The play, the geniality, the delight of the Elizabethan age were exchanged for a measured sobriety, seriousness, and self-restraint. But the self-restraint and sobriety which marked the Calvinist limited itself wholly to his outer life. In his inner soul sense, reason, judgement, were too often overborne by the terrible reality of invisible things. Our first glimpse of Oliver Cromwell is as a young country squire and farmer in the marsh levels around Huntingdon and St. Ives, buried from time to time in a deep melancholy, and haunted by fancies of coming death "I live in Meshac," he writes to a friend, "which they say signifies Prolonging; in Kedar, which signifies Darkness; yet the Lord forsaketh me not." The vivid sense of a Divine Purity close to such men made the life of common men seem sin. "You know what my manner of life has been," Cromwell adds. "Oh, I lived in and loved darkness, and hated light. I hated godliness." Yet his worst sin was probably nothing more than an enjoyment of the natural buoyancy of youth, and a want of the deeper earnestness which comes with riper years. In imaginative tempers, like that of Bunyan, the struggle took a more picturesque form.
John Bunyan was the son of a poor tinker at Elstow in Bedfordshire, and even in childhood his fancy revelled in terrible visions of Heaven and Hell. "When I was but a child of nine or ten years Old," he tells us, "these things did so distress my soul, that then in the midst of my merry sports and childish vanities, amidst my vain companions, I was often much cast down and afflicted in my mind therewith; yet could I not let go my sins." The sins he could not let go were a love of hockey and of dancing on the village green; for the only real fault which his bitter self-accusation discloses, that of a habit of swearing, was put an end to at once and for ever by a rebuke from an old woman. His passion for bell-ringing clung to him even after he had broken from it as a "vain practice;" and he would go to the steeple-house and look on, till the thought that a bell might fall and crush him in his sins drove him panic-stricken from the door. A sermon against dancing and games drew him for a time from these indulgences; but the temptation again overmastered his resolve. "I shook the sermon out of my mind, and to my old custom of sports and gaming I returned with great delight.
But the same day, as I was in the midst of a game of cat, and having struck it one blow from the hole, just as I was about to strike it the second time, a voice did suddenly dart from heaven into my soul, which said, ' Wilt thou leave thy sins and go to Heaven, or have thy sins and go to Hell?' At this I was put in an exceeding maze; wherefore, leaving my cat upon the ground, I looked up to heaven; and was as if I had with the eyes of my understanding seen the Lord Jesus looking down-upon me, as being very hotly displeased with me, and as if He did severely threaten me with some grievous punishment for those and other ungodly practices".
Such was Puritanism, and it is of the highest importance to realize it thus in itself, in its greatness and its littleness, apart from the ecclesiastical system of Presbyterianism with which it is so often confounded. As we shall see in the course of our story, not one of the leading Puritans of the Long Parliament was a Presbyterian. Pym and Hampden had no sort of objection to Episcopacy, and the adoption of the Presbyterian system was only forced on the Puritan patriots in their later struggle by political considerations. But the growth of the movement, which thus influenced our history for a time, forms one of the most curious episodes in Elizabeth's reign. Her Church policy rested on the Acts of Supremacy and of Uniformity; the first of which placed all ecclesiastical jurisdiction and legislative power in the hands of the State, while the second prescribed a course of doctrine and discipline, from which no variation was legally permissible. For the nation at large Elizabeth's system was no doubt a wise and healthy one. Single-handed, unsupported by any of the statesmen or divines about her, the Queen forced on the warring religions a sort of armed truce. The main principles of the Reformation were accepted, but the zeal of the ultra-reformers was held at bay.
The Bible was left open, private discussion was unrestrained, but the warfare of pulpit against pulpit was silenced by the licensing of preachers. Outer conformity, attendance at the common prayer, was exacted from all; but the changes in ritual, by which the zealots of Geneva gave prominence to the radical features of the religious change which was passing over the country, were steadily resisted. While England was struggling for existence, this balanced attitude of the Crown reflected faithfully enough the balanced attitude of the nation; but with the declaration of war by the Papacy in the Bull of Deposition the movement in favour of a more pronounced Protestantism gathered a new strength. Unhappily the Queen clung obstinately to her system of compromise, weakened and broken as it was. With the religious enthusiasm which was growing up around her she had no sympathy whatever. Her passion was for moderation, her aim was simply civil order; and both order and moderation were threatened by the knot of clerical bigots who gathered under the banner of Presbyterianism. Of these Thomas Cartwright was the chief.
He had studied at Geneva; he returned with a fanatical faith in Calvinism, and in the system of Church government which Calvin had devised; and as Margaret Professor of Divinity at Cambridge he used to the full the opportunities which his chair gave him of propagating his opinions. No leader of a religious party ever deserved less of after sympathy than Cartwright. He was unquestionably learned and devout, but his bigotry was that of a mediaeval inquisitor. The relics of the old ritual, the cross in baptism, the surplice, the giving of a ring in marriage, were to him not mereiy distasteful, as they were to the Puritans at large, they were idolatrous and the mark of the beast. His declamation against ceremonies and superstition however had little weight with Elizabeth or her Primates; what scared them was his reckless advocacy of a scheme of ecclesiastical government which placed the State beneath the feet of the Church. The absolute rule of bishops, indeed, he denounced as begotten of the devil; but the absolute rule of Presbyters he held to be established by the word of God. For the Church modelled after the fashion of Geneva he claimed an authority which surpassed the wildest dreams of the masters of the Vatican. All spiritual authority and jurisdiction, the decreeing of doctrine, the ordering of ceremonies, lay wholly in the hands of the ministers of the Church. To them belonged the supervision of public morals.