the bishops in Scotland bred hope in England that the end of all things was near.

Shifting power-balance

The Scots were quick to ally themselves with this anti-prelatical eschatology. Consequently, the alliance towards which these Puritans had been working was formalised in November 1641. Representatives from Scotland travelled to London to negotiate the alliance after the collapse of Ussher’s scheme to settle the church on the basis of a modified episcopacy. The English Puritans began to realise that England’s shifting balance of power no longer demanded their uncomfortable co-operation with the more orthodox of the Anglican divines – men like James Ussher – and that an agreement between the pro-Independency and pro-Presbyterian parties among the Puritans could quicken further reformation and achieve the total abolition of the bishops.

The Scots were keen to assist. In November, members of the three groups agreed that neither side would preach against the other until their common goal – the abolition of the bishops – had been achieved. Gaining the support of the English Independents, and Presbyterians on both sides of the border, this ‘Puritan pact’ was intended to carry the saints into the millennium. Its immediate effect, however, was to lead to the Westminster Assembly.

Rediscovering the New Testament church

The Scots quickly realised that their most natural allies in the assembly were not their ecclesiological allies, the English Presbyterians, but rather the Independents, with their sympathetic eschatology. In December 1643, Robert Baillie, one of the Scottish Commissioners at the assembly, observed that the English Independent leaders, ‘Goodwin, Burroughs, and Bridge, are men full, as it seems yet, of grace and modesty’. The Scots and the English Independents shared a deep interest in outlining the true form of biblical church government. Both sides were also intensely interested in eschatology, and were robustly optimistic about the prospects of the gospel. Robert Baillie exemplified the connection which many of the brethren were beginning to make between the latter-day glory and the rediscovery of New Testament church order: ‘We are thinking of a new work overseas, if this church were settled’, he claimed; ‘the outward providence of God seems to be disposing France, Spain, Italy, and Germany, for the receiving of the Gospel. When the curtains of the Lord’s tabernacle are thus far, and much further enlarged, by the means which yet appear not, how shall our mouth be filled with laughter’.

Unity under strain

But the unity of the Puritan brotherhood was put under strain when these two major themes of ecclesiology and eschatology came into conflict. Puritans increasingly identified the establishment of the biblical millennium, or the latter-day glory, with the inauguration of their own preference of church government. Thomas Goodwin’s exposition of Revelation had first argued on this basis in 1639, claiming that all churches would be Independent by 1700 – when he expected the millennium to begin. Throughout the 1640s this concept entered the thinking of each of the competing ecclesiastical groups so that by the 1650s John Owen could claim that the new heavens and earth would witness the establishment of the true ‘way of gospel worship’. This combination of ecclesiological and eschatological themes would eventually undermine the Puritan movement.

As the assembly’s divines turned their attentions to the thorny issue of church government, the forces of competing eschatologies teased the saints apart. The covenant had only required that its adherents pledge themselves to ‘preserve’ the Reformed religion of the Church of Scotland and to support ‘the reformation of religion in the kingdoms of England and Ireland, in doctrine, worship, discipline, and government, according to the word of God, and the example of the best reformed Churches’.

Both Independents and Presbyterians had eagerly subscribed to this oath, many of them in blood; but the uncertainty of exactly which groups constituted the ‘best reformed Churches’ could not sustain the initial unity it had won. Both Presbyterians and Independents were certain the appellation was theirs.