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The Puritan story ‘warts and all’

A review of Matthew Rowley's 'Toxic and Intoxicating: Puritan Theology and the Thirst for Power'

Today there is a strong movement to strongly critique individuals or institutions in history which don’t concur with 21st century sensibilities. The founder of my secondary school had invested money in the Royal Africa company (1.3% of his total assets); which shipped more African slaves to the Americas than any similar company. This year his name has not only been removed from the school but has led the headmaster to decide that the school motto of ‘serve and obey’ had to go too, with its overtones of ‘imperial Christianity’.


Within (and without) the evangelical wing of the church in the UK and the US huge concerns have been raised over the last few years of well known leaders who have indulged in ‘spiritual’ abuse which sometimes has led to physical abuse too. Some critics have not been slow to suggest that abuse of power is inevitable in these circles because it is inherent in evangelical theology particular with its focus on penal substitutionary atonement.


So how do we critique historical characters or even church movements from the past without throwing out the baby with the bathwater? How do we critique our own cultural and theological tribes and acknowledge their wrongdoing without wiping out the ways they have been used by God to bless many? Well the booklet (40 pages) Toxic and Intoxicating: Puritan Theology and the Thirst for Power by Matthew Rowley is a good starting point. This 2019 St Antholin Lecture does us a great service by examining the darker side of Puritan theology and action.


There are perhaps few moments of British history when a movement has so divided the country than the puritans in the seventeenth century. The word Puritan still has a marmite feel about it. For some it epitomises the worse of zealous Christianity whilst for others it suggests the summit of reformed theology. The author comes from the second tradition but wants to tell the Puritan story ‘warts and all’ to enable us to search our souls and spiritual practices.


By analysing Puritan literature around five key moments on both sides of the Atlantic (The mystic Massacre 1637, the battle of Naseby 1645, the siege of Drogheda 1649, the battle of Dunbar 1650 and the great Swamp Fight of 1675) Matthew Rowley shows how ‘godly violence’ and ‘military providentialism’ developed amongst those who self-designated themselves as ‘the godly’.


Particularly interesting is the concept of the violence of victimhood. How as a coiled spring Scripture helped puritans forgive and show mercy time after time whilst waiting for their opponent to repent of their wrongdoings. Until the feeling that continued mercy would fuel injustice and the coil would release its built-up energy which could power unmerciful warfare. Another fascinating section shows how as puritans moved into power they abandoned the centrality of Christ in their hermeneutics, concentrating much more on Old Testament and apocalyptic texts. This despite their similar critique of Roman Catholicism!


Much in this booklet is thought provoking and particularly relevant to conservative evangelicals who have often worn their righteousness publicly whilst criticising those who have moved away from orthodox theology. We are only beginning to reflect more deeply on how insidiously power can permeate movements and perpetuate abuse even amongst the ‘soundest’ of its practitioners. Toxic and intoxicating can help us evaluate our spiritual heritage and our hearts so that we don’t have a naive romantic view of the ‘good old days’. Just like many of the spiritual giants of the past we too are ‘simul justus et peccator’ and need to guard our hearts especially whilst serving in Christian ministry.

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Revd Daniel Kirk is the Vicar of St Michael's Gidea Park


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