Thomas Cartwright – the father of Puritanism

Alan Clifford Alan Clifford is the minister at Norwich Reformed Church
01 January, 2004 5 min read

The year 2003 has supplied us with a feast of anniversaries, including John Wesley (b. June 1703), Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153) and Jonathan Edwards (b. October 1703). If they deserve our attention, so also does Thomas Cartwright – who died in December 1603 and was, according to Daniel Neal, the ‘father of the Puritans’.

Puritanism was a religious movement within the Church of England. It demanded a more thorough application of New Testament principles to the problems posed by the semi-reformed Anglican Church.

The Puritans argued that only partial reformation had taken place in England. The Bible had relevance for the church’s worship and government as well as her doctrine. Failure to apply biblical teaching was a failure to recognise the extent of biblical authority.

Elements of puritan thinking were seen in the teaching of John Wycliffe (1324-84), William Tyndale (martyred 1536) and John Hooper, Bishop of Gloucester (martyred 1555), but the real father of English Puritanism was Thomas Cartwright. His life and labours relate to matters which are still vitally important for Christians today.


Thomas Cartwright was born about 1535 in Hertfordshire, possibly at Royston. His family and religious origins are shrouded in obscurity. He entered Clare Hall, Cambridge, in 1547, the year of the accession of King Edward VI.

In November 1550, Cartwright became a scholar at St John’s College. In the following year, Thomas Lever was appointed as the new master of the college. This man was a decided Protestant and a powerful preacher.

When Mary became queen in 1553, Lever and twenty-four fellows resigned rather than compromise their faith. Cartwright himself did not leave at this time, probably because he was not converted. However, he did leave in 1556, a fact which probably dates his conversion.

After the accession of Queen Elizabeth I in 1558, Cartwright was restored to the college in 1562 by Dr James Pilkington, the new master. The new religious settlement left Cartwright and many others disappointed.

The new queen seemed content to leave matters as they had been under Edward VI. The Reformation was not carried through according to scriptural principles.

Eloquent preacher

In 1562, Cartwright became a fellow of Trinity College. He was now known as an eloquent preacher, an able scholar and a brilliant debater. When Queen Elizabeth visited the university in 1564, a debate was held in her presence.

Cartwright was chosen to oppose the motion, ‘Is monarchy the best form of government; is the frequent change of laws dangerous?’ The Queen was not pleased to hear Cartwright argue that the sovereignty of God did not need the support of earthly monarchs! In those days, such arguments were dangerous.

The return of the Marian exiles (those who had fled to Geneva and Frankfurt during the reign of Mary Tudor) occasioned discussion about the ‘half-way-house’ of the English Reformation.

As a result of three sermons preached by Cartwright in the college chapel, the scholars and fellows of St John’s and Trinity – over 300 of them – appeared at the service without their surplices.

Exchanging the chapel missals and breviaries for their Genevan Psalters andService-books, they also pulled down the altar in the chapel. Other matters to do with worship and the entire structure of the established Church of England began to be freely and openly questioned.

Severely censured

In this highly charged atmosphere, Cartwright left Cambridge to become chaplain to the Archbishop of Armagh. The two men shared the same views. Cartwright returned to Cambridge in 1567 and, two years later, was appointed as Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity.

He began to denounce the constitution and hierarchy of the Church of England. His lectures on the Acts of the Apostles were widely influential. Many of the student hearers were to become eminent puritan pastors in years to come.

Cartwright’s sermons were opposed by John Whitgift, later Archbishop of Canterbury. Cartwright was by far the superior preacher, and St Mary’s Church was regularly filled when he was preaching. The sexton even removed the windows for the benefit of the ‘overflow’ congregation.

Cartwright was severely censured by those in authority, including Grindal, Archbishop of York. Otherwise a puritan sympathiser, Grindal complained in a letter to Lord Burghley, the Chancellor of the University:

‘The youth of the university … frequent his lectures in great numbers, and therefore are in danger of being poisoned by him with love of contention and liking of novelties, and so becoming hereafter not only unprofitable, but also hurtful to the church.’


Cartwright’s faithfulness to Scripture and undoubted courage cost him his DD, his candidature being vetoed by Dr May, the vice chancellor of the university. A prohibition was also placed on the issues under discussion.

Cartwright has been accused of abusing his position. Ought he not to have shown more loyalty to the reformed Church of England? The same charge was levelled at Luther regarding the Church of Rome.

No, there was nothing ‘unethical’ in showing greater loyalty to God’s Word than to human authorities. Friends accordingly defended Cartwright’s exposition of the Scriptures, denying that he was encouraging sedition.

Appealing to Lord Burghley, the following letter signed by eighteen leading academics gives us a clear picture of Cartwright’s personal and professional character.


Of Cartwright they wrote: ‘We know that his religion is sincere and free from blemish: for he has not only emerged from the vast ocean of papistical heresies, and cleansed himself with the purest waters of the Christian religion, but, as at a rock, he strikes at those futile and trifling opinions which are daily disseminated.

‘He adheres to the Holy Scriptures, the most certain rule of faith and practice. We know that he has not passed these limits. He is well skilled both in the Latin and Greek languages … He has also added that of the Hebrew tongue…

‘He is esteemed by foreigners, whose state of exile is rendered less painful by the sweetness of his disposition and learning, and who do not hesitate to compare him to those whose fame is so illustriously spread among the foreign nations.

‘Though we who beg this from you are but few, yet we ask it in the name of many: for there is scarcely any man who does not admire and love him, and who does not think that he ought by all means to be defended.

‘If therefore, you wish well to the University, you cannot do anything more useful, gratifying, or acceptable, than to preserve Cartwright to her.’

Six propositions

However, in 1570, Cartwright was deprived of his professorship. In 1571, the year the sworn enemy of the Puritans, Dr Whitgift, was appointed vice chancellor, he also lost his fellowship.

These events were the result of Cartwright’s outspoken opposition to the Church of England, summed up in the famous ‘six propositions’. In essence, these were:

1. Archbishops and archdeacons should be abolished.

2. The church’s officers should be modelled on the New Testament.

3. Every church should be governed by its own minister and elders.

4. Ministers should be responsible for one church, not many.

5. No man should solicit for a church appointment.

6. Church officers should be chosen by the church, not the state.

After the university regulations were changed to prevent men of Cartwright’s outlook being appointed, Cartwright himself left Cambridge for Geneva where Theodore Beza had succeeded John Calvin as the Reformation leader.

Beza had the highest regard for Cartwright’s abilities and godliness, declaring to one of his English correspondents, ‘Here is now with us your countryman, Thomas Cartwright, than whom, I think the sun doth not see a more learned man’.

Alan Clifford is the minister at Norwich Reformed Church
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