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Puritan Conventicles

2015

by Joel Comiskey

This chapter is taken from Comiskey's book "2000 Years of Small Groups."

When people think of the early English Puritans, they often imagine sour legalists who tried to prevent people from doing what they desired to do. This view comes from later American history and people such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, who were glad to be living under liberal Unitarianism in New England and regarded the old Puritanism of their forefathers as a repressive, false religion.

Yet the original Puritans were not from New England but from Great Britain and the word Puritan described those in England who believed that the Reformation had not truly transformed the English state church. Only later would many of the English Puritans migrate to America to start a new life. Yet, the original Puritans were dissatisfied with the brand of Protestantism called Anglicanism. They wanted to purify the Anglican Church.

The Puritans were the English equivalent of the continental reformers. C. S. Lewis said, “We must picture these Puritans as the very opposite of those who bear that name today: as young, fierce, progressive intellectuals, very fashionable and up-to-date. They were not teetotalers; bishops, not beer, were their special aversion. . . . ”1 These Puritans were the “young bucks” who wanted to go all the way with God and the Bible. They were excited about biblical truth and couldn’t imagine why anybody would want to hide it under superstition and human traditions. They felt that the English Reformation had not extended far enough, and that the Church of England was tolerant of practices which they associated with the Catholic Church.

The Puritans formed and joined forces with various religious groups advocating greater “purity” of worship and doctrine, as well as personal and group piety. Those who remained within the Church of England were known as “non-separating Puritans.” Those who felt that the Church of England was so corrupt that true Christians should separate from it altogether were known as “separating Puritans” or simply “Separatists.” “Puritan,” in the wider sense, includes both groups.

As Puritans looked at the Church of England’s spirituality and doctrine in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they saw wickedness and religiosity. Although the theology was reformed and most believed in the doctrines of Calvin, it was clear to many believers that there was much, much more to the Christian life than what they were seeing.2 So how did the Puritans resist the status quo? Many separated. Alan Simpson writes,

Carried to its fullest extent, it meant separation: the duty to separate from the polluted mass of mankind. So little groups of saints peeled off from the national church under the leadership of a minister to meet surreptitiously in each other’s houses, to migrate to the Netherlands if England is made too uncomfortable for them, and to experience, wherever they go, the perplexities as well as the privileges of their strange adventure.3

This separation or holiness took place over a period of a century, followed by fifty years of immigration. Eventually the English Puritans spread to places like New England and eventually the rest of America.

What Did they Believe?

The Puritans in England adopted a Reformed theology and, in that sense, were Calvinists. Describing Puritan theology, Peter Lewis writes, “Vastly Calvinistic in their theological tradition, they treasured a high conception of the sovereignty of God in providence and grace, and reflected this in the tranquility with which they were able to carry themselves in the stormiest experiences.”4

The Puritans also held a very high view of the church. They desired to return to New Testament Christianity and weren’t going to allow kings and monarchs to dictate how the church was supposed to function.5 Even though Puritans in England were blocked from changing the established Anglican Church from within, their views were transported by emigration to the Netherlands, New England, Ireland, and Wales. Around 1630, many Puritans left for New England to start the Massachusetts Bay Colony and other settlements. The large-scale Puritan emigration to New England ceased by 1641, with around twenty-one thousand having moved across the Atlantic. This English-speaking Puritan population in America produced more than sixteen million descendants.

Migration brought out many differences in Puritan thought and lifestyle. As soon as Puritans reached American shores, their views on church governance diverged from those of Puritans remaining in the British Isles, who faced different issues. Alexis de Tocqueville suggested in Democracy in America that Puritanism was the very thing that provided a firm foundation for American democracy. As Sheldon Wolin puts it, “Tocqueville was aware of the harshness and bigotry of the early colonists.” On the other hand, he saw them as “archaic survivals, not only in their piety and discipline but in their democratic practices.”6

Conventicles

Conventicles, or small group gatherings, were one of the key practices by which the Puritans matured as believers. The word conventicle refers to an unlawful or secret religious gathering. During the period of 1570–1620 the term prophecy meetings was also used. These meetings were based on 1 Corinthians 14, which speaks about prophesy in the early house churches. During these meetings, the believers emphasized prayer, Scripture reading, Bible memorization, and application of the sermon to the daily lives of those present.

Conventicles multiplied throughout England to meet the need of community and spiritual growth. Francis Couvares writes, “English Puritans—including those who later emigrated to the New World—had not tempered their intellectual and social bonds at any single ideological forge but over the spiritual flames of countless private emotional meetings or ‘conventicles’ throughout England.”7 They grew as they discussed Scripture together and tried to apply it to their daily lives.

The English crown did their best to snuff out those flames. Queen Elizabeth viewed the group meetings as seditious. She felt that the preaching of a sermon once per month was sufficient. When Archbishop Edmund Grindal protested the suppression of prophesying and refused compliance with the royal command, Elizabeth stripped him of all his duties and powers as an officer of the Crown and sequestered him in his palace under house arrest until his death. Royal commissioners were appointed to exercise his duties and powers as a minister of the state. The official law stated:

NO Minister shall preach, or administer the holy Communion, in any private house, except it be in times of necessity, when any being either so impotent as he cannot go to the church, or very dangerously sick, are desirous to be partakers of that holy Sacrament, under pain of suspension for the first offence, and excommunication for the second (Canon 71)

Canon 72 clarifies even further, stating that “NO Minister or Ministers shall, without the licence and direction of the Bishop of the diocese first obtained and had under his hand and seal, appoint or keep any solemn Fasts, either publickly [original spelling] or in any private houses.”8

Growing Together

Many conventicles were simply called fellowship meetings. The Puritans believed that the gospel transformation wasn’t complete until a person was committed to fellowship with other believers. The Puritans grew in their experiential knowledge of the Trinity, as they communed with one another in the conventicles. Even though the Puritans believed in individual passion and zeal, they rejected religious individualism, believing that God called believers into a life of community.

Spiritual fellowship was supposed to happen at church, at home, and among friends. Richard Sibbes, an early Puritan wrote, “The church is like a hospital–people need one another–a common hospital where all are in some measure sick, thus we should have ground of exercising mutually the spirit of wisdom and of meekness.”9 Sibbes goes on to say, “There is such a thing as sweet communion of saints whereby we encourage and comfort one another in the ways of holiness and draw and allure others to the best things.”10

As the church met in conventicles, Puritans believed that they would grow more and more mature in understanding the Scriptures, and become richer in experimental knowledge of the work of the Triune God. And everyone participated—not just the men. Walter E. Van Beek notes,

In the conventicles, women are not simply passive listeners, they participate in the discussions in exactly the same way as men. The term ‘Mothers in Israel’ expresses the deep respect for converted women and women participate on a par with men. Of course, women cannot lead congregations as ministers or elders.11

Most who participated in conventicles continued as part of the Anglican state church. They simply wanted more spiritual food and edification for their souls than the state church offered. Conventicles were, according to Voetius, necessary as a powerful way to equip God’s people and to grow in grace, or, as he wrote, “to grow in piety.” A Puritan conventicle included:

  • Prayer, the singing of psalms and hymns (James 5:13; Colossians 3:16; Ephesians 5:19)
  • Reading of Scripture
  • Discussion of recent sermons (Matthew 13:5 and Mark 4:10)
  • Discussion of what God was showing them through reading and listening to God
  • Speaking about the workings of the sovereignty of God
  • Teaching and learning the ways of the Lord seen in the life of his people

In the Puritan way of thinking, it was critical that each person had the phrase “Holiness to the Lord” figuratively written on his or her forehead. Men and women were called to flee sin and to walk in God’s ways. God’s way to walk in holiness was faithfully attending the worship service, prioritizing the family, and worshipping in groups.12 The influence of Puritan conventicles is seen in this quote by Francis Couvares,

From these private meetings [conventicles], which perhaps more than any institution or idea provided Puritans with a group identity, sprang not only the likes of John Winthrop, Thomas Hooker, Thomas Shepard, and others who became staunch supporters of non-separating congregationalism, but also those individuals who by the mid-1640s had helped to generate a myriad of radical Puritan sects that threatened to fulfill the prophecy of Acts 17:6 and turn the known world upside down.13

The holding of conventicles helped revive the church of Jesus Christ. J. Edwin Orr writes, “Just before the fifteenth century something started to change the church. It resulted in a progression of spiritual awakenings in which small groups either spearheaded, became strong catalysts of, or followed as nurturing environments to revivals.”14 This awakening that J. Edwin Orr talked about back then is the same direction God is taking his church today. Whenever there has been a revival, small groups have played a vital function.

Lessons Learned

  • The English Puritans, like many who went before them, felt the church was too traditional and not living according to the New Testament pattern. God used the Puritan conventicles to spiritually awaken the church.
  • The Puritans viewed the primitive church and their house-to-house ministry as the way to create a more biblical, pure church.
  • The English conventicles were one of the main ways by which the English Puritans grew in community and holiness.
  • As Puritans migrated to North America and other parts of Europe, they adapted, but never lost, the zeal to practice biblical Christianity

Notes:

  1. As quoted by Mark S. Ritchie, “The Protestant Reformation” (The Story of the Church—Part 4, Topic 7), www.ritchies.net. Accessed in April 2014.
  2. Alan Simpson, Puritanism in Old and New England (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1955), p. 10.
  3. Simpson, p. 14.
  4. Peter Lewis, The Genius of Puritanism (Haywards Heath Sussex, Great Britain: Carey Publications, 1975), p. 12.
  5. Ibid., p. 15.
  6. Taken from the article, “Puritan,” in Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puritan. Accessed on Wednesday, December 11, 2013.
  7. Francis Couvares, Interpretations of American History Vol. I: Patterns and Perspectives (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000), p. 54.
  8. Robin G. Jordan , “The History of Home Fellowships,” (Anglicans Ablaze website, www.anglicansablaze.blogspot.com). Accessed on Thursday, April 3, 2014.
  9. As quoted in Hans Molenaar, “The Historical Development of Conventicles,” Thesis at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary (Grand Rapids, MI: 2005), p. 17.
  10. Ibid., p. 17.
  11. Walter E. Van Beek, The Quest for Purity: Dynamics of Puritan Movements (New York : Mouton de Gruyter, 1988) p. 100.
  12. Molenaar, p. 46.
  13. Francis Couvares, Interpretations of American History Vol. I: Patterns and Perspectives (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000), p. 54.
  14. J. Edwin Orr as quoted in Plueddemann, p. 6