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strictly religious movement. It stressed the pastoral responsibility of the clergy and thus placed an unprecedented emphasis on the sermon as the central rite of religious life. Puritans attacked relentlessly whatever seemed to them the vestiges of popery; some put an end to kneeling at communion, to the ceremonial marriage ring, to crossing the child in baptism. In ecclesiastical matters, Puritans did not believe that the preaching ministry drew its legitimacy from superior church officers, who, in turn, claimed theirs through the chain of apostolic succession. They believed, instead, that a true church was a continually renewed collective act of "edification"--a mutually committed group of believers from whose ranks arose a mandate for a pastoral minister to serve them. God spoke primarily through the preaching ministry, not through the sacraments.
Doctrinally, Puritans adhered to the Five Points of Calvinism as codified at the Synod of Dort in 1619: (1) unconditional election (the idea that God had decreed who was damned and who was saved from before the beginning of the world); (2) limited atonement (the idea that Christ died for the elect only); (3) total depravity (humanity's utter corruption since the Fall); (4) irresistible grace (regeneration as entirely a work of God, which cannot be resisted and to which the sinner contributes nothing); and (5) the perseverance of the saints (the elect, despite their backsliding and faintness of heart, cannot fall away from grace).
But the real novelty and force of the Puritans was neither doctrinal nor ecclesiological. What most stirred the exasperation of the Anglican establishment was their devotion to sermons, "not Sermons read neither ... but sermons without book, sermons which spend their life in their birth and may have public audience but once." So that the "meanest understanding" could grasp them, these sermons were increasingly delivered in a "plain style"; they were long, frequent, and likely to stray from traditional biblical subjects and raise such questions as the mutual obligations of debtors and creditors. At heart, Puritan sermons were passionate appeals for conversion. They stressed a process of self-examination by which the inner corruption of the soul could be exposed and for which God, at his own pleasure, might forgive the penitent sinner. The great paradox for Puritan believers--which was raised to even higher pitch in New England--was their simultaneous striving for self-knowledge and acknowledgment of the infinity of their ignorance. A Puritan might hear, in a pious lifetime, hundreds of sermons proclaiming God's inscrutability and the futility of human effort to do anything to affect God's will. Yet virtually the only hope for salvation was to submit to this auditory form of the saving word and to pray that the holy spirit would enter the soul through the imprecatory voice of the minister.
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