Puritans and Puritanism

views updated


PURITANS AND PURITANISM. The terms "Puritans" and "Puritanism" originated in England in the 1560s, when they were used to describe the people who wished to reform the Church of England beyond the limits established by Queen Elizabeth I in order to "purify" it of what they considered the remnants of Roman Catholicism. Puritanism was first formulated as an ecclesiastical protest and was at the beginning devoted to attacking clerical vestments, the use of medieval ceremony, and the structure of the official hierarchy; Puritans wished to substitute a church government modeled upon the example of the apostles in the New Testament. However, this preoccupation with polity and ritual was an expression rather than the substance of Puritanism. Puritans were men of intense piety who took literally and seriously the doctrines of original sin and salvation by faith; they believed that true Christians should obey the will of God as expressed in divine revelation, and they condemned the Church of England because they found its order impious and anti-Christian. After 1603 their opposition to the church became allied with the parliamentary opposition to the royal prerogative; in the 1640s Puritans and Parliamentarians united in open warfare against Charles I.

Puritanism was thus a movement of religious protest, inspired by a driving zeal and an exalted religious devotion that its enemies called fanaticism but that to Puritans was an issue of life or death. At the same time, Puritanism was connected with the social revolution of the seventeenth century and the struggle of a rising capitalist middle class against the absolutist state. It was a religious and social radicalism that in England proved incapable of maintaining unity within its own ranks and, during the 1650s, split into myriad sects and opinions. The process of division began in the sixteenth century when "Separatists" broke off from the main body of Puritans. A small congregation of these extremists fled to America and established the Plymouth colony in 1620, although the major contribution of Puritanism to American life was made through the settlement established by the Massachusetts Bay Company at Boston in 1630. This band of Puritans was inspired to migrate by a conviction that the cause had become hopeless in England after the dissolution of the Parliament of 1629. Within the next decade some 20,000 persons came to Massachusetts and Connecticut and there built a society and a church in strict accordance with Puritan ideals. Ruled by vigorous leaders, these colonies were able to check centrifugal tendencies, to perpetuate and to institutionalize Puritanism in America long after the English movement had sunk into confusion and a multiplicity of sects. Yet insofar as Puritanism was but the English variant of Calvinism and was theologically at one with all reformed churches, New England Puritanism was merely one of the forms in which the Calvinist version of Protestantism was carried to America; its influence, therefore, must be considered along with that of Scotch-Irish, Dutch, or French Protestantism.

Historians have on occasion attributed the origins of the American democratic tradition to the New England communities that nourished Puritanism for more than a century. Puritan dislike for the Anglican church and Stuart monarchs contributed to the strong anti-British sentiment that typified Boston life in the mid-1700s. And the Puritan acceptance of theocratic hierarchies and notion of themselves as a covenanted people prepared New Englanders well for the Constitution of the United States. However, beginning in the early twentieth century, historians increasingly tended to stress the undemocratic intolerance of Puritan theology—illustrated plainly in the banishment of Anne Hutchinson, the witchcraft prosecutions, and the brutal persecution of Quakers and Catholics.

Among some members of the literary avant garde in the early twentieth century, puritanism (uncapitalized) emerged as a pejorative term, a synonym for moral intolerance, prudery, and sexual priggishness. In the United States the word Puritanism (capitalized) has become practically synonymous with New England and its historical legacy, simply because New England (except for Rhode Island) achieved a social organization and an intellectual articulation that trenchantly crystallized the Puritan spirit. Puritanism can be said to have affected American life wherever Calvinism has affected it, but most markedly at those points where persons of New England origin have been influential.


Bercovitch, Sacvan. The American Jeremiad. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978.

Breen, Timothy H. Puritans and Adventurers: Change and Persistence in Early America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Foster, Stephen. The Long Argument: English Puritanism and the Shaping of New England Culture, 1570-1700. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Gildrie, Richard P. The Profane, the Civil, & the Godly: The Reformation of Manners in Orthodox New England, 1679–1749. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.

Miller, Perry, and Thomas H. Johnson. The Puritans. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.

Morgan, Edmund S. The Puritan Family: Religion & Domestic Relations in Seventeenth-Century New England. New York: Harper & Row, 1966.

Reis, Elizabeth. Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997.

PerryMiller/a. r.

See alsoAntinomian Controversy ; Congregationalism ; New England Way ; Pilgrims ; Religion and Religious Affiliation ; Salem ; Separatists, Puritan ; Theocracy in New England ; andvol. 9:Trial of Anne Hutchinson at Newton, 1637 .