views updated May 18 2018


PURITANISM. A movement within the Church of England, Puritanism called for the church's further reformation in accord with what was believed to be "the best reformed" tradition, which was taken to mean the doctrine and ecclesiology of Protestant Switzerland (Geneva, Zurich), of the Rhineland (Strasbourg in particular), the Palatinate, the Netherlands, and Scotland.


Puritanism was born out of dissatisfaction with the Elizabethan Settlement, the ecclesiastical order established by the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity in 1559 by the young Queen Elizabeth (ruled 15581603) and her first Parliament. Many English Protestants who had survived the reign of Catholic Queen Mary I (ruled 15531558) and the persecution of Protestants that marked her later years, and many of the more than eight hundred clerics and laymen who had fled abroad, had hoped that Elizabeth would bring a return to the second (more Protestant) Book of Common Prayer of King Edward VI's reign (15471553) and to the Reformed Protestant momentum of that king's last years. Exiles, who had experienced the reformed Calvinist order of the churches in Frankfurt am Main, Arau, Strasbourg, Basel, Zurich, and Geneva, returned to England hoping that the English Church would now go beyond the Edwardian reformation and join the ranks of the "best reformed churches."

Although few quarreled with the doctrine set out in 1563 in the Thirty-Nine Articles (Articles XI, Of the Justification of Man, and Article XVII, Of Predestination and Election, were unambiguously in the Reformed camp), some did question whether the retention of the traditional disciplinary machinery of episcopacy and the episcopal and archidiaconal church courts really approximated the structure of the primitive church of the Book of Acts and the early church fathers. More objectionable were the Prayer Book rubrics requiring that parish priests officiate wearing a surplice rather than an academic gown, as worn by ministers in the Reformed Churches of the Continent, and the continued use of the cross in baptism and the ring in marriage. These were admittedly adiaphora (issues not central to a saving faith), but if so, many questioned why their use should be obligatory. Further, in a country that was still largely Catholic, it seemed a mistake to "symbolize" with the old faith, thus leading many of the laity to assume that no substantive change had occurred. Finally, the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer, although largely written by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (14891556), who was already a Protestant and moving in the direction of the Reformed churches when he wrote the 1552 Prayer Book, allowed little time for the sermon, and preaching had seemingly come to be central to inculcating a true saving faith: the Word preached, rather than the sacraments, was thought to be the principal vehicle of grace for those who were dissatisfied.

The first clash between the clergy who would come to be called "Precisions" or "Puritans" came over the requirement that the minister officiate in a surplice. Edmund Sandys, soon to be one of the new Elizabethan bishops, dismissed the rubric saying, "Our gloss upon this text is that we shall not be forced to use them," but events belied his optimistic view. Although strict uniformity was not enforced at first, in 1566, under pressure from the queen, Archbishop Matthew Parker published his Advertisements, which called for decency and uniformity in worship. Ministers were not to preach without an episcopal license, and all ministers were required to wear the surplice when officiating. The Vestiarian Controversy followed, brought to a head by the bishop of London, who convoked the London clergy before him; thirty-seven of the ninety-eight clergy refused to conform and were suspended for refusing to wear what Robert Crowley called "the conjuring garments of popery." As William Cecil (15201598), the queen's secretary of state, complained, the consequence of silencing so many "godly men at one instant" was the "utter overthrow [of almost] all exercises . . . of interpretation of Scripture" within the city.

Many of those suspended were subsequently rescued by lay supporters who had the right of presentation to parochial livings, and in a sense the Puritan movement was born from that moment. In 1570 the conflict escalated. In that year, Thomas Cartwright's divinity lectures at Cambridge on the Acts of the Apostles argued that the primitive church had a presbyterian structure and lacked bishops. The issue of governance was no longer academic when, two years later, two young London preachers, John Field and Thomas Wilcox, published An Admonition to the Parliament, which called for the abolition of episcopacy and the substitution of a presbyterian structure of church government.

Not all relations between the Puritans and the bishops were as contentious as these measures implied. An overriding problem was the inability of many uneducated parish priests to preach the kind of exegetical sermons many bishops as well as ministers believed the times required, and this perception led to officially sanctioned meetings of local clergy called "prophesyings." During these meetings, typically, two skilled ministers preached upon a biblical text before the assembled local clergy and interested laity, and afterwards the clergy withdrew to discuss the performance. Although Archbishop Edmund Grindal (c. 15191583) backed the prophesyings, saying "public and continual preaching of God's word is the ordinary means and instrument of the salvation of mankind," Queen Elizabeth preferred that ministers read the official homilies. Thus in 1576 she ordered Grindal to suppress the prophesyings. Nevertheless, preaching exercises in one form or another, sometimes with episcopal approval (approval of the bishop), survived in many localities into the seventeenth century.

Such cooperation between bishops and the Puritan clergy largely came to an end in 1583, when John Whitgift (c. 15301604) succeeded Grindal as archbishop of Canterbury. Whitgift was a disciplinarian after the queen's own heart, and he promptly instituted the three articles of subscription as a means for suppressing Puritan nonconformity. The articles required the unfeigned acknowledgment of the royal supremacy in the church (few Puritans disagreed with that requirement), that the Thirty-Nine Articles were agreeable to the word of God, that nothing in the Book of Common Prayer was contrary to the word of God, and that it should therefore be used without alteration or abbreviation by all ordained ministers. More than three hundred ministers were suspended for refusing subscription, although many subsequently subscribed in some modified form sufficient for reinstatement.

Equipped with the prerogative Court of High Commission, over which Whitgift presided, and with the support of Queen Elizabeth, the archbishop set about enforcing conformity in a series of show trials: three who had separated from the established church in despair of reforming it were executed in 1593. The nascent presbyterian program organized by Field and Wilcox was at an end, and the Puritan clergy, whether supporters of a presbyterian church or not, lost their principal champions at court, including (among others) the earl of Leicester and his brother, the earl of Warwick; Sir Francis Walsingham, the queen's secretary of state; and Sir Walter Mildmay, an old privy counselor, as the first Elizabethan generation died in the late 1580s and early 1590s.

Loss of support at court did not spell the end of Puritanism in the countryside, where many Puritan clergy found support among the local gentry and country peers. Robert Rich, the second earl of Warwick, and his gentry allies in two generations of the Barrington family and their kin turned Essex into one of the principal Puritan strongholds until the episcopal attacks of the later 1620s. These attacks prompted an exodus of clergy and their lay followers to Massachusetts Bay and southern New England. The Knightleys in Northamptonshire and Sir Robert Jermyn, Sir John Higham, and Sir Edward Lewkenor in Suffolk were patrons of Puritan ministers. In the west, Sir Robert Harley and his friends made part of Herefordshire a Puritan haven. In London, where most of the parochial livings were not in the hands of the laity, Puritans found a solution in the lectureship, a minister hired to preach either because the incumbent was not licensed to preach or because the parish vestry wished more sermons than the parish minister could provide. At one time more than one hundred London parishes had preachers paid to give these extra sermons, supported either by collections organized by the vestry or by endowments made by wealthy merchants.


When James I (ruled 16031625) succeeded to the throne of England, the Puritans briefly hoped for better times; after all, as James VI of Scotland, this king had been brought up in a Presbyterian church. The so-called Millenary Petition, calling for moderate reform, was promptly organized and purportedly signed by one thousand clergymen; James responded by summoning a meeting of bishops and Puritan ministers at Hampton Court. The king was sympathetic to the Puritan demand for a preaching clergy, but he had no sympathy for what he thought might be reform leading to a presbyterian system in England. In the end, little came of Hampton Court except the new translation of the Bible published in 1611, the last official collaboration between Puritan and non-Puritan members of the Church of England. Richard Bancroft (15441610), who succeeded Whitgift as archbishop of Canterbury, was as rigorous a disciplinarian as his predecessor. He promulgated a revised set of canons for the church in 1604, which required subscription and conformity, and in the ensuing five years more than seventy beneficed Nonconformist clergy were deprived, including such Puritan luminaries as Arthur Hildersham and Ezechial Culverwell.

Two issues gained the Puritans support in the wider community in the course of James's reign. Many members of the church favored a rigorous Sabbath that was devoted exclusively to religious activities, and were shocked when King James issued the Book of Sports in 1618 in an effort to appease, as it seemed to many, Catholic sensibilities in Lancashire. The Book of Sports specifically forbade "Puritans and precisions" from discouraging any "lawful recreations" once the second service was completed on Sunday afternoons. Such lawful recreations included dancing, May games, Whitsun ales, and Morris dances, all of which could now legally take place in the churchyard.

More seriously, many, including Archbishop George Abbot (15621633), joined the more incautious Puritan preachers in criticizing King James's pursuit of a Spanish Habsburg wife for Prince Charles, particularly after 1618, when in the early stages of the Thirty Years' War (16181648) the Catholic armies of Spain and Bavaria invaded the Protestant Palatinate, the hereditary electorate of Frederick and his wife, Elizabeth, James's daughter. In 1622 James attempted to stop such preaching by promulgating his "Directions concerning Preachers," but in fact the preachers were doing little more than giving voice to popular opinion.

Catholic political and military successes on the Continent were one threat; the rise of Arminianism and ceremonialism at home was even more threatening, for to Puritans and to old-fashioned Calvinists like Abbot, these clerics seemed bent on subverting Protestantism from within. Puritans and non-Puritans alike had shared a common Reformed theology during most of Elizabeth's reign, but beginning in the 1590s anti-Calvinists appeared in the universities, arguing that grace was resistible, that salvation could be lost, which was a denial of predestination, and that the sacraments were more important vehicles of saving grace than the preached Word. Eight Arminians became bishops during James's reign, including his favorite court preacher, Lancelot Andrewes (15551626). After 1625, in the reign of King Charles I (ruled 16251649), they rapidly came to dominate the church. William Laud (15731645) became Charles's chief ecclesiastical adviser and rose to become bishop of London in 1628 and archbishop of Canterbury in 1633. Calvinists were now seen as Puritans, and Puritans as "Brownists," separatists from the Established Church in tendency, if not yet in fact. As Laud preached in a court sermon in 1621, "nothing more needful for . . . State and Church, than prayer," and the peace he sought when he came to power was the peace of silent pulpits.

In 1629 Thomas Hooker, the silenced lecturer at Chelmsford in Essex, preached in his farewell sermon: "God is going, his glory is departing, . . . England hath seen her best days," and shortly after left for Massachusetts; forty-eight Essex ministers had petitioned Laud on his behalf, but to no avail. Others retreated to the Netherlands. Alexander Leighton, a Scottish minister and physician, was tried in 1630 before the Star Chamber for writing against episcopacy, had his ears cropped, and was imprisoned until released by Parliament in 1640; Henry Burton, a minister, John Bastwick, a physician, and William Prynne, a lawyer, suffered a similar fate in 1637. The Book of Sports was reissued in 1633 and was required to be read from every pulpit in the land; those ministers who resisted what many regarded as an invitation to profane the Sabbath were suspended from their ministerial duties.


The rebellion of the Scots in 1637 over the attempted introduction of an English-style Book of Common Prayer and the summoning of the Long Parliament in November 1640 following two disastrous so-called Bishops' Wars, as Charles tried to bring his rebellious Scottish subjects to heel, brought the downfall of the Caroline regime. Laud was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and the House of Commons entertained petitions against parochial clergy who favored the Laudian regime and, after the civil war began in 1642, those who preached against Parliament and for the king. Puritan clergy who lost their livings behind royalist lines found new pulpits in London and those areas held by Parliament. As Richard Baxter (16151691), then a young West Country Puritan divine, later wrote: "Though it must be confessed that the public safety and liberty wrought very much with most, especially with the nobility and gentry who adhered to the parliament, yet was it principally the differences about religious matter that filled up the parliament's armies and put the resolution and valor into their soldiers."

A church settlement proved more difficult for Parliament than military victory. As part of an agreement with the Scots Covenanters, Parliament had summoned the Westminster Assembly of Divines in 1643, but argument over the definition of "the best reformed church" soon revealed a split between the Presbyterian majority, champions of a national church to which all would necessarily belong (similar to the Scots), and the Independent minority (called Congregationalists in America), who insisted on autonomy for gathered, voluntary congregations. The latter had the backing of the Baptists, always outside the national church, and the sectarian radicals in some of the parliamentary regiments. After the creation of the New Model Army in 1645, its success in the second civil war in 1648 and the conquest of Ireland and Scotland, followed by Oliver Cromwell's Protectorate in 1653, the survival of the Independents and the sects was guaranteed by the victorious army. The upshot was a Presbyterian structure without coercive sanctions, Independents and Baptists existing outside its purview, and in the 1650s these were joined by the Fifth Monarchists, Quakers, and other radical groups.

When the Restoration took place in 1660, in part due to the fear of sectarian anarchy, instead of a Puritan movement within the national church that had existed prior to 1640, denominationsPresbyterians, Independents, Baptists, and Quakerscame to exist as persecuted congregations on the outside, and Old Dissent was born. Yet it was in this period of defeat that the two great literary expressions of the Puritan ethos appeared: John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667) and John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (1678).

Puritanism, if it failed to create the sought-after City on the Hill, nevertheless was to have a lasting influence on the primacy given to the Bible as the word of God and to a certain type of moral seriousness and Protestant culture pervasive, if not dominant, in the English-speaking world.

See also Baxter, Richard ; Bible ; Bunyan, John ; Calvinism ; Charles I (England) ; Church of England ; Cromwell, Oliver ; Elizabeth I (England) ; English Civil War and Interregnum ; English Civil War Radicalism ; Harley, Robert ; James I and VI (England) ; James II (England) ; Laud, William ; Milton, John ; Star Chamber .


Primary Sources

Baxter, Richard. The Autobiography of Richard Baxter. Edited by J. M. Lloyd Thomas. London and New York, 1931.

Dent, Arthur. The Plaine Mans Pathway to Heaven. London, 1601.

Hutchinson, Lucy. Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson. Edited by James Sutherland. London, New York, and Toronto, 1973.

Secondary Sources

Collinson, Patrick. The Elizabethan Puritan Movement. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1967.

. Godly People: Essays on English Protestantism and Puritanism. London, 1983.

Durston, Christopher, and Jacqueline Eales, eds. The Culture of English Puritanism, 15601700. New York, 1996.

Greaves, Richard L. Glimpses of Glory: John Bunyan and English Dissent. Stanford, 2002.

Hill, Christopher. Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England. London, 1964.

. The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution. London, 1972.

Lake, Peter. Anglicans and Puritans? Presbyterianism and English Conformist Thought from Whitgift to Hooker. London, 1988.

. The Boxmaker's Revenge: "Orthodoxy," "Heterodoxy," and the Politics of the Parish in Early Stuart London. Stanford, 2001.

. Moderate Puritans and the Elizabethan Church. Cambridge, U.K., 1982.

Nuttall, G. F. Visible Saints: The Congregational Way, 16401660. Oxford, 1957.

Seaver, Paul S. Wallington's World: A Puritan Artisan in Seventeenth-Century London. Stanford, 1985.

Spurr, John. English Puritanism, 16031689. New York, 1998.

Paul S. Seaver


views updated May 11 2018


PURITANISM . In its most common historical usage Puritanism refers to a movement within English Protestantism in both the British Isles and colonial America. Some historians, identifying the essence of Puritanism as a reaction to the tardy pace of the English Reformation, date it from the activities of William Tyndale (14951536) and John Hooper (d. 1555) in the formative years of the Church of England. But its major impact was felt during the century between the coming of Elizabeth I to the throne in 1558 and the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658. For most of that period Puritanism had no institutional identity of its own. Puritans sought to purge the existing English church of its Catholic remnants rather than to set up a rival church. Because their goal was reform, the line that separated them from their non-Puritan brethren was often unclear, a situation to the advantage of those clergy and laity who wished to use the institutions of the church to effect an ultimate change in the ecclesiastical structure and beliefs of the nation.

The first stirrings of Puritan reform came in the reign of Elizabeth from a group of former Marian exiles, clergy and laity who had fled to Protestant centers on the continent to escape the persecutions of the Catholic queen Mary I (15531558). These believers had been radicalized by their experience at Geneva and elsewhere and were dissatisfied with the conservative nature of the Elizabethan settlement. That settlement was a via media between the demands of Catholicism and those of extreme reform. A compromise that many returning exiles could and did accept, it was unpalatable to many who saw no grace in an accommodation with sin. Initial protests focused on outward signs and ceremonies of the church such as the wearing of vestments, the physical position of church furnishings, and matters of nomenclature. The usage of the establishment, in the view of its critics, symbolized belief in a sacrificial priesthood, a real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and other elements of Roman Catholic faith and practice.

Clerical opposition to the dictates of the queen and her archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker (15591575), caught the public's attention. But while the position of the clergy forced them to make public displays of their conformity or nonconformity, the movement they represented was not simply a clerical protest. Puritanism drew the support of laity as distinguished as members of the queen's Privy Council and tapped deep wells of popular support in town and village, so much so that in some cases of the nonuse of vestments it was lay pressure that strengthened the will of a Puritan clergyman rather than pressure from a clergyman stirring up popular discontent.

Puritan hopes for early reform were bolstered when Edmund Grindal (15191583) succeeded Parker as archbishop of Canterbury in 1575. A progressive bishop, although not a Puritan, Grindal was less concerned than Parker with enforcing practices that had caused friction in the church. He promoted efforts to upgrade the education of the clergy and to reform ecclesiastical abuses, positions strongly supported by Puritans but advocated by progressive members of the establishment as well. When Grindal refused to carry out the queen's desire to suppress prophesyings (clerical conferences designed to promote the continuing education of the participants), Elizabeth suspended him, and the division within the church widened.

Frustrated throughout Elizabeth's reign by the resistance of the episcopal hierarchy, Puritans sought other methods of reforming English religion. An Admonition to Parliament (1572) urged the Parliament of 1572 to take responsibility for the church. While some members of that body showed sympathy, the queen was able to block their efforts. Other clergy and laity began to discuss and advocate an alternative system of church government. Presbyterianism, first advocated by Thomas Cartwright (15351603), was not universally popular among Puritan reformers, most of whom were able to work with the church hierarchy on a wide range of issues. Some Puritans, however, began to despair of reforming the church. Under the leadership of men such as Robert Browne (c. 15501633), Henry Barrow (15501593), and John Greenwood (d. 1593), they broke apart from the church and organized Separatist con-gregations.

In the last years of Elizabeth's reign and during the rule of James I (16031625), a new generation of religious thinkers began to articulate their theologies. One group, which would eventually rise within and then dominate the episcopal hierarchy, was represented by Richard Hooker (15541600), Richard Neile (15621640), and William Laud (15731645). This strain in Anglican thought reflected an accommodation to the views of the Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius (15591609), who had sought to temper the rigidity of Calvinistic predestinarianism. The Arminians in the church also stressed the authority of king and bishops, the efficacy of the sacraments in the process of salvation, and the return to a more elaborate use of liturgical ceremony. In contrast to this evolving "new orthodoxy," John Preston (15871628), William Perkins (15581602), and William Ames (15761633) spelled out the essentials of Puritan belief that would characterize the seventeenth-century history of the movement in England and in the New England in America. The lines of demarcation between "orthodox" and Puritan members of the church became more sharply defined, and compromise became less likely.

The starting point for Puritan theology was an emphasis on the majesty, righteousness, and sovereignty of God. God created and maintained the universe by exercise of his will and directed all things to an intelligent end. The awe-inspiring Puritan image of the Father drew heavily on the Old Testament. In contrast was the Puritan concept of man. Scripture, their social surroundings, and an intense personal introspection all persuaded the Puritans that human beings were depraved sinners incapable of earning merit in the eyes of God. But although Adam's sin had led to this fallen state and thus precluded humankind from using the Adamic covenant of works to earn its way to heaven, a benevolent and loving God predestined some of his fallen creatures for the gift of salvation included in the covenant of grace. In emphasizing humankind's sin-diminished faculties and inability to bridge the gap separating humans from the creator, the Puritan stood in increasing contrast to the orthodox Anglican point of view.

In their speculation about the means whereby God reached out to elect certain souls for the gift of salvation, the Puritans developed elements of traditional Calvinism. Puritan theologians, William Perkins in particular, made concepts of the covenant central to their evangelism and moralism. Believing in predestination, they explained that all human beings were pledged by the covenant of works to adhere to the divine law and were justly condemned for failure to adhere to it. They also wrote and preached an evangelical message of hope centering on the free gift of saving grace to the elect. For those saved from the consequences of their actions by this gift, the law still remained the standard of behavior according to which they tried to live lives expressive of gratitude to their savior.

The covenant of works depended on human action, while the covenant of grace required a faith that God himself enabled the elect to grasp. This emphasis on contractual relationships became a controlling metaphor for Puritans in their social as well as their religious thought.

If the idea of the covenant was to be found in the Reformed roots of Puritanism, so was the language of conditionality that the Puritans employed in their discussion of the doctrine. While, in the words of a foremost student of covenant theology, the ministers "from the standpoint of high Calvinism were solid on election but soft on perseverance," they were still within the main current of that tradition. This nuance in their thought was revealed most clearly in their tracing of the normal path of the elect to salvation.

Most Puritan preachers developed a complex morphology of conversion, identifying stages in that process such as election, vocation, justification, sanctification, and glorification. Election signified God's choosing of those to whom the grace of salvation was to be offered. Vocation was the Holy Spirit's offer to humankind of the grace enabling it to seek contrition, faith, and cooperation with that grace. Puritans developed an extensive literature on humanity's preparation with God's help for the next and pivotal stage, justification. God provided natural means such as the scripture, the sacraments, and the sermons of godly preachers to facilitate the process of salvation. By grasping hold of these means sinners could not save themselves, but the elect could cooperate with the Spirit's transforming work on their souls.

For the blessed, justificationthe soul-wrenching, born-again experience of conversionrepresented a passage from sinner to saint, from a vile and loathsome creature to a being embraced by God. Justification placed the stamp of election on the saint and rehabilitated, though it did not perfect, human faculties. Sanctification was the life of grace lived by the saint, a life of endeavoring to show gratitude to the divine author of one's salvation by living as God's law prescribed. Because of human frailty, assurance of one's state was sometimes in doubt. Glorification was the unification of the soul with God after death, the final resolution of doubt, and the gathering of the elect into the communion of saints.

In his pilgrim's progress to the celestial kingdom the Puritan constantly encountered the moral law. Perhaps the simplest explanation of the rule by which the Puritan sought to live is the statement by Richard Baxter (16151691) that "Overdoing is the most ordinary way of undoing. " The Puritan life was a life of vigorous involvement in the world without excessive or abusive use of the natural order. Some later commentators and contemporary critics have sought to blame Puritans for all that they themselves perceive as repressive in Protestant culture. But contrary to the image painted by their detractors, Puritans were not killjoys or prudes. They dressed as befitted their social class, participated in lotteries, drank alcoholic beverages, and approached sex as more than a mere obligation.

Puritans did, however, scorn what they viewed as the libertine excesses of many of their peers, condemning not the drink but the drunkard, not the expression of sexual love between husband and wife but extramarital sex. They felt called to vocations that were social, economic, and civic as well as religious. They rejected the monastic ideal of separation from the world and embraced a vision of total Christian involvement in the creation. As one of the elect the Puritan was called to use fully all the talents God provided without overstressing any one call; in early Massachusetts the civil magistrates had occasion to gently remind the clergy that even sermonizing could be overdone when the number of lecture days began to interfere with the task of community building. While some Puritans such as Michael Wigglesworth (16311705) allowed their fears of sin to become obsessions that made them walking parodies of Puritanism, the ideal of the Puritan moral life was one of sober moderation.

The Puritans' moral stance and belief that their role in history was that of a chosen people called to create a New Jerusalem and usher in the millennium made Puritans, on both sides of the Atlantic, culturally distinct from their peers. The elect envisioned themselves as a group apart, a saved and saving remnant. Their lifestyle was different enough to symbolize their uniqueness. Their effort to give God his due by spending the Sabbath reading the scriptures rather than indulging in sport or dance, their rejection of set prayers for spontaneous expressions, their disdain for the ritualization of the liturgy, their coming together in New England on designated fast days and days of thanksgivingall of these reinforced the Puritans' sense of being apart from yet responsible for saving their native land.

The task of redeeming England seemed more difficult than ever as the reign of James I gave way to that of Charles I (16251649). Puritans had wielded considerable influence at Oxford and Cambridge and from those universities a brotherhood of reformed preachers had spread the Puritan message throughout the realm. The patronage of sympathetic gentry and of some borough officials secured pulpits for the Puritans. A group of lay and clerical leaders called the Feofees for Impropriation solicited donations to fund the purchase of numerous church livings that would be controlled by the movement. But the rise of William Laud symbolized the growing determination of the king and his chief counselors to root out dissent. Puritan clergymen were haled before ecclesiastical courts, deprived of their livings, and harried out of the land.

Having failed to reform England by their written or spoken word, some Puritan leaders conceived the idea of persuading their countrymen by the example of a model Puritan community. This was the goal of many who joined in the Great Migration to New England in the 1630s. As John Winthrop (15881649), the first governor of Massachusetts, expressed it: "We shall be as a City upon a Hill." Massachusetts and her sister commonwealths of Connecticut (founded in 1636) and New Haven (1637) and the moderate Separatist colony of Plymouth represented an orthodoxy that was designated the New England Way. Their social and political fabric was knit from ideas of Christian organicism owing much to English rural traditions as well as to the corporate strain in Puritan thought. In matters of religion the orthodox developed a congregational church structure with all residents required to attend service but with full membership and its privileges reserved for those who could persuade their peers that they had experienced saving grace.

The achievement of this orthodoxy was not without struggle. Puritans who migrated from England left the status of dissenting minority within the structure of the state church to cope with the challenge of translating their general principles into institutional practice and statements of faith. Various individuals offered their perspectives, and through the efforts of clergymen such as John Cotton (15841652), Richard Mather (15961669), Thomas Hooker (15861647), John Davenport (15971670), and Thomas Shepard (16051649) a consensus emerged that would be articulated in the Cambridge Platform (1648). Some Puritans found themselves outside these emerging boundaries of acceptable belief. Many responded by conforming, but Roger Williams (16031683), Anne Hutchinson (15911643), and others who would not bend were excluded; some, including Williams and Hutchinson, took up residence in Rhode Island, forming a society that rapidly achieved notoriety as a haven of radicalism.

In England Puritans who had stayed at home were at the forefront of the coalition that formed in opposition to the king's foreign policy, religious innovations, forced loans, and use of prerogative courts. The civil wars that erupted (16421648) pitted Parliament against the king, and so heavily was the House of Commons dominated by the reformers that the struggle also earned the name of the Puritan Revolution. During the course of the conflict Puritan reformers sought to construct a new Church of England. The same tensions that had threatened Puritan uniformity in New England appeared and the circumstances of the war made controlling them impossible.

Although most Puritans could agree on the doctrines contained in the Westminster Assembly's Confession of Faith (1647), many rejected the Presbyterian ecclesiastical structure that that reform convocation recommended to Parliament. Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists became distinct groups within the movement, while hosts of radical sects found sustenance in the excitement of the times. While political stability was provided by the rise of Oliver Cromwell (15991658) as lord protector in 1649, religious diversity did not come to an end. Cromwell did, however, make progress toward the establishment of a Puritan state church uniting moderate Congregationalists such as Thomas Goodwin (16001680) and John Owen (16161683), moderate Presbyterians such as Stephen Marshall (15941655), and moderate Baptists such as Henry Jessey (16011663).

The return of the Stuart monarchy with the Restoration of Charles II (16601685) in 1660 saw the casting out of Puritanism from the Church of England. What had been a reform movement within Anglicanism became nonconformity in the shape of Presbyterian, Congregational, and Baptist denominations. Across the Atlantic, Puritan values still dominated, but the institutional separation from the Church of England that had always been a fact of colonial life was accepted in theory as well, and New Englanders adopted the denominational badges of their brethren in England.

The story of Puritanism merges into the story of the denominations it spawned, but as a cultural movement it continued to have relevance. In England the poems of John Milton (16081674), the devotional writings of Richard Baxter, and the Pilgrim's Progress of John Bunyan (16281688) were fruits of the Puritan outlook. In America the literary offerings of Anne Bradstreet (16121672), Michael Wigglesworth, and Edward Taylor (16621729) and the range of writings of Cotton Mather (16631728) betokened the vitality of Puritanism. When Jonathan Edwards (17031758) spoke to the people of the Connecticut valley in the 1730s, there was sparked a great awakening not only of religious enthusiasm in general but of a distinctively Puritan outlook on the universe, its creator, and the sinners who inhabit it.

See Also

Browne, Robert; Bunyan, John; Edwards, Jonathan; Hooker, Richard; Hooker, Thomas; Hutchinson, Anne; Mather Family; Williams, Roger.


My book The Puritan Experiment: New England Society from Bradford to Edwards (New York, 1976) is an introductory survey to the English origins and American development of Puritan ideas and practice. The Puritan Tradition in America, 16201730, edited by Alden T. Vaughan (New York, 1972), is the best single-volume anthology of Puritan writings. For those interested in the origins of the movement, the works of Patrick Collinson, especially The Elizabethan Puritan Movement (Berkeley, 1967), are indispensable. Barrington R. White's The English Separatist Tradition: From the Marian Martyrs to the Pilgrim Fathers (Oxford, 1971) is an excellent analysis of that important offshoot from mainstream Puritanism. The seventeenth-century evolution of Puritanism in England is well surveyed in Michael R. Watts's The Dissenters: From the Reformation to the French Revolution (Oxford, 1978). The starting point for an understanding of the faith of New England Puritans remains the classic studies by Perry Miller, especially The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (New York, 1939). Puritan polity is skillfully examined by Edmund S. Morgan in Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea (New York, 1963). Many key facets of Puritan theology are unraveled in E. Brooks Holifield's The Covenant Sealed: The Development of Puritan Sacramental Theology in Old and New England, 15701720 (New Haven, Conn., 1974). The devotional aspects of Puritan life are the subject of Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe's The Practice of Piety (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1982).

New Sources

Brockway, Robert W. Wonderful Work of God: Puritans and the Great Awakening. Bethlehem, Pa., 2003.

Como, David R. Blown by the Spirit: Puritanism and the Emergence of An Antinomian Underground in Pre-Civil War England. Stanford, Calif., 2004.

Danner, Dan G. Pilgrimage to Puritanism: History and Theology of the Marian Exiles at Geneva. New York, 1999.

Davies, Horton. The Worship of the American Puritans, 16291730. New York, 1990.

Durston, Christopher, and Jacqueline Eales. The Culture of English Puritanism, 15601700. New York, 1996.

Knight, Janice. Orthodoxies in Massachusetts. Cambridge, Mass., 1994.

Sasek, Lawrence A., ed. Images of English Puritanism. Baton Rouge, La., 1989.

Wood, Ellen Meiksins, and Noal Wood. A Trumpet of Sedition: Political Theory and the Rise of Capitalism 15091688. New York, 1997.

Francis J. Bremer (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated Jun 27 2018


The influence of American Puritanism is pervasive in the literature of the nineteenth century. The uniquely American Puritan vision of the seventeenth century arose from the English Puritanism that engendered it. Indeed many first-generation American Puritans, such as John Cotton (1584–1652) and John Winthrop (1588–1649), were emigrants from England who sought religious freedom in the New World. First-, second-, and third-generation American Puritans developed and refined a special vision of Calvinist theology that has continued to influence American self-definition into the present. When Ronald Reagan argued in his 1980 presidential campaign that the United States had lost much of its former glory and should return to its position of past leadership in the world, he quoted John Winthrop's sermon "A Model of Christian Charity" (1630), delivered 350 years earlier during the sea voyage that ended in establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony:

He shall make us a praise and glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantations: "The Lord make it like that of New England." For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have under-taken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world: we shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God and all professors for God's sake; we shall shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us, till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going. (P. 23)

This declaration succinctly articulates what has come to be known as American exceptionalism. At the root of American society and culture lie a vision of uniqueness and a sense of mission. In the introduction to her American Exceptionalism, Deborah L. Madsen states,

Exceptionalism describes the perception of Massachusetts Bay colonists that as Puritans they were charged with a special spiritual and political destiny: to create in the New World a church and a society that would provide the model for all the nations of Europe as they struggled to reform themselves (a redeemer nation). . . . Thus America and Americans are special, exceptional, because they are charged with saving the world from itself and, at the same time, America and Americans must sustain a high level of spiritual, political and moral commitment to this exceptional destiny—America must be as "a city upon a hill" exposed to the eyes of the world. (Pp. 1–2)

This Puritan notion of election, divine sanction, and high purpose has pervaded American identity, politics, and culture ever since, although it has evolved over several centuries from a specifically religious vision into a much more secular one: rather than exemplifying a pure church America's mission became exemplifying a free, egalitarian, democratic society.


In the mid-nineteenth century Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) brought widespread attention to America's Puritan past by setting many of his works in seventeenth-century New England and by demonstrating the continuities of the seventeenth century with the nineteenth. The House of the Seven Gables (1851) is perhaps his most obvious illustration of these continuities, in which the "sins of the fathers" are visited upon succeeding generations of "children." Many of Hawthorne's plots center upon problems of doctrine and conscience that he detected in his wide reading about his own ancestors' past. "Young Goodman Brown" (1835), an allegory treating illusion and reality, resembles John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678), complete with a journey motif, a spiritual burden that must be resolved, and an assessment of human character in relation to Puritan doctrine. "The Minister's Black Veil" (1836) also shows how character assessment is not always what it seems to be, and "The Maypole of Merry Mount" (1836) and "Endicott and the Red Cross" (1838) both reexamine historical incidents in the light of Hawthorne's humanistic understanding of Puritanism. His masterwork, The Scarlet Letter (1850), chronicles the story of Hester Prynne, an adultress who mothers an illegitimate child, Pearl. The Puritans in The Scarlet Letter, described as dour, severe, unpleasant people, act as a foil to the vibrant humanity of Hester and Pearl, whose life together as outcasts from the Puritan community assumes center stage for most of the novel. Indeed, it is their relationship and Hester's heroic overcoming of her punishment that gives readers an inaccurate portrait of seventeenth-century Puritanism as it conflicts with human love.

Even in works not set in early America, such as The Marble Faun (1860), which takes place in Rome, Hawthorne returns to such biblical themes as the Fall of Man and the effects of guilt. In "Rappaccini's Daughter" (1844), another narrative set in Italy, the blatantly obvious Garden of Eden is peopled by characters who may be identified as God, Man, and Satan. Thus Hawthorne's writing develops out of the materials of early American Puritanism, and though his narratives often disfigure the historical moments they purport to portray, his influence in spreading the gospel of early American Puritanism is undeniable. Moreover, his pervasive use of allegorical techniques and other rhetorical strategies learned from his ancestral Puritans extends their influence into succeeding centuries.


Another prominent nineteenth-century American theme closely associated with the "city upon a hill" and American exceptionalism is the idea of Manifest Destiny. In 1845 a journalist named John O'Sullivan (1813–1895) first used the term in an editorial for the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, in which he advocates the annexation of Texas, declaring that it is America's "manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions" (p. 5). It has been an important by-word of American development and progress ever since. Manifest Destiny was easy to understand as God's divine intention for America to expand westward, sanctioning the removal of Indians from their lands and the war with Mexico that resulted in America's acquisition of Texas and much of what is now New Mexico and southern California. The ideology of Manifest Destiny inherited by nineteenth-century writers from the canonical literature of the preceding centuries, captured the imagination of Americans as their frontiers expanded westward, from the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804–1806 to the linking of east and west in the transcontinental railroad in 1869.

Walt Whitman (1819–1892) was only one of many American writers who embraced the idea of divine progress in the expansion of the United States. Herman Melville (1819–1891) and Richard Henry Dana Jr. (1815–1882) were both experienced seamen who had seen the world, particularly the Far East and the islands of the Pacific, and whose writings are sprinkled with allusions to the power of ocean commerce to unite the world. Melville had been raised in the Calvinistic Dutch Reformed Church in upstate New York, and his works are filled with the rhetoric of Calvinism. In Moby-Dick (1851), for example, Father Mapple's sermon in the Whaleman's Chapel on that wayward biblical prophet Jonah, who attempted to run and hide from God's bidding, serves as a warning to the doomed sailors of the Pequod that Providence must be obeyed in all things and that individual destiny is predetermined. Captain Ahab's destiny is "fated," just as in Billy Budd (1924) the hapless young sailor is condemned by Captain Vere's peremptory judgment: "Fated boy . . . , what have you done!" (p. 99). Calvinism is everywhere and unavoidable in Melville's writings.

Contemporaries of Hawthorne and Melville were saturated with Puritan and Calvinistic doctrine, as churchgoing was regular and sermons were long. The Great Awakening , variously dated between 1730 and 1760, and the Second Great Awakening of the 1820s and 1830s insured that several generations of American churchgoers knew the meaning of God's wrath and could understand a jeremiad. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), trained at Harvard to become a Unitarian minister, and Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), also trained at Harvard in the early nineteenth century, both inherited the sins of the fathers from seventeenth-century Puritanism. Emerson's "Concord Hymn" (1837), celebrating the commencement of the American Revolutionary War on 19 April 1775, echoes American exceptionalism when his "shot heard round the world" gives global significance to the events in ways that the colonial militia could not have conceived in their simple determination to separate from Britain's domination. Emerson's Nature (1836) echoes the epistemology of Jonathan Edwards in such works as A History of the Work of Redemption (1774). Thoreau's Walden (1854), incorrectly perceived to be a manifesto for the green movement and mistakenly associated with his essay "Civil Disobedience" (1849) as an antiauthoritarian credo, is in fact a carefully written, rigorously revised examination of the cycles of nature with exact correspondences drawn between nature's ways and those of human beings, when they are not living what Thoreau famously calls "lives of quiet desperation." It is a testament of renewal and has all the hallmarks of a Puritan conversion experience, right down to the "before" and "after" structure that Thoreau intended for the piece to represent. More significantly Emersonian self-reliance may be traced to its roots in the Protestant-Puritan emphasis on the individual if not on self-determination.

American Puritanism, as interpreted by nineteenth-century ministers, did not always stress conformity and consensus. Rather it represented for the post-Revolution citizens of the new nation the strength to challenge authority and an often lawless individualism that expressed itself in the numerous reform movements found in the antebellum United States. Chief among these, of course, was the abolitionist crusade led by William Lloyd Garrison, Lydia Maria Child, Frederick Douglass, and Wendell Phillips. However, Garrison (1805–1879) got his start as a temperance crusader; and in antebellum slave narratives, biblical fundamentalism and a belief in divine intervention in human affairs are hallmarks of plot and theme. Utopian communities such as Brook Farm, in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, where Hawthorne spent much of 1841 and about which he wrote The Blithedale Romance (1852), were direct descendants of Plymouth Plantation and other New England Puritan communities of the seventeenth century. But it was the abolitionist movement and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly (1852) that best illustrate the continuity of the ideology and literature of the nineteenth century with early American Puritanism.


In January 1831 the abolitionist crusade caught fire in the rhetoric of William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator, which continued weekly publication for thirty-four years, until the passage in December 1865 of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, by which slavery in the United States was abolished forever. Garrison was raised around Calvinist Puritans in Boston, and while he remained generally anti-institutional and anti-Constitutional throughout his career as a reformer and abolitionist, his moral perspective was deeply influenced by the Declaration of Independence, with its emphasis on individualism, and by the ancient doctrine of the Golden Rule. Like the New Testament Jesus, Garrison called not simply for the abolition of slavery but for total social equality for all minorities, and he eschewed pomp and circumstance even when his cause, the abolition of slavery, was triumphant. From the beginning he was determined and intolerant. "I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—and i will be heard," he declared in the first issue of The Liberator on 1 January 1831 (quoted in Mott, p. 278).

Even more deeply rooted in specific Puritan doctrines was the abolitionist and reformer John Brown (1800–1859). Brown was the son of an extremely pious, fundamentalist Calvinist Christian, Owen Brown, who was a humble shoemaker and farmer but whose calling in life was to oppose slavery, which he saw as a sin against God. John quickly absorbed his father's intolerant fundamentalism and hatred of slavery. As David S. Reynolds observes,

Intense Calvinism and a republican belief in human rights would combine uniquely in John Brown. He never surrendered the Calvinistic doctrines—predestination, total depravity, God's sovereignty, and so forth—he had learned from his parents. Their religion was not the modified Calvinism of nineteenth-century preachers like Charles Grandison Finney. . . . Instead, it harked back to the orthodox Calvinism of Puritan times. (P. 25)

The Unitarian minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823–1911) observed that

John Brown is almost the only radical abolitionist I have ever known who was not more or less radical in religious matters also. His theology was Puritan, like his practice; and accustomed as we are now to see Puritan doctrines and Puritan virtues separately exhibited, it seems quite strange to behold them combined in one person again. (Reynolds, p. 27)

Both Brown, who was always dirt poor, and Wendell Phillips (1811–1884), a devout Calvinist and a Harvard-educated Boston Brahmin, stressed their divine callings as emissaries of God in the crusade against slavery.

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), through its apocalyptic cautionings that culminate in a severe warning on the last page, reflects the Puritanism of the likes of Jonathan Edwards:

This is an age of the world when nations are trembling and convulsed. A mighty influence is abroad, surging and heaving the world, as with an earthquake. And is America safe? Every nation that carries in its bosom great and unredressed injustice has in it the elements of this last convulsion.

For what is this mighty influence thus rousing in all nations and languages those groanings that cannot be uttered, for man's freedom and equality?

O, Church of Christ, read the signs of the times! Is not this power the spirit of him whose kingdom is yet to come, and whose will to be done on earth as it is in heaven?

But who may abide the day of his appearing? "for that day shall burn as an oven: and he shall appear as a swift witness against those that oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, and that turn aside the stranger in his right: and he shall break in pieces the oppressor."

Are not these dread words for a nation bearing in her bosom so mighty an injustice? Christians! every time that you pray that the kingdom of Christ may come, can you forget that prophecy associates, in dread fellowship, the day of vengeance with the year of his redeemed?

A day of grace is yet held out to us. Both North and South have been guilty before God; and the Christian church has a heavy account to answer. Not by combining together, to protect injustice and cruelty, and making a common capital of sin, is this Union to be saved,—but by repentance, justice and mercy; for, not surer is the eternal law by which the millstone sinks in the ocean, than that stronger law, by which injustice and cruelty shall bring on nations the wrath of Almighty God!

Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin, p. 519.

Where Phillips remained primarily in New England and depended on his superior oratorical skills to convert audiences to the antislavery cause, Brown modeled himself on the archetypal Puritan Oliver Cromwell, whose regime in England (1648–1660) provides English history with the only instance of regicide. In 1648 in Westminster Hall, London, Cromwell's Puritans beheaded King Charles I. For Brown this represented divine sanction for a righteous religious cause even though Cromwell's regime ultimately failed and monarchy was restored in 1660 by Charles II. What emerges from Brown's puritanical denunciation of slavery as a sin against God and humanity, and his murder of proslavery advocates in Kansas and Virginia, is the way that abolitionism, which he also represented, came to be perceived nationwide. In a country beset by sectional division and endless debates about slavery, Garrison's abolitionism and Brown's militant terrorism came to be associated with New England Puritanism's perverse influence in antebellum America. Reynolds says,

In 1863 the Democratic congressman Samuel Cox typically blamed the Civil War on disruptive New England reform movements that he said were rooted in Puritanism. He insisted that fanatical Abolitionism caused the war, and, in his words, "Abolition is the offspring of Puritanism. . . . Puritanism is a reptile which has been boring into the mound, which is the Constitution, and this civil war comes like a devouring sea!" (P. 16)

Southern war songs such as "The Southern Cross" (1861) contain the same sentiment:

How peaceful and blest was America's soil, 'Till betrayed by the guile of the Puritan demon, Which lurks under virtue, and springs from its coil, To fasten its fangs in the life blood of freemen.

(Reynolds, p. 16)

Reynolds goes on to say,

What linked Puritanism with Northern reform [and abolitionism] was its powerful heritage of antinomianism—the breaking of human law in the name of God. Antinomian rebels from Anne Hutchinson onward put divine grace above social codes. In the nineteenth century this spirit fostered a law-flouting individualism that appeared variously in militant Abolitionism, Transcendentalist self-reliance, and the "individual sovereignty" championed by anarchists. (Pp. 16–17)

Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience," Emerson's "Divinity School Address" (1838), Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography (1791), and Martin Luther King Jr.'s civil rights movement of the 1960s all sanction obedience to individual conscience over slavish allegiance to immoral human laws. Although the theocracy of seventeenth-century New England was perhaps America's most intolerant society, its legacy to the United States was individualism based on a personal encounter with God in conversion that could not be rescinded by any state or governmental authority.


Equally linked to the Puritan past was Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896), the daughter of Lyman Beecher, a stern Calvinist who was president of Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, just across the Ohio River from Kentucky and one of the stops on the Underground Railroad. All six of her brothers were ministers, and she married Calvin Stowe, a minister and professor of biblical literature. Her masterwork, Uncle Tom's Cabin, sold more than 300,000 copies in its first year, and by the eve of the Civil War it had sold more than four million copies in the United States alone; thus one in every three persons in the United States in 1860 owned a copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Its Puritan roots run deep. In chapter 9, Mary Bird, a Bible reading fundamentalist Christian, confronts her U.S. senator husband about his recent vote in favor of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. The strength of her argument is entirely biblical. Characterization, plot structure, episodic allegories such as Eva's baptismal rescue from the Mississippi River by Tom and Eliza's crossing the "Jordan" (Ohio) River from slavery to freedom, all are present in this book-length Puritan sermon against slavery.

The rhetoric of New England Puritanism is present throughout Stowe's critique, and its popularity and influence in political and social affairs attest to the significant cultural work that texts often can do. Abraham Lincoln allegedly greeted her at the White House with the remark: "So you are the little lady who started this great big war." Lincoln also observed near the war's end, "I am only an instrument. The Abolitionists and the Union Army have done it all." Because Stowe's work and that of most abolitionists are so immersed in Puritan theology and the sense of a divine mission against slavery, it is clear that the seventeenth-century New England Puritans had a powerful influence not only on the literature of the nineteenth century, but also on its ideology in politics and social policy. The turbulent nineteenth century saw the newly minted United States, just a few decades old, desperately seeking an identity for itself. For all its carnage, the Civil War and the crusade against slavery assisted mightily in this quest, supported by the ideology of New England Puritanism, in all of its contemporary manifestations, from Emersonian self-reliance to John Brown's militant terrorism to Harriet Beecher Stowe's apocalyptic visions for America's future.

See alsoThe Blithedale Romance;Calvinism; "Hawthorne and His Mosses"; The Liberator;Manifest Destiny; Moby-Dick;Protestantism; Religion; The Scarlet Letter;"Self-Reliance"; Transcendentalism; Uncle Tom's Cabin;Unitarianism


Primary Works

Melville, Herman. Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative). 1924. Edited with an introduction by Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts Jr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

O'Sullivan, John. "Annexation." United States Magazine and Democratic Review 17, nos. 85–86 (July–August 1845): 5–10.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly. 1852. In Three Novels, edited by Kathryn Kish Sklar. New York: Library of America, 1982.

Winthrop, John. "A Model of Christian Charity." 1630. In Pragmatism and Religion, edited by Stuart Rosenbaum. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2003.

Secondary Works

Bercovitch, Sacvan. The Puritan Origins of the American Self. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1975.

Elliott, Emory, ed. Puritan Influences in American Literature. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979.

Heimert, Alan. Religion and the American Mind from theGreat Awakening to the Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966.

Lowance, Mason. The Language of Canaan: Metaphor andSymbol in New England from the Puritans to the Transcendentalists. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Madsen, Deborah L. American Exceptionalism. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998.

Mott, Frank Luther. "The Liberator." In his A History ofAmerican Magazines, vol. 2, 1850–1865, pp. 275–296. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1938.

Reynolds, David S. John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man WhoKilled Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights. New York: Knopf, 2005.

Mason I. Lowance Jr.


views updated May 14 2018


Puritanism is the set of religious beliefs and practices retroactively ascribed to Puritans by modern scholars. Since Puritan was originally a term of abuse toward people considered excessively, narrow-mindedly, or hypocritically religious, not an embraced identity, the definitions of both Puritan and Puritanism have been and remain inescapably vague. Roughly, we may take the term Puritans to refer to the fervently religious, "godly" fraction of the English nation who, dissatisfied with England's imperfectly Reformed status quo, between the 1560s and the 1640s pushed for a further reformation of England as a corporate whole toward more fully Reformed ecclesiastical practice and for the infusion of their own ardent religiosity in the faith, worship, and daily life of all Englishmen. Puritanism, therefore, encompasses Puritans' theology and practical divinity, the quite divergent religiopolitical goals of successive generations of Puritans, and, more loosely, the cultural, social, and economic habits scholars have since identified as corollaries of Puritan religiosity and belief.

Religious Practice

Puritanism began simply as a full-blooded articulation of Reformed theology, which strongly emphasized that the course of human events depended upon God's omnipotent providence and that the soul's salvation depended upon both human faith and God's absolute and predestining power to save and to damn. Certain aspects of this belief were characteristically but not exclusively Puritan and were shared by most English Protestants. Many Puritans emphasized these more congenial aspects of Puritanism, seeking to unite the Protestant nation as much as possible. This soft-edged Puritanism promoted Reformed catechetical education, the support for a learned and godly ministry, the encouragement of ministerial preaching, the setting of psalms and hymns to popular song tunes, a unifying culture of providentialism among Englishmen that emphasized the possibility of saving grace, a fervent emphasis on anti-Catholicism rather than on the precise details of Reformed theology, and the vision of England as an elect nation, collectively destined for salvation. This branch of Puritanism was essentially "hot Protestantism"distinctive in its enthusiasm more than in its beliefs.

Other Puritans embraced a Puritanism that created a distinctive way of life alongside of distinctive religious beliefs. First, this Puritanism enjoined an ascetic variant of English culture that rejected as "ungodly entertainments" the songs, dances, and sports enjoyed by most Englishmen, and replaced them with sermon-going, Bible study, prayer, and (most unpopularly) the proselytization and coercive enforcement of this reformation of manners among their fellow Englishmen. Second, Puritanism faced squarely God's predestining power to save and to damn, brought it into everyday religious practice and worship, and made this "experimental predestinarianism" central to their practical divinity and emotional connection with God; and so it focused on the search for ways to assure oneself of one's soul's salvation. Hence, Puritanism transformed Reformed providentialism into a search for this-worldly signs of God's beneficial providence that would provide reasonably sure guarantees of other-worldly salvation and stressed the emotional, joyful assurance that came when one knew that God had predestined one's soul for salvation. Third, since Puritans did not have the full coercive resources of the state at their command, Puritanism promoted "voluntary religion" that operated by persuasion rather than by compulsion. Puritan works of practical divinity therefore instructed ministers how to preach so as to bring listeners voluntarily to live a godly life, and instructed the Puritan laity how to order their own lives in a godly manner. Reformed manners, experimental predestinarianism, and the practical divinity of voluntary religion are the three most noteworthy characteristics of this branch of Puritanism.

Ecclesiology and Politics

Puritanism became a political issue around 1570, as Elizabeth began to resist demands for further reformation of the English Church. Political Puritanism at first denoted the party counseling Elizabeth to change her mind and resume the transformation of England toward the practices of more fully Reformed polities, such as Geneva and Scotland. These Puritans' main desires were to eliminate England's bishops and replace them in the Church's governing structure with both a presbyterial-synodal church structure and a system of consistorial discipline, and to eliminate the vestments, liturgy, and church decoration that preserved aspects of England's Catholic tradition. Puritan relations with Elizabeth became increasingly acrimonious, as by the end of the 1580s it was clear that her halt was meant to be permanent. Since first Elizabeth and then James remained adamant in their resistance to full national reformation, Puritanism from the 1590s to the 1610s chose two tactics by which to express their opposition. Most Puritans made the necessary obeisances to the forms of the English Church, but worked quietly to reform the church at the local level, while waiting for a chance to resume national reformation. A few radicals separated from the Church rather than acquiesce in its imperfect reformation; these ministers and laity, intermittently persecuted, generally abandoned the urge to create a national Church, and instead founded Congregationalist, Baptist, and other sects.

The onset of the Thirty Years War upset this political situation. As England's bellicose Reformed ministry urged intervention in the war, opposing James I's pacific policy, first James and then Charles I began to patronize more deferential "Arminian" bishops, who added to their respect for royal authority a shift from the traditional Reformed emphasis on faith and predestination toward an emphasis on tradition and ritual, and sought accordingly to move the Church even farther from the Reformed ideal. Puritanism therefore transformed itself in the 1620s and 1630s from an urge toward further reform to a defense of such reform as had already been achieved in the Church against Arminianizing changes. At the same time the actions of Charles and the Arminian bishops greatly radicalized Puritanism. Among those Puritans who still wished to take part in a national Church, the number of Puritans willing to tolerate episcopacy diminished drastically; and the sectarian impulse and the desire to emigrate to fully Reformed New England also rose sharply among Puritans in these decades. As his command of the nation broke down in the early 1640s, Charles confronted a radicalized Puritanism, which three generations of royal policy had made bitterly hostile to royal authority and extraordinarily receptive to radical political practice and thought.


In retrospect scholars have associated Puritanism with almost every "modernizing" development in early modern European history. At the heart of this mountain of theorizing is the thesis propounded by Max Weber that Protestantism transmuted the idea of a religious calling into this-worldly achievement in the service of God, Reformed theology especially emphasized this transmutation, and Puritanism in particular made possible England's pioneering transition to modern industrial capitalism and a pervasive, secularized Puritan work ethic. Studies of Puritanism in its classic development up to the 1640s therefore have often focused on attempts to prove or disprove Weber's thesis as it applies to the political, economic, and cultural aspects of Puritanism. At this point in time the latest scholarship hesitantly supports the idea that Puritanism did have a disproportionate appeal toward artisanal guild members and the literate, that Puritanism did help inspire middling Englishmen toward new, coercive policies of social control and welfare toward their poorer brethren, and that by focusing religious salvation upon individual faith and God's predestining power Puritanism did allow Puritans engaged in economic activity to act relatively unconstrained by the inhibitions of a traditional "moral economy." If this is so, Puritanism does correlate significantly with the prerequisites for the development of a modern economy and society; but this thesis is highly qualified, and remains strongly contested. This latest word ought not to be taken as the last word on the subject.

See also Reformation ; Religion ; Religion and the State .


Collinson, Patrick. The Religion of Protestants: The Church in English Society, 15591625. Oxford: Clarendon, 1982.

Lake, Peter. The Boxmaker's Revenge: "Orthodoxy," "Heterodoxy," and the Politics of the Parish in Early Stuart London. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Underdown, David. Revel, Riot, and Rebellion: Popular Politics and Culture in England, 16031660. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Walsham, Alexandra. Providence in Early Modern England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Talcott Parsons. London and New York: Routledge, 2001.

David Randall


views updated Jun 11 2018


Puritanism was a Protestant reform movement that developed within the Church of England in the 1500s. It had a major influence on English social, political, and religious thought. Followers of the movement, known as Puritans, sought purity of heart, mind, and worship. They viewed the Bible as the foundation of their faith and rejected any practices that lacked scriptural authority.

Roots of the Movement. Puritanism emerged during the reign of the Protestant king Edward VI (from 1547 to 1553). It began with opposition to the use of certain vestments (garments) by church officials. The Anglican* church required members of the clergy to wear the vestments. However, reformers objected because the use of these garments was not based on the Bible. When Mary I, a Catholic, took the throne in 1553, many Puritans fled to Germany, where they continued the debate over vestments and proposed reforms to the Anglican prayer book.

Elizabeth I became queen in 1558 and restored Protestant religious practices in England. However, her policies did not satisfy the Puritans. Reformers renewed their attacks on the use of traditional vestments, and Elizabeth settled the issue by ordering all members of the clergy to wear them. In 1566 the Puritans tried to obtain religious reforms through Parliament, but their efforts failed.

Demands for Reform. The Puritan movement took on a new issue in 1570, when the reformer Thomas Cartwright called for a more democratic church organization. His proposal would have eliminated the offices of deacons, bishops, and archbishops. The following year Walter Strickland, a Puritan member of Parliament, introduced a bill to strike from the Anglican prayer book certain ceremonies of which Puritans did not approve. The failure of his bill deepened the tensions within the church. So did the decision of a church court, made around the same time, ordering some prominent Puritans to support various beliefs and practices of the Anglican Church.

As tensions mounted, a new debate arose over "prophesyings"—a practice in which ministers and students of theology* met for Bible study, followed by a sermon. In 1574 Queen Elizabeth banned prophesyings, apparently viewing them as a way for Puritans to spread their demands for reform. Puritans responded by holding "exercises" or "classes," in which a minister preached a sermon, followed by a group discussion. The archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Church of England, put an end to the meetings by forcing clergy members to accept the Anglican prayer book and by using the church courts to punish outspoken Puritans.

Despite these setbacks, the Puritans remained a powerful force. In the early 1600s, they outlined a series of new demands to the new king, James I. James agreed to moderate religious reforms, including better training and higher salaries for the clergy and a new translation of the Bible. However, the only reform actually carried out was the publication of the Bible.

The struggle within the Church of England reached a crisis in the 1630s. William Laud, the bishop of London and, later, archbishop of Canterbury, reinforced many traditional church practices and stifled dissenting* voices in the church. The Puritans resented Laud's policies, and their hostility contributed to the outbreak of a civil war in 1642.

(See alsoChristianity; England; Preaching and Sermons; Protestant Reformation; Religious Thought. )

* Anglican

referring to the Church of England

* theology

study of the nature of God and of religion

* dissent

to oppose or disagree with established belief


views updated May 14 2018

537. Puritanism

  1. Alden, Oliver too inhibited by his puritanical background to enjoy the normal life of a young man. [Am. Lit.: Santayana The Last Puritan in Magill I, 497]
  2. Brother Jonathan 17th-century British nickname for Puritans. [Am. Hist.: Hart, 110]
  3. Brush, George Marvin strait-laced salesman tries to impose his rules of conduct on others. [Am. Lit.: Wilder Heavens My Destination in Magill I, 357]