English Puritanism - by Kevin Sweeney


The name, “Puritan,” began in England as a derogatory term of abuse used to describe individuals who objected to various aspects of the established Church of England. “Puritan” was never embraced by those religious dissenters to whom it was applied. Because of this fact and because those labeled “Puritan” in the 1500s and 1600s often held differing ideas about church organization and personal piety, it was and is a difficult term to use with precision to describe a specific set of religious beliefs and practices. And over time, the term “Puritan” has acquired a host of popular associations, some of which are quite misleading. Today, a number of historians actually question the appropriateness and usefulness of the term Puritan by refusing to capitalize it or by avoiding it altogether. Still, because of long-established usage, the term retains a place in any description and discussion of New England religious beliefs and practices for the period from 1630 to 1730, and some would argue, even beyond this range of dates.

The English Reformation and the Elizabethan Settlement

In 1534 Henry VIII of England (1509-1547) formally broke away from the Roman Catholic Church by denying the primacy of the Pope, and Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy proclaiming the king “supreme head of the church in England.” Monasteries were dissolved and the veneration of saints attacked, but the traditional church hierarchy led by bishops and important Catholic doctrines regarding the sacraments of communion and penance were retained in a reformation that was both anti-papal in structure and anti-Protestant in doctrine. The advisors of Edward VI (reigned 1547-1553) moved the English Church to embrace Protestant doctrines and remove more vestiges of Catholic ritual and imagery while his successor, Queen Mary (reigned 1553-1558) restored Catholic ritual and doctrine and acknowledged papal supremacy.

Under Mary's successor, Queen Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603), the Church of England once again broke with the Catholic Church. Doctrinally, the church was staunchly Protestant and strongly influenced by the teachings of John Calvin (1509-1564) of Geneva and Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) of Zurich. Its articles of faith denied papal authority, affirmed justification by faith alone and denounced purgatory and the Catholic Mass. Still, the Church of England retained its traditional hierarchy with bishops and some ritual of the older Catholic faith.

Elizabeth's successors James I (reigned 1603-1625) and Charles I (crowned 1625 – executed 1649) retained the compromises and ambiguities of the Elizabethan Settlement. In response to calls from committed Protestants, James I sponsored a new English translation of the Bible but staunchly upheld the authority of bishops. But such compromises perpetuated tensions within the Church of England between those who favored a more thoroughly Protestant reformation and those who fought to preserve its remaining Catholic traditions in organization and ritual. For some Charles I appeared to upset the uneasy settlement in the early 1630s by appointing as archbishop of Canterbury William Laud (1573-1645), who placed new emphasis on episcopal authority and traditional ritual while de-emphasizing such Protestant doctrines as justification by faith alone.

Puritan Dissenters

Since the late 1500s, there had been a minority within the Church of England who found the established church to be insufficiently Protestant in such critical areas as the centrality of the Bible, the doctrine of justification by faith alone, and the ideal of a priesthood of all believers. Such individuals were branded as Puritans because of their desire to purify the English church. More than other Englishmen they saw their country and church as threatened, externally by Catholic powers such as Spain and France and often internally, by a resurgent Catholicism. Because of these fears, these individuals objected to clerical vestments and religious gestures such as kneeling and making the sign of the cross that had been retained from Catholic traditions. Most found the English church's Book of Common Prayer to be too indebted to the liturgy of the Catholic Mass. In general they believed that any ritualized mode of worship detracted from religious devotions that focused on reading and studying the Bible and preaching sound doctrine.

Because they adhered to the doctrines of predestination and justification by faith alone, these individuals believed that the ministrations of priests and the observance of religious rituals had no effect on the state of an individual's soul. They believed that God ordained or predestined those who would be saved and sent to heaven and those who would be damned to eternal suffering in hell. Those who were saved were justified by their faith which came to them from God as a free gift. The birth of this faith in God's redemptive love produced a conversion experience, a new birth that transformed the individual, bringing with it a conviction of salvation. Uncertainty over the signs that provided appropriate evidence for such an experience created in all believers a need for on-going self-examination, in some self-accusation and in most self-discipline. Directed inwardly this impulse helped shape the anxiety and discipline that gave rise to a noteworthy work-ethic; directed outwardly, it produced a drive to shape and discipline the world around them. The uncertainties about discerning the workings of God's grace in one's self and others and differences of opinion about the proper relationship between those who were saved – the elect – and the rest of society led to conflicts that would divide Puritans in Old and New England.

These Puritans also differed over the best way to reorganize the English church to promote its purification. Committed to the Protestant ideal of a priesthood of all believers most but not all objected to a hierarchical church presided over by bishops. Some wanted to replace bishops with assemblies of clergy and laity called presbyteries, and proponents of this mode of church organization were known as presbyterians. Others wanted to do away with any hierarchical structure and reorganize the English church on the basis of independent congregations, and those associated with this ideal came to be called independents or congregationalists. But some of those who favored independent congregations believed that they could create purified congregations only by withdrawing or separating from the Church of England, and they were later identified as Separatists. Settlers brought with them to New England these differing models for organizing their churches, though most established independent congregations that claimed they were still a part of the Church of England. Over time those settled in Massachusetts and Connecticut came to be known as Congregationalists after the church they developed.

Puritan Colonies

Settling in North American offered some English Puritans opportunities to create their particular versions of a purified English church and a godly society. Not all migrating Puritans came to New England, but most of the people who came to this region can be characterized as Puritans. A group of Separatists established a colony at Plymouth in 1620, while later immigrants established colonies of Massachusetts Bay, New Haven, and Connecticut. None of the leaders of these enterprises intended to tolerate the beliefs or practices of those who differed from them in matters of religion; on the contrary, they would suppress beliefs they found alien or threatening. The governments of these colonies did not legislate in matters of doctrine, but godly magistrates were expected to exercise watchful care over churches, driving out those they saw as disruptive in matters of religion and passing laws to discipline the unrighteous elements of society. To insure the selection of godly magistrates, the colonies of Massachusetts Bay and New Haven limited the right to vote in colonial elections to church members. Church attendance by church members and non-members was required by law and enforced by the courts.

Religiously inspired efforts to discipline and reform society affected various aspects of the colonies established in New England. Because of the importance placed on reading the Bible, colonial governments required that all parents or masters teach their children to read, and Massachusetts required its towns to support public schools. As a result, levels of literacy were higher in New England than in other English colonies and in most parts of England. Harvard College was founded in 1636 in part to provide college educations for ministers, and the first printing press in North American was set up in Cambridge in 1638 to print among other things religious tracts. Colonial legislatures modified laws in an effort to bring them into line with Biblical precepts. Adultery was treated as a capital crime, but the overall number of capital crimes was reduced. In other instances laws put new distance between spiritual and secular realms: marriage was treated as a civil ceremony and performed by magistrates, not ministers, while individuals excommunicated from churches suffered no civil disabilities.

Settlers organized their churches as autonomous congregations. New members were admitted to a church only after the minister and the church's other members had listened to and evaluated candidates' accounts of their conversion experiences, bearing evidence that they were among the elect chosen by God for salvation. Among the initial wave of immigrants perhaps half of the men and women could not, or would not, put themselves through such an examination and did not become members of the church, though most adults attended Sunday services. Members of each independent church selected and ordained its minister who usually served until death. Initially ministers were supported by voluntary contributions, but by the late 1600s, most ministers were supported by local taxes.

By 1700 the New England colonists had recreated a modified version of the parish-based religious communities of old England. They had erected their own Biblically inspired versions of non-hierarchial churches purged of the Church of England's Catholic traditions. Worship services focused on the minister's preaching and interpretation of the Word of God as contained in the Bible; there was little in the way of formal ritual. Like other Protestants they recognized only two sacraments: Baptism and Holy Communion or as they often called it, the Lord's Supper. Services were held in square or rectangular meeting houses that lacked altars, stained glass windows, steeples, and other sacred adornments traditionally associated with Christian places of worship. The construction and maintenance of these structures, like the ministers who preached in them, were supported by local taxes.

Private religious devotions centered on the Bible and private prayer. Parents began the instruction of their children in the rudiments of Christian belief. Heads of families were expected to lead their households in daily prayer. Individuals also found solace by praying alone or reflecting on passages in the Bible. Some studious church members took notes on Sunday sermons and reviewed them at home or discussed them with others. Such discussion groups among lay men or women could lead to activities and ideas that ministers or government officials found threatening. In the opinion of these leaders, some Puritans in New England, such as Anne Hutchinson who was tried and banished, took the idea of “a priesthood of all believers” too far. The colony of Rhode Island developed as refuge for settlers who discovered that their interpretations of Scripture or their own religious experiences took them in directions that Puritan leaders did not sanction.

Missionary Activity

The inward focus of the religious piety of the English colonists and the practical independence of each church provided little inspiration for evangelism and not much institutional support for missionary activity. Unlike the Spanish and the French, New England's colonial settlers devoted little time and relatively few resources to converting to Christianity the region's Natives. Despite this half-hearted effort, some Natives did embrace Christianity. By 1670 there may have been 1200 Christian Natives living in a dozen villages located primarily in eastern Massachusetts. The town of Deerfield was created as compensation for the English residents of Dedham who had some of their town's lands taken to create the “praying town” of Natick where some of these Christian Natives lived. In the aftermath of Metacom's War, 1675-1677, the number of Christian Natives in Massachusetts declined dramatically.

Further Reading

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