The Visible Saints - Book Review

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Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea by Edmund S. Morgan

This article was originally published on Videri.org and is republished here with their permission.

The Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea by Edward S Morgan. Publisher: Martino Fine Books (November 6, 2013), 174 pages. This book is based on a set of lectures that Morgan gave as the Anson G Phelps Lectures delivered at New York University in 1962. He used these lectures as the basis of four chapters of the book and then expanded a little by writing a conclusion. Despite its length, Visible Saints has become classic work on Puritanism.

What are Visible Saints? The Puritans saw themselves as Visible Saints. Visible saints were godly Christian people who would go to heaven when they died. They took upon themselves the task of demonstrating their sainthood. They started the movement in the 16th century to eradicate the remnants of the Catholic Church. They spent part of each day privately praying. They attended church regularly. Although they were interested in their church and being good Puritans, they realized that commerce and financial success were important. They, in effect, established in New England the idea of the protestant work ethic: be true to God, pray, and make money.

Morgan starts the book by explaining the historical background of the Puritans and the development of their ideas of “Church.” When Henry VIII wanted to marry Anne Boleyn he needed a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, his dead brother’s widow. The Pope frowned on divorce so, in 1534 after Pope Clement VII refused to grant the King a divorce, Henry left the Catholic Church. Henry then allowed the translation of the Bible into English. He stripped the monasteries of their wealth and established the Church of England. The church swung back to Rome when Henry’s daughter Mary came on the throne; she was Catherine of Aragon’s daughter and a devout Catholic.

However, when Elizabeth, another of Henry’s daughters (from his marriage to Anne Boleyn), came on the throne the church swung back from Rome to England. Elizabeth, a rather strong queen, felt no need for papists or even ardent Protestants. The most enthusiastic of the zealous of the Protestants, the Puritans, wanted more reforms and even greater reforms within by the Church of England. Morgan explains all this as the birth of the Puritan idea.

The Puritans objected to a significant number of the ceremonies carried out by the Church of England. They also opposed to the very existence of bishops, canon law, and lord bishops. The Puritans set great store by preaching. They “considered this as the principal means ordained by God for instructing people in the real truth revealed by the Scriptures.” The Puritans considered many members of the Church to be ignorant and corrupt. Without good teachers, the Church could never move away from Rome and truly value the word of God as explained in the Scriptures.

Morgan explains that although the Puritans were generally united in their views on the wrongs in the Church of England, they still managed to separate into two groups within Protestantism: the Puritans and the Separatists. Where the Puritans wanted to stay and improve the Church of England, the Separatists wanted to leave altogether. They could not accept many of the changes in the church, and they could not accept the church’s ways.

The Separatists strongest criticism was that the Church of England (the Anglican Church) contained persons unfit to be members of the Church. The church accepted wicked, dissolute people as members.
“The Separatists withdrew from the Church of England to establish churches of their own in which the membership would more closely approximate that of the invisible church.”
The invisible church consists of an "invisible" body of the elect who are known only to God, in contrast to the "visible church"—that is, the institutional body on earth which preaches the gospel and administers the sacraments. Every member of the invisible church is saved, while the visible church contains some individuals who are saved and others who are unsaved.” Although the Separatist wanted to be separate they, along with the Puritans, saw themselves as Protestants. The Puritans set sail for Massachusetts in 1630 and founded the Bay Colony. They were preceded in 1628 by a small colony of Separatists who were established at Plymouth. The Puritans quickly established a church somewhat based on Separatist principles and not on the Puritans principles as laid out in England. As Morgan explains this was a new place and it needed new ideas: a better church with more pious members; they needed “saints.” Their principles were:
“The new churches rested on a covenant to which all members subscribed; each chose and ordained its ministers, admitted properly qualified new members, and expelled incorrigible old members.”
Thus, although they agreed in part with the Separatist, they still believed the Church in England, although corrupt, to be the true church. They did not wish to separate from the church in England and condemned the Separatists for doing so.

Hitherto, as Morgan explains, historians have generally supposed that the main outlines of the Puritan church were determined in England and transplanted to the new world. Morgan suggests, instead, that the distinguishing characteristic of the New England churches—the idea of a church composed exclusively of true and tested saints—developed entirely in the 1630s and 1640s, sometime after the first settlers arrived in New England.

Thus although it is generally believed that the outlines of the church were determined in England and then transplanted to Massachusetts, Morgan argues that this is not the case. In other words, the flow was in the opposite direction. The idea of a church comprised of exclusively of true and tested saints was developed in Massachusetts and sent back to England. Morgan's point is that the Puritan church was first founded in New England. It then developed in the 1630s, and 1640’s only after the Puritans arrived in Massachusetts. How did this happen?

Thousands of non-separating Puritans arrived during the 1630s. They were eager to establish their new church. They consulted with their Separatists brethren in Plymouth where they found ideas similar to their own. The non-separating Puritans were ready to ready to establish independent churches of limited membership, similar to the Separatists ideas. Morgan emphasizes that there were few Separatists as compared to the number on non-separating Puritans. The Separatists at Plymouth people gave the Massachusetts churches many ideas on practices and procedures. During this period eighteen churches were set up in Massachusetts alone.

The founding of this new Puritan church began with at least seven men (no women) who had to satisfy one another about their knowledge of Christian doctrine and about their experience of saving grace. Once established the church could then admit members. “The prospective candidate was called upon to demonstrate the work of God in his soul.”

The practice of testing prospective church members for actual inward "signs" of saving grace, Morgan argues, originated neither with the Separatists in England nor with the Separatists in Plymouth, but in the Bay Colony itself, by the Puritans These tests of suitability evolved over the few years as more migrants came into the Bay Colony. These tests of suitability spread to all the churches in the Bay Colony, eventually finding their way back to England. Hence Morgan’s main point: from Massachusetts to England and not the other way around.

The Massachusetts Puritans did not at first insist upon these tests, but gradually came to require them. The Puritans in Massachusetts, according to Morgan, were the first Puritans to restrict membership in the church "to persons ... who had felt the stirrings of grace in their souls, and who could demonstrate this fact to the satisfaction of other saints”. The practice then spread to the churches of Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven, eventually finding its way back to England.

Faith, as explained, was the necessary quality of a true church. Explicit church covenants were important:
“Let the Church look to her Covenant, and let no member come in but that he Knoweth Christ, and that knoweth he is a Child of Wrath; and let him go on not in his own strength, but in a depending frame on Jesus Christ, then all the world will that you have made an Everlasting Covenant.”

As Morgan explains, it was not easy to obtain membership to the church. The question was: How to gain new members as they developed their idea of restricted membership. The churches nearly vanished since there were not enough saints to fill them. The Puritans in England, on the other hand, took a different, a more pragmatic, approach. The church there embraced all the sinners to grasp the few saints in it.

Morgan explains that by about 1660 the New England piety was in decline. There was a Declaration of Faith adopted by a meeting of English Congregationalists at the Savoy Palace in London in 1658. The ministers were urged not to “neglect others living within their parochial bounds.” It was suggested that in New England ministers were to attend all in their town. Thus the Puritan idea thus ran its course, an idea that did not last too long. Morgan ends his history on a thinking note: “But as long as men strive to approach God through the church, the world will never seem pure enough for the saints, and the Puritan experience will never be wholly unfamiliar.”

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