Puritanism was a mighty movement of spiritual renewal in the Church of England. It arose among the Protestants who were critical of the Elizabethan Settlement of Religion. For con-science sake they could not confirm to certain ecclesiastically prescribed ceremonies as wearing the surplice, receiving the Lord’s Supper kneeling and making the sign of the cross at baptism. Puritan preachers desired not only a further reformation of the Church of England but also that the members of parochial churches would be godly Christians who manifested in their lives the marks of the children of God.
In the years between 1640 and 1660 not only episcopacy, but also monarchy was abolished. Now the government favored the Puritan movement. At the same time internal tensions among the Puritans especially with regard to church government came to the foreground. In 1662 most of the then living Puritans left the Church of England. The newly adopted Act of Uniformity made it impossible for them to remain. This so called Great Ejection marks the end of Puritanism as an ecclesiastical movement within the Church of England.
One of the great Puritans living before the period of the Civil War was Arthur Hildersham (1563-1632). He was related to the royal family. For that reason queen Elizabeth I spoke about him as ‘cousin Hilderham ’.In his own time he was ranked in the top of the godly ministers. His influence extended far beyond his pulpit and parish.
Through his writings – some of the published posthumously – this influence also went beyond his own lifetime. Several of them were translated in Dutch and strengthened the cause of the Dutch Further Reformation: a movement which aim was to promote experiential godliness in the Reformed Church of the Netherlands.
Until recently never a book length study of the life of Arthur Hildersham was written. Dr. Lesley A. Rowe, an associate fellow in the history department of the University of Warwick, remedied this deficiency. She has offered a well written and congenial account of her subject. She closes her biography with ten lessons form Hildersham for today.
Hildersham was brought up in a staunch Roman Catholic family. He was an unlike convert. Certainly unaware of the spiritual convictions of its master, John Disborow, who was a committed Protestant and godly man, his parents send him to send to Saffron Walden School in Essex because of its high reputation.
When he was thirteen years Hildersham went to Christ College in Cambridge. Again Hilderham’s parents must have been unaware of the strong Protestant and Puritan influences in Christ College. In the 1570s and 1580s Christ College had a succession of godly masters: Edward Dering, William Perkins and Laurence Chaderton.
The latter became a close friend of Hildersham. It seems likely that Hildersham was part of the group that met weekly with Chaderton for Bible study, prayer and discussion. Only fifteen years old Hildersham resisted the will of his father to train for the Roman Catholic priesthood in Rome.
We can see in the conversion of Hildersham the importance of godly educators but above all the strength of God’s grace. The same things are true in the 21th century. Hildersham started his career as lecturer in Ashby-de-la-Zouch (1587-1593). After-wards he became the vicar of St. Helen’s Church in Ashby (1593-1605). Just at the beginning of the reign of James I when stricter conformity of the ecclesiastical rules was encouraged, Hildersham was deprived of his benefice. He finally also lost his license to preach.
Three months after the death of James I he was relicensed, Again he became a lecturer in Ashby until his death in 1632. Rowe rightly notices that we can learn from the life of Hilderham that a minister of the gospel has not to despair when he is prevented from preaching (in our situation the causes can be entirely different). God used Hilderham mightily though the witness of his personal life as he continued to live among the people of Ashby.
Hildersham’s opinions on matters as wearing the surplice, receiving the Lord’s Supper kneeling and making the sign of the cross at baptism were not shared by all godly ministers. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century several ministers of the Church of England were Calvinist in doctrine, but did not share all Puritans emphasizes.
Hilderham regarded these men as brethren in Christ and conversed with them in a gracious and generous spirit. The same was true for the separatists who felt you ought to leave the Church of England. He opposed separatism but urged all holding the Reformed faith to maintain spiritual unity in the gospel of grace. In this really catholic attitude Hildersham is an example for today.
Rowe closes her biography of Hildersham with the following words: ‘His watchword was soli Deo Gloria. Ours should be the same.’ I heartily agree with that.
Lesley A. Rowe, The Life and Times of Arthur Hildersham. Prince among Puritans (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015), hardcover 210 pp., $28,– (ISBN 978-1-60178-222-9).