A name given in the primitive church to the Novatians, because they would never admit to communion any one, who from dread of death, had apostatized from the faith; but the word has been chiefly applied to those who were professed favourers of a farther degree of reformation and purity in the church before the act of uniformity, in 1662. After this period, the term Nonconformists became common, to which succeeds the appellation Dissenter.
“During the reign of queen Elizabeth, in which the royal prerogative was carried to its utmost limits, there were found many daring spirits who questioned the right of the sovereign to prescribe and dictate to her subjects what principles of religion they should profess, and what forms they ought to adhere to. The ornaments and habits worn by the clergy in the preceding reign, when the Romish religion and rites were triumphant, Elizabeth was desirous of preserving in the Protestant service. This was the cause of great discontent among a large body of her subjects; multitudes refused to attend at those churches where the habits and ceremonies were used; the conforming clergy they treated with contumely; and from the superior purity and simplicity of the modes of worship to which they adhered, they obtained the name of Puritans. The queen made many attempts to repress every thing that appeared to her as an innovation in the religion established by her almost unlimited authority she readily checked open and avowed opposition, but she could not extinguish the principles of the Puritans, ‘by whom alone,’ according to Mr. Hume, ‘the precious spark of liberty had been kindled and was preserved, and to whom the English owe the whole freedom of their constitution.’ Some secret attempts that had been made by them to establish a separate congregation and discipline had been carefully repressed by the strict hand which Elizabeth held over all her subjects. The most, therefore, that they could effect was, to assemble in private houses, for the purpose of worshipping God according to the dictates of their own consciences. These practices were at first connived at, but afterwards every mean was taken to suppress them, and the most cruel methods were made use of to discover persons who were disobedient to the royal pleasure.”
The severe persecutions carried on against the Puritans during the reigns of Elizabeth and the Stuarts, served to lay the foundation of a new empire in the western world. Thither as into a wilderness they fled from the face of their persecutors, and, being protected in the free exercise of their religion, continued to increase, till in about a century and a half they became an independent nation. The different principles, however, on which they had originally divided from the church establishment at home, operated in a way that might have been expected when they came to the possession of the civil power abroad. Those who formed the colony of Massachusetts’s Bay, having never relinquished the principles of a national church, and of the power of the civil magistrate in matters of faith and worship, were less tolerant than those who settled at New Plymouth, at Rhode Island, and at Providence Plantations. The very men (and they were good men too) who had just escaped the persecutions of the English prelates, now in their turn persecuted others who dissented from them, till at length the liberal system of toleration established in the parent country at the revolution, extending to the colonies, in a good measure put an end to these proceedings.
Neither the Puritans before the passing of the Bartholomew act in 1662, nor the Nonconformists after it, appear to have disapproved of the articles of the established church in matters of doctrine. The number of them who did so, however, was very small. While the great body of the bishops and clergy had from the days of archbishop Laud abandoned their own articles in favour of Arminianism, they were attached to the principles of the first reformers; and by their labours and sufferings the spirit of the reformation was kept alive in the land. But after the revolution, one part of the Protestant Dissenters, chiefly Presbyterians, first veered towards Arminianism, then revived the Arian controversy, and by degrees many of them settled in Socinianism. At the same time another part of them, chiefly Independents and Baptists, earnestly contending for the doctrines of grace, and conceiving as it would seem, that the danger of erring lay entirely on one side, first veered towards high Calvinism, then forbore the unregenerate to repent, believe, or do any thing practically good, and by degrees many of them, it is said, settled in Antinomianism.
Such are the principles which have found place amongst the descendants of the Puritans. At the same time, however, it must be acknowledged that a goodly number of each of the three denominations have adhered to the doctrine and spirit of their forefathers; and have proved the efficacy of their principles by their concern to be holy in all manner of conversation.
Charles Buck (1771-1815) was an English Independent minister, best known for the publication of his “Theological Dictionary”. According to the “Dictionary of National Biography”, a Particular Baptist minister named John C. Ryland (1723-1792) assisted Buck by writing many of the articles for the aforementioned publication. One may conclude, based not only Buck’s admiration for his friend Ryland, but also on the entries in his Theological Dictionary, that he stood head and shoulders with the High-Calvinists of his day.