Followers of a religious movement whose definition and date of origin cannot be given with precision. The movement embodied a wide range of different sects and communities that quarreled over liturgy, dogma, political theory, and social reform both within and without the Church of England. The effective period of Puritan activity covered the span from the Elizabethan Settlement (1559) to the Restoration (1660), by which time the term ceased to be meaningful in its original sense.
Early Development. Puritanism aggravated the English religious controversy between the advocates of a simpler, fundamentalist church rooted in apostolic Christian times and a more formal, ritualistic, authoritarian church developed since that time. More specifically, Puritanism was an attitude toward religion that arose in opposition to the alleged unscriptural, Catholic forms embodied in the Act of uniformity (1559) and the thirty-nine articles (1563). The Puritans generally sought to purify the Church of England of these forms, substituting Calvinistic models of ecclesiastical polity and liturgy (see nonconformists). Even before the break with Rome (1534), Cambridge scholars lectured and wrote on Continental Reformation ideas, which forced many to take refuge at Geneva and elsewhere upon the accession of mary tudor in 1553. They returned when elizabeth i assumed the throne, hoping that she would make sweeping reforms after the Genevan system, but were frustrated at the Crown's moderate Protestant posture and its unwillingness to tolerate dissent or entertain change. Thomas cartwright assumed the earliest leadership of one faction, mostly academicians at first, who promoted presbyterianism in place of the existing Episcopalian system of church government and who had already found common ground for opposition to Elizabeth's insistence on conformity in the Vestiarian Controversy (1566). This dispute, at first limited to Saint John's and Trinity College, Cambridge, but later involving Puritan-minded clergy in London and elsewhere, arose when Archbishop Matthew parker, acting on Elizabeth's order, laid down strict rules governing services and clerical dress. Coercive measures by the Anglican hierarchy followed; Puritan
scholars and clergy were suspended; and a flood of pamphlets appeared to support both sides of the question. An illustration of this opposition to religious uniformity may be seen in the publication of the Marprelate Tracts (1588–89). The invention of several Midland authors who used the pseudonym Martin Marprelate, the tracts railed against the episcopacy. They appeared despite, and perhaps because of, Archbishop John whitgift's order in 1586 that all publications be censored. Several suspected authors were arrested, one of them was executed, and most of their books were burned.
Source of Faith. The Puritans disagreed over dogma, but virtually all of them stressed the Bible as the only true source of faith and conduct. Puritan divines as well as individual members of their congregations read it avidly, interpreted it as they chose, and thereupon quarreled over the form of church government it enjoined. From this Calvinistic conviction of the validity of private interpretation of the Bible grew English Protestant sectarianism.
Variant Systems of Government. By far the largest majority of Puritans went along with the episcopal system, provided the laity could share in the policymaking process and "popish" forms in the liturgy were expunged. This group of moderates retained general control of Puritanism until the Civil War. Other Puritans, led by Thomas Cartwright, advocated a Presbyterian ecclesiastical polity; they were originally few and largely discredited in Elizabeth's reign. With the outbreak of war in 1642 and the parliamentary alliance with the Scots that followed, the Presbyterian Puritans gained temporary ascendancy, controlling, for instance, the Westminster Assembly (1643–49), convened to reform the church. These Puritans invested ecclesiastical sovereignty in four bodies, the Kirk Session, the Presbytery, the Provincial Synod, and the General Assembly. The Separatists (known also as Brownists originally, and as Independents later on) constituted the third broad category of Puritans. As early as the 1550s groups of persons met in separate congregations (conventicles) to conduct services apart from the Established Church. Robert browne, one of the early Separatist leaders, wrote several pamphlets that advocated the independence of each parish congregation from either a parental, hierarchical, or secular political control. Such Puritans professed the autonomy of each congregation under the sole supremacy of Christ and formed self-governing parishes that supposedly operated on a principle of democracy, but often became subject to the dictates of their elected ministers. From this form of
Puritanism evolved Congregationalism, some of whose adherents migrated to Holland and America to escape persecution. But others stayed to reap the rewards of Independency during Oliver cromwell's administration.
Doctrine and Behavior. Puritans generally shared a belief in predestination and agreed that the Bible was the sole rule of faith and morals to be interpreted individually. They maintained that one's life should in every way manifest a deep sense of devotion to Christ and to duty, and they severely criticized what they termed idolatrous forms, including vestments, statuary, the sign of the cross, the use of holy water and other sacramentals, and the position of the altar (communion table). Puritans also minimized the intermediary role of ministers and encouraged preaching. Caroline Puritans more than their Elizabethan predecessors emphasized simplicity of dress and hair styles, unostentatious ceremony, and music. They also regarded the Sabbath as a day without work, travel, or recreation that might interfere with worship (see sabbatarianism). Aside from these broad maxims of Puritan belief, they agreed upon little else.
Minor Sects. The Independents warrant particular attention if for no other reason than that they illustrate the heterogeneity of Puritanism. The Levellers, led by John Lilburne, were among the most important of the Independents. They exerted strong influence in the parliamentary army between 1647 and 1649 to effect a republican system of government that recognized the equality of all men, universal suffrage, and general religious toleration. One small faction of Social Levellers, the Diggers, directed by Gerrard Winstanley, aroused far more antagonism and put considerably more pressure on the authorities than their numbers would suggest. They preached an equalitarian, agrarian, communistic social order wherein men might put to use whatever common or wasteland lay fallow, regardless of ownership. The Diggers, like the Quakers (see friends, religious society of), were pacifists and offered no resistance to those who abused them on the common of Saint George's Hill (Surrey) in 1649 when they tried to dig up the ground. Others of the Independents were Millenarians, such as the politically oriented Fifth Monarchy Men and the quietistic communities of seekers. The anarchistic Fifth Monarchists believed that, according to the words of the Prophet Daniel in the Old Testament, four great monarchies (Assyrians; Persians; Greeks; and Romans, who passed on their authority to the Hapsburgs) would be followed by the Second Coming of Christ, who would establish a divine kingdom on earth together with His elect. But they attempted to hurry His conquest by rebellion led by Thomas Venner in 1657 and 1661. The Seekers lived in several communities, principally in Yorkshire, Westmoreland, and Cumberland. They refused to recognize any formal church, set up congregations without any firm leadership, and practiced a pietistic faith essentially similar to that of the Quakers, with whom they had joined almost entirely by 1652. Another parallel of Puritan dissimilarity may be seen in the Family of Love and the Ranters. The former, a very small sect which originated in Flanders, was related to the Anabaptists. They symbolized pacifism and communitarianism in their traditional greeting of a kiss of peace. The Ranters, on the other hand, comprised a wide selection of unorganized Puritans who represented perhaps the most unorthodox elements of the movement. Some of them, such as Lodowick Muggleton, thought themselves sinless Messiahs; others wished to undertake another crusade to the Holy Land. Virtually all of these left wing Puritans suffered persecution and had disappeared by the Restoration, although others managed to survive until the Revolution of 1688.
Opposition from the Crown. No account of the Puritans can ignore their extraordinary role in politics during Elizabethan and early Stuart times or the constitutional changes that resulted from their activity. The Acts of Supremacy (1534, 1559) endowed the English monarch with full authority over the Church of England, and the Act of Uniformity required all Englishmen to conform to it. Since the spiritual sovereignty of the Crown was barely distinguishable from its temporal authority and since the episcopacy supported the Crown, defection from the Anglican Church was a political as well as a religious crime, the more so because of the instability of the Crown in terms of the parliamentary opposition to its prerogatives (see erastianism). Elizabeth and the first two Stuarts believed that religious uniformity was essential to political stability; so that Puritans and Catholics alike were treated virtually as traitors. Many of the penal laws, especially the Act of 1593 against "sectaries," were directed at the Puritans. Cartwright and Browne both went to prison several times for preaching Puritanism. Puritans hoped that James I would be more sympathetic to their views, for he had been reared a Presbyterian. For this reason a number of Puritan clergy presented the Millenary Petition (1603) soon after he crossed the Tweed from Scotland. This document, which called for moderate ecclesiastical reforms, such as the right of the clergy to choose the garb they would wear at services, the abolition of sacramentals, bowing at the name of Jesus, simplicity of worship, and release of clergymen from the necessity of accepting everything in the Book of Common Prayer so long as they subscribed to the Oath of Supremacy, James allowed to be debated at the Hampton Court Conference (1604). When Dr. Reynolds, one of the Puritan spokesmen, suggested that disputed religious questions might be referred by the bishops to presbyters, James abruptly dismissed the conference, alleging that Puritans meant to subordinate him to a Presbyterian government. The King then deprived about 300 Puritan clergy of their benefices, thereby setting them and their flocks squarely against him. From that time onward neither James nor Charles I saw eye to eye with the Puritans, who had heavy representation in the House of Commons.
Not one Parliament between 1604 and 1640 acquiesced to the royal will; not one failed to introduce legislation, petitions, or remonstrances to block many of the Crown's religious, financial, and foreign policies, or allowed the country to forget Puritan ideals. A constitutional impasse between parliamentary "rights" and royal prerogatives, frequently punctuated by lengthy periods of royal personal rule, pamphleteering, and occasional Puritan outbursts, culminated in the calling of the Long Parliament in 1640. Their series of legislative and governmental reforms caused another impasse that erupted into the Civil War and the execution of the monarch, and the creation under Cromwell of the first republic in English history.
Emigration to America. Stuart absolutism in religion, particularly during the administration of Archbishop William laud in the 1630s, was partly responsible for Puritan emigration to America. Laud, favoring High Church ritual and strict uniformity, relentlessly attacked the Puritans, as may easily be seen in the lives of William Prynne, Richard baxter, and Henry Burton. This persecution caused some Puritans to despair of ever finding a sympathetic ear in England. Those who founded Virginia in 1607 and settled in some of the Caribbean islands went largely for material gain, land, and adventure, but the Jacobean and Caroline Puritans who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 and Massachusetts Bay in 1628, who were joined by about 20,000 co-religionists during the 1630s, had left England to establish their own Christian commonwealths in the New World. As their towns grew, a Puritan oligarchy grew apace, and the Presbyterian system established in Massachusetts Bay Colony drove out the Antinomian Anne Hutchinson and the Seeker Roger williams as quickly and as ruthlessly as Laud had driven the Presbyterians out. Puritanism proved to be as contentious in New England as it had been in England; the differences among Puritans were no less pronounced under Cotton Mather than they had been under Robert Browne or Thomas Cartwright.
A great academic controversy still rages among scholars of American Puritanism over the influence, for good or ill, exerted upon later generations of Americans by their Puritan forefathers. Some historians credit many American virtues to the Puritan colonials, while others speak only of Puritan oppression, intellectual stagnation, and religious intolerance. The question is not easily answered; but there is agreement that Puritanism had a lasting effect upon the moral concepts of American society.
Influence and Significance. What influences did the Puritans of England and New England have upon Anglo-Saxon civilization? Politics certainly commanded much of their attention, both theoretically and practically. Many of the 30,000 political pamphlets published in the 1640s were written by Puritans, not to mention the thousands of broadsides, tracts, and books they wrote on religious issues. Pacifists, Millenarians, republicans, social reformers, and Levellers were Puritans who created a wide literature that their countrymen read at the outset of the Civil War when newspapers were just appearing. Puritan authors contrived every conceivable political system, among them a fresh approach to democracy, which undeniably germinated under the veneer of authoritarianism that characterized the age. Puritan political agitation toppled Charles I's divine right monarchy, reformed Parliament, created a republic and, despite the interlude of the Restoration, helped to bring on the Revolution of 1688, the Bill of Rights, and limited monarchy.
Prose, poetry, and the theater felt the impact of Puritanism. John bunyan and John milton were giants of the age; William Prynne, when read seriously, could be recognized as a master of satire and a symbol of literary freedom. Conversely, Puritan prose aroused such opposition as that in Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan. Elizabethan drama had been far superior to early Stuart drama, which was generally poor, but the Puritan attitude toward actors and plays did much to kill it, at least temporarily, and to leave a stigma upon the stage that still lingers. Sabbatarianism was rooted in Puritanism, and "blue laws" flourished long after the name Puritan was forgotten. It is true that the Puritans' attitudes toward music and aesthetics have been grossly exaggerated. Moreover, the thesis about the close relationship between Calvinism and capitalism is subject to many reservations; yet there remains much about Puritan thrift, hard work, and devotion to duty that rings true. It is no coincidence that many Puritans belonged to the moneyed mercantile or professional middle class during the 17th century. Social class mobility is also associated with the Puritans. The rise of the gentry in the century from the death of Henry VIII to the outbreak of the Civil War worked its influence upon the rise of the House of Commons as a powerful force against absolutism, played a part in bringing on the Puritan Revolution and in the process narrowed the gap between the higher and lower classes of England.
Bibliography: w. haller, The Rise of Puritanism (New York 1938). a. f. s. pearson, Thomas Cartwright and Elizabethan Puritanism, 1535–1603 (Cambridge, Eng. 1925). m. m. knappen, Tudor Puritanism (Chicago 1939). c. hill, Puritanism and Revolution (London 1958). w. a. shaw, A History of the English Church … 1640–1660, 2 v. (London 1900). h. n. brailsford, ed., The Levellers and the English Revolution (Stanford 1961). a. jessop, "Robert Browne," The Dictionary of National Biography From the Earliest Times to 1900, 63 v. (London 1885–1900, repr. with corrections, 21 v., 1908–09, 1921–22, 1938) 3:57–61. a. simpson, Puritanism in Old and New England (Chicago 1955). a. s. p. woodhouse, Puritanism and Liberty (Chicago 1951). p. miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (Cambridge, Mass. 1954). r. b. perry, Puritanism and Democracy (New York 1944). p. miller and t. h. johnson, eds., The Puritans, 2 v. (New York 1938). p. a. scholes, The Puritans and Music in England and New England (New York 1934). s. e. morison, The Intellectual Life of Colonial New England (2d ed. New York 1956). c. hill, Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England (New York 1964). j. f. new, Anglican and Puritan: The Basis of Their Opposition, 1558–1640 (Stanford, Calif. 1964).
[m. j. havran]
Covenant Theology. Covenants were important in the religious communities of the Puritans in early New England. These were solemn and binding agreements which were patterned after the covenants they believed God had made with man. In the Covenant of Works, Adam and Eve agreed to obey God’s will and obtain salvation by their own good works. They broke this covenant and lost God’s favor. Through the Covenant of Redemption, Jesus agreed to take upon himself the guilt of the sins of men and save them from their fate. In the Covenant of Grace, God’s spirit entered those predestined for salvation. God also made covenants with groups of people, such as Abraham and his descendants, to look on them with special favor if they strove to obey his will. The Puritans believed that they were one of these groups and employed covenants throughout their society in entering marriage, creating churches, forming towns, and establishing governments. All of these specific covenants added up to the society’s covenant with God, who was quick to punish any infraction.
Congregational Organization. Churches were at the center of Puritan society. Believers settled close together in towns so that they could attend church at least twice a week and gather for prayers and theological discussions in private homes. Living in close proximity also allowed them to scrutinize each other’s behavior and help everyone to lead the moral lives that would please God. Privacy was a luxury that striving Christians could ill afford. The first order of business in the town was to form a congregation. A few men were selected as pillars because of their probable conversion and virtuous conduct. They agreed to a church covenant and examined other applicants for membership in that covenant. Soon after they arrived the Puritans adopted the practice of admitting to church membership only those who could convince the pillars and the rest of the congregation that they had been saved. They followed a congregational form of government in which the congregation had absolute autonomy in admitting members, governing itself, selecting its leaders, and calling its minister, whose ordination was only valid in that congregation. The minister was the key in any church. He had to be a highly educated person so that he could provide the most accurate explanation of the Bible and how it related to all aspects of life. Humans could only be saved by hearing and understanding the word of God. But the minister also counseled his flock, leading them toward the saving faith that brought conversion and to the good works that characterized both a saved individual and a moral society. Because God spoke to humans only through the Bible, which the minister understood so well, people turned to him for advice on all sorts of matters, even economic and political. Faced with these awesome responsibilities, neighboring ministers met in informal support groups to discuss common problems of doctrine and governance. The decisions of these clerical consociations were not binding on individual congregation, but their suggestions usually were taken. In 1646 ministers and laymen from each church in Massachusetts met in a colonywide synod and issued the Cambridge Platform, which adopted the general tenets of the Westminster Confession of Faith and recommended that synods or consociations continue to meet and advise local churches. It was such a synod in 1662 that officially sanctioned a Half-Way Covenant whereby congregations could choose to baptize the children of non-church members and allow them to be “half-way” members of the church.
Worship. Puritan churches were simple, plain, square buildings. There were no steeples, stained-glass windows, or ornaments of any kind. Worshipers sat on hard, wooden benches facing the minister, who often stood on a raised platform. Later these benches were sectioned off into squares of family pews with partitions around them. This was designed to cut down on the cold drafts and retain the heat from warm bricks that the family wrapped in cloths and placed on the floor. Pews were assigned by the family’s rank in society. Worship services went on all week, but the major services were on Sunday and were lengthy and formal affairs. In each the main feature was the sermon, which usually lasted about two hours and was bracketed by long prayers. The worshipers stood during the prayers and throughout much of the service. Sometimes the congregation would take a lunch break after the morning service and return for another in the afternoon. The singing or chanting of psalms was allowed but with no musical accompaniment. A “liner” would sing the line, and the congregation would repeat it in whatever tunes individuals chose to follow. Only those who had been saved and were members could take the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. There were no formal religious holidays, not even Christmas or Easter. The Bible provided no dates for the birth, death, or resurrection of Christ, and the Puritans believed that the Catholic Church had simply made them up to coincide with the celebrations of pagans whom the church was attempting to draw into the fold. To Puritans this was simply a whitewashing of heathen partying with a Christian hue. There were special days of Thanksgiving when things went well and fast days when they did not. These were called by a minister for local matters or by the ministerial meetings for colonywide concerns.
Family and Society. The family was the cornerstone of the society where the closest scrutiny and continuous religious instruction occurred. Thus people with no family were placed in one. The townsfolk carefully monitored activities within the households to insure that the family maintained the harmony that characterized God’s original creation. If trouble arose, the church elders would intervene, removing children, apprentices, and servants. Government officials were empowered to grant a divorce so that a contentious husband and wife might enter more-pleasing matrimonial covenants, although it rarely happened. A hierarchy existed within a family so that all would know their places, thus avoiding competition and arguments. The husband was at the head and represented the family unit in all public and church affairs; the wife deferred to him and supervised the private household affairs. The husband also was responsible for raising the children in a strict fashion that would suppress their naturally sinful instincts. If any stepped out of their prescribed roles, it was believed that they would be vulnerable to the temptations of Satan. Similar hierarchies in the larger society were expected to promote the same harmony. The most important was the religious hierarchy, with the minister at the top and the church elders below him, followed by the church members; at the bottom were the non-church members. By law everyone had to pay taxes to support the minister, attend church regularly, and conform to Puritan practices and precepts.
Church and State. All government was in the hands of the saints because they alone could understand and follow God’s will. Church membership was required of all adult men who wished to vote and hold political office. Female saints were excluded because they had men to represent their families. Local governance was most important in the lives of the townsfolk and was almost indistinguishable from the town church. Decisions were made in town meetings which adopted the consensus of the community, which they hoped was close to God’s will. The state was formally separated from the church even though they shared the same mission. The colony government was to pass laws to insure that all would walk in the path of righteousness and to punish those who strayed. If the government failed to maintain proper standards, God would punish the whole society. For instance, wage and price controls were established so that one individual could not profit at the expense of others. All of these regulations were based on biblical directives. There was not even a written code of laws until 1641 because it was assumed that the Bible contained all the laws that were necessary. Government officials also directed the establishment of schools. Education was crucial for all Puritans because God revealed himself in the Scriptures, nature, and history, all of which they needed to learn. At the least everyone had to be able to read the Bible. In 1647 the colony government passed the “Old Deluder Satan” law, instructing towns to establish schools for this purpose. Harvard College was founded in 1636 to educate aspiring ministers.
Variations. Not everyone conformed to the New England orthodoxy. Some could not justify infant baptism, believing that this sacrament should be a seal of the conversion of adults. These Baptists, as they later came to be called, also demanded a complete separation of church and state, and some even suggested that humans had the freedom of will to choose whether or not they would sin. Others advocated the presbyterian position that church membership should be open to all who agreed to live according to God’s commandments rather than only to those who were already saved and that congregations should relinquish some of their authority to higher councils of ministers and elders. In the interests of harmony, such deviants were counseled in love so that they might see the error of their disagreements, and if that failed they were banished from the colony. Roger Williams left Massachusetts Bay in 1636 and founded Rhode Island, where he established the first Baptist church. His colony welcomed people of all religious beliefs and allowed them to follow their consciences without fear of government interference. Such an environment attracted other exiles, such as Anne Hutchinson, who was banished from Massachusetts Bay in 1637 for adhering to a more mystical interpretation of Calvinism. The Society of Friends (Quakers), a more radical offshoot of puritanism, also settled on Rhode Island as a base from which they could fan out to proselytize through New England. The Puritan establishment considered the Friends to be the greatest threat, for they challenged not only its theology but also its society and government.
Decline. The challenges to Puritan control of New England increased after 1660 and exacerbated the internal threats to the cohesion of the society that accompanied a growth in population and economic prosperity. More people settled on isolated farms, away from churches and guardians of morality; merchants and wage workers put their individual needs above the community good; and non-Puritans arrived in greater force, seeking economic opportunity rather than religious cohesion. Fewer people believed they had been saved, and so smaller numbers were joining the church, thus denying their children the chance to be baptized. In desperation, some churches adopted the Half-Way Covenant, in which children of any baptized person could be baptized regardless of whether their parents were church members or not; others adopted the presbyterian position that anyone who led a moral life could become a church member and seek conversion within its fold. Meanwhile, Puritan officials were fighting to retain control of their colonies in the face of English threats to place them all under royal control. James II finally did so, revoking their charters and, in 1686, gathering Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and New York into the Dominion of New England, ruled by a royal governor who was an Anglican. The Glorious Revolution ended this, but William and Mary did not restore their old charters. Instead Massachusetts Bay received a royal charter, which included Plymouth as well. Connecticut retained her self-government, but it too had to conform to the laws of England. The Puritans had become New Englanders, and their churches became known as Congregational.
Francis J. Bremer, The Puritan Experiment: New England Society from Bradford to Edwards, revised edition (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1995);
David D. Hall, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgement: Popular Religious Beliefs in Early New England (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990);
Puritanism is the name of a religious movement that originated in England in the 1560s. Influenced by the teachings of religious reformer John Calvin (1509–1564), the members of the new congregation, the Puritans, sought to reform the Anglican Church, or Church of England. Their intense desire for religious freedom to create a purely Christian community prompted a migration to the New World in the first half of the seventeenth century. Many characteristics of New England culture still retain roots in Puritanical simplicity.
The Catholic Church in Rome had split from the Anglican Church in 1538. Puritans believed that the Anglican Church retained too many characteristics of the Catholic Church. In particular, they thought the church hierarchy of archbishops, bishops, and ministers held too much power, and that church members should have more say in its matters.
Puritans wished to change the focus of church worship, too. They believed the world should be modeled on the Bible, and therefore wanted to establish a church government based on the example of the apostles in the New Testament. Ceremonies would be simple, stressing Bible reading and individual prayer. Puritans rejected the Anglican Church as anti-Christian with its ceremonial style of worship.
The Puritans were not well received in England. The English generally viewed the movement as extremist, and the royal family viewed Puritans as agitators trying to threaten royal authority. This led to harassment of Puritans by English authorities.
Seeking religious freedom and the chance to establish a “pure” community supportive of their Christian ideals, the Puritans began to migrate to the New World in 1620. The original settlements, Plymouth Colony and Massachusetts Bay Colony , grew quickly in just a couple of decades. By 1643 more than twenty thousand Puritans had arrived in Massachusetts , Rhode Island , Connecticut , and Virginia .
Churches were at the center of Puritan societies, so towns were established tightly around them. This structure enabled easy access to church services and also allowed church members to support each other daily in living the moral lives that would please God. Privacy was not as important as moral purity.
Government was tied closely to the church. Holding political office in local government and voting at town meetings both required church membership. Colonial governments passed laws based on biblical teachings, requiring colonists to live pious, or devoted, lives, and punishing those who strayed. For Puritans, if government failed to maintain proper standards, the entire community would suffer God's punishment.
The church and family
Puritans quickly set up congregations when they arrived. A few men, called pillars, were chosen to lead their congregations based on their pious examples. Congregations established a church covenant, or binding agreement, and admitted members to the congregation based on that covenant. Only those who had been “saved” were admitted to the church.
Puritan churches created a form of administration in which the whole congregation had the power to admit members, select leaders, chose a minister, and otherwise govern itself. The minister's ordination was only valid within that congregation, and his responsibilities were extensive. Because all aspects of political, social, and religious life were guided by the understanding of the word of God, the minister was called to counsel the congregation on all aspects of community life.
For Puritans, there was continuous religious instruction in the family home. Responsibilities within a household were carefully defined to minimize competition and arguments between members. When trouble arose, elders intervened and sometimes even removed children, apprentices, and servants who were problems. Divorces might be granted if necessary, though it rarely happened.
The decline of Puritan societies in the latter half of the 1600s happened for a variety of reasons. Strong challenges to their strict belief systems arose. Theological disagreements led to the establishment of new Christian sects, such as the Baptists and the Quakers . Migration of members away from town centers to farms weakened the control of church administration. Fewer and fewer people believed that they had been saved, and church membership declined.
Religious decline quickened as economic opportunities increased. Merchants and workers began placing individual needs above those of the community. Puritan influence on community life symbolically ended around 1686, when King James II (1633–1701) revoked the English charters of individual colonies and created the Dominion of New England. Ruled by an Anglican governor under royal control, the Puritans became New Englanders, and their churches became known as Congregational.
The Puritans were members of a religious movement that began in England during the 1500s and lasted into the first half of the 1600s, when it spread to America. Influenced by the teachings of religious reformer John Calvin (1509–1564), the Puritans were so named because they wanted to purify the Anglican Church (also called the Church of England). They believed that too much power rested with the church hierarchy (its priests, bishops, and cardinals), and that the people (called the laity or lay members) should have more involvement in church matters. Ceremonies should, the Puritans believed, be simplified to stress Bible reading and individual prayer. They defied the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Anglican Church, believing that each church congregation should control its own affairs through a council (called a presbytery) of lay members. The Puritans also had strong feelings about government. They maintained that people can only be governed by contract (such as a constitution), which limits the power of a ruler.
When King James I (1566–1625; ruled 1603–1625) ascended the throne of England in 1603, he was the first ruler of the house (royal family) of Stuart. The Stuart monarchs were Anglican or Catholic, but faced with the challenge of radical Puritanism, they tried to enforce national adherence to the Anglican Church, which stressed the ceremonial and traditional elements of worship. Further, the Stuart kings viewed the Puritan agitators as a threat to their authority.
Persecuted by the throne, groups of Puritans fled England for the New World. One group was granted a corporate charter for the Massachusetts Bay Company (1629). Unlike other such contracts, which provided the framework for establishing colonies in America, this one did not require the stockholders to hold their meetings in England. What is striking about the organization of the Puritan colony is the fact that their organization combined economic, political, and religious levels of meaning. Stockholders who made the voyage across the Atlantic would become voting citizens in their own settlements; the board of directors would form the legislative assembly; and the company president, Puritan leader John Winthrop (1588–1649) would become the governor. In 1630 the group settled in what is today Boston and Salem, Massachusetts, establishing a Puritan Commonwealth. By 1643, more than 20,000 Puritans had arrived in Massachusetts, in what is called the Great Migration. Puritans also settled Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Virginia during this period.
Puritans founded the Congregational Church. They also established grammar schools and colleges (including Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth) in New England.
See also: Connecticut, Colonies (Corporate), Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Virginia
Under the auspices of the Massachusetts Bay Company, Puritans settled in all the new colonies, but especially in New England and Virginia. Until the end of the 17th cent., the strong Puritan sense of holding authority under God (as God's elect) created a kind of ‘holy commonwealth’, with strong religious control.
Pu·ri·tan / ˈpyoŏritn/ • n. a member of a group of English Protestants of the late 16th and 17th centuries who regarded the Reformation of the Church of England under Elizabeth as incomplete and sought to simplify and regulate forms of worship. ∎ (puritan) a person with censorious moral beliefs, esp. about pleasure and sex. • adj. of or relating to the Puritans. ∎ (puritan) having or displaying censorious moral beliefs, esp. about pleasure and sex. DERIVATIVES: Pu·ri·tan·ism (also pu·ri·tan·ism) n.
Oppressed under James I and Charles I, in particular by Archbishop Laud, many (such as the Pilgrim Fathers) emigrated to the Netherlands and America. The Civil War of the 1640s led to the temporary pre-eminence of Puritanism. Soon, however, the movement fragmented into sects, and the term Puritan began to be less used; after the Restoration such people tended to be called Dissenters or Nonconformists.