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The intolerance of some Puritans and their view of the Irish


Many of us love the works of the Puritans for many things, but hopefully this love does not blind us to their faults. It was Oliver Cromwell who once noted that every sect in his day cries for toleration, but once they have it, they will not give it to any other body of believers. He knew the heart of all too many of his fellow Puritans only too well.

A good example would be Nathaniel Ward (1578–1652), a graduate of that bastion of Puritanism, Emmanuel College at Cambridge, and one of the foremost Puritan ministers in Essex. After Ward came to New England in the 1630s he wrote The Simple Cobler of Aggawam in America (London, 1647), in which he refuted the charge that the New England Puritans were “a Colluvies of wild Opinionists” and stated that “all Familists, Antinomians, Anabaptists, and other Enthusiasts [i.s. fanatics], shall have free liberty to keep away from us,” for they were “adversaries of [God’s] truth” and as such deserved no toleration. Ward was convinced that religious toleration was a stratagem of the devil so as to “disstate the truth of God.” In fact, his “heart naturally detested” “tolerations of divers religions, or of one religion in segregant shapes.”

Thankfully, there were some of the Puritans like Cromwell who genuinely sought to establish a climate of toleration, based on Christian principles, in the British Isles. But it is noteworthy that even with Cromwell there were limits, and those limits were reached with the Irish.

It would be interesting to know if he would have gone as far as Nathaniel Ward, who described the Irish as the “very Offal of men, Dregges of Mankind,” and went so far as to pray for the soldiery of Cromwell’s Irish campaign in 1649:

“Happy is he that shall reward them [the Irish] as they have served us, and Cursed be he that shall do that work of the Lord negligently, Cursed be he that holdeth back his Sword from blood: yea, Cursed bee hee that maketh not his Sword starke drunk with Irish blood” (“A Word of Ireland” in The Simple Cobler of Aggawam in America).

Ward is obviously reacting to stories of Irish atrocities in killing Scots Presbyterians in northern Ireland. But it would be difficult to prove that such imprecatory prayers come from the Spirit of Christ!