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Radical Puritanism, c. 1558-1660

Front Cover of Radical Puritanism, c. 1558-1660
Cambridge University Press
Nov 2008

“Radical Puritanism, c. 1558-1660” in J. Coffey and P. Lim, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Puritanism (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

The concept of 'radical Puritanism' was popularised in the twentieth century by scholars intent on investigating groups that earlier commentators tended to call the 'sects' or 'dissenters' of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. Until then, the study of these sects remained largely the preserve of denominational chroniclers; the early historians who pioneered the scientific study of English history showed little interest in the subject. These attitudes began to shift in the twentieth century, as new generations of scholars, fascinated by the apparently transformative and democratic political forces unleashed by the English Civil Wars, reconfigured Puritanism as a radical, or even revolutionary, ideology. In the post-war period, particular attention was often focused on the sectaries - separatists, Anabaptists, Fifth Monarchists and others - who played an indisputable role in what was increasingly described as an 'English Revolution'. Often (although not always) these sectarian forms of religion were assimilated under the rubric of 'radical Puritanism', understood as a synonym for what one historian termed 'Left-wing Puritan sects'. Given this presumed analogy between sectarianism and modern forms of left-wing political agitation, it should come as no surprise that the study of radical religion reached its apogee in the early 1970s, culminating most spectacularly in the work of the Marxist historians A. L. Morton and Christopher Hill. Morton and Hill presented the world of Civil-War sectarian Puritanism as a revolutionary counter-culture, created by the marginal people of early modern society, and aimed at transforming the existing social order.