Religions have a significant impact on the history of the world. The ideologies from different cultures can be traced back to ancient religious texts. Religion has also been used to rationalize the actions of certain people. They cite texts from religious documents and use them to gain the people's favor. Innocent people have been persecuted and wars have been waged in the name of religion. Religion became a tool to seize territories and power. Due to this, some individuals began to question the teachings and authenticity of the church. They realize how the religious officials are abusing faith and using it to achieve selfish goals.
Puritans are one of these groups of people. When King Henry VIII transformed the Church of Rome to the Church of England, he was also declared as the head of the church. For the Puritans within the Church of England, this was too similar to the Roman Catholic Church. The Puritans believed that religious practices not stated in the bible should be abolished or reformed. They value an individual's direct relationship with God and aims to reform the Church of England. At the beginning of the New World's establishment, puritans who migrated to American Colonies brought these ideologies and helped shaped parts of American Culture.
What is Puritanism?
Puritanism is a religious movement that originated in England after Queen Elizabeth I’s accession in the 16th century, which reestablished Protestantism (Britannica). The Puritans followed the teachings of John Calvin, but their defining characteristic is their goal of reforming the Church of England from the “popish idolatry” of the Roman Catholic Church. The Puritans were vocal about their demands from the crown and parliament but were often ignored. As the Puritans continued to be denied the opportunity to fully reform the Church of England, their religious practices evolved to include preaching, pamphlets, experimentation in social behavior, and organization to express religious expression (Britannica, n.p.). However, they never wavered in their goal of reforming the Church of England.
It was not just the Church of England that the Puritans sought to reform. They also sought to change numerous traditions and practices in England that they considered decadent. One of these is the theater, which the Puritans wanted to close down. These reformation demands often became the cause of conflict in England, such that the crown had started to view the religious group as a security threat. This led to efforts by the crown to silence dissenting Puritans by prohibiting Puritan ministers from preaching. Instead of the power to execute reforms, they were persecuted during The Great Persecution starting around 1658 until 1689 when the Toleration Act was established (Britannica, n.p.). This did not stop the Puritans’ spirit, but the persecutions led them to realize that their goal was unattainable.
Despite their perseverance, the Puritans’ goal of reforming the Church of England, remained far from view. Thus, the Puritans sought a new goal—separating themselves from England and start their own colony where they could practice the Puritan ideal. Starting from the 1630s, Puritans settled in New England in waves (Britannica, n.p.). Their goal was not economic gain, unlike the usual goal of colonialism, but religious freedom. As mentioned earlier, the Puritans’ goal was to practice their religion and beliefs freely and fully.
The term "Puritans" was coined by the enemies of the movement. It was used as a term of contempt for Protestants with extreme beliefs within the Church of England. They believed that the influence of the Catholic Church is still within the Church of England. They wish to reform the Church and abolish the doctrines and structure present within the Catholic faith. With the expansion of the New World, many Puritans migrated to the Northern English Colonies where they established their own religious and social ideologies. The beliefs and ideologies of the Puritans in these colonies would later spread and influence American culture.
The Great Persecution
When the Act of Uniformity was passed in 1662, the English Puritans suffered a dark period known as The Great Persecution. Pastors were required to take the oath of canonical obedience. Which the Puritans refused to take since it would be a rejection of their beliefs. Due to this, many Puritan Ministers were removed from their positions. The removed ministers were to reside within 5 miles of the town they previously served. This was probably to avoid aggressive actions from the Puritans. It is also a good way of ensuring that most citizens will follow the newly established laws without the Puritans questioning them.
The Book of Common Prayer was used as a metric for religious meetings. During the Great Persecution, a person 16-year old or above will be punished if they are caught attending religious meetings that do not meet the standards set by the Book of Common Prayer. This is another way for the Parliament to stop Puritan meetings and propaganda. The puritans, however, fought back through conferences held with permission from certain church officials. Still, many Puritans were punished and imprisoned during the Great Persecution.
The Puritan Colonies
The Pilgrims, who were the first ones to establish a colony in the Americas, were also Puritans who were separatists from the beginning. This group of separatists first moved to Leiden in the Netherlands but decided to re-settle in America due to financial issues and the fear that they were losing their English identity as the younger generations had started to assimilate to Dutch culture (Britannica, n.p.). This group traveled to America to become the first pilgrims and found the Plymouth Colony, now in present-day Massachusetts.
The Pilgrim Separatists established a compact that established a community ideal. Aboard the Mayflower, they signed the Mayflower Compact, which established a culture of working together. The Pilgrim Separatists later on will welcome the new Puritan settlers from England. As more Puritans migrated to America, they established more colonies—in New Hampshire, Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island, and New Haven (Kang, 148). As a result, Puritanism became the dominant culture in the colonies.
As mentioned earlier, Puritanism follows the teachings of Calvinism. Calvinism emphasizes God’s supreme authority and trust and obedience in God. However, while Calvinism’s theology focuses only on faith, American Puritanism incorporated work ethics in their theology. As such, the following Puritan values, as summarized by Kang, were formed (see how to cite quotes):
- Godly people were sober, hardworking, and responsible. English society had been corrupted by foreign influences
- and by disorder and needed to be purified.
- Catholicism had undermined the relationship between God and the individual
- Election & predestination – God chooses who is saved and who is damned. No one can earn salvation through works. Yet the saints are responsible for their actions.
- The congregation of saints chooses its members, hires and fires its ministers, and recognizes no other religious authority.
- Worship should be plain, lack mystery, and be focused on God, No stained glass, instrumental music, or art.
- Much value of education
- Intolerance – error must be opposed and driven out (Kang, 149)
Puritans sought “moral purity and ecclesiastical purity” (Kang, 149). Like Calvinists, Puritans believed that man is inherently sinful and can only be saved by the grace of God. They also believed that man has a duty to do God’s will, which can only be understood from scripture. However, Puritans took an extra step in incorporating work as a religious duty. Thus, Puritan values came to emphasize work as a practice of self-examination and self-discipline (Kang, 150). Thus, Puritans instilled their religious beliefs into their daily life, thereby defining their own culture characterized by hard work, egalitarianism, and studiousness.
How did the Puritans affect American culture?
Puritans established their own society in their new colony—one that resembled the ideal they sought to implement in England for so long. Aside from advocating a life dedicated to the study of the Bible and of serving God through hard work, Puritans sought to establish their ideal society by establishing elected authorities separate from the authorities of the church (Kang, 149). They established a government elected by eligible voters and founded a Congregational church, which served as a state religion (Kang, 149). The leaders of government and the ministers were given authority to ensure moral and ecclesiastical purity among the settlers. Despite this, however, there is equal emphasis on the individual role of self-improvement.
Family and education were also given importance in Puritan society because they helped enrich and reinforce Puritanism and its values. Puritans believed that the family was at the core of spirituality and civic engagement. They encouraged marriage and child-rearing. Alongside family is education, which the Puritans encouraged to allow each person to study the Bible and conduct self-reflection in their own homes (Kang, 150). In contrast to Catholic practice where the priests have a monopoly of understanding and interpreting the Bible, Puritans encouraged individual study and personal spiritual pursuit. Although it is primarily a religion, it is also a philosophy and a way of life. Being the foundation of American society as we know it now, these philosophies and lifestyles influenced American values.
Puritan Influence On American Society
Although religious diversity and irreligion dominate American society today, rather than religious purity, the influence of Puritan values remains salient. American culture, as characterized by individualism and egalitarianism, is a testament to its foundation on Puritan values. Puritans have cultivated a culture of individualism amidst a collective community. They encouraged people to seek personal improvement through self-examination and self-discipline. Meanwhile, this same belief is what eventually evolved into egalitarian attitudes.
The Puritan ideology taught people to rely on themselves and to treat others fairly. They believed that a person's relationship with God is personal and does not require any intermediaries. This established the early American Colonies which gave its people religious and personal freedom. Though as time passed and people in charge change, the direct influence of the Puritans began to dwindle. Still, the importance of education and the continuous development of religious belief to fit the modern world is a slight nod to the Puritan influence on American Society.
The Puritans were able to establish in their new colony what the English monarchy withheld from them. In the New World, they were able to establish their own societal rules and government. Their society was governed by elected authorities, colonies worked together and ensured employment for all. They also encouraged education among all individuals because they believed this will allow everyone to study the Bible and seek to achieve God’s will. Although various aspects of Puritan life were governed by the community, the aspect of discipline and improvement were practiced individually. Their belief in predestination, and that only God knows who will enter the gates of heaven, enabled the Puritan society to believe that everyone has a chance to earn salvation. This is an egalitarian attitude that vastly differed from the societal attitude in England, and which characterize American society of today.
The Puritans are a people of strong beliefs. They rebelled against what they believed were “popish idolatry” that distracted people from their duty to God. The group’s name developed from their demand to keep England pure from the decadence that was promoted by Roman Catholicism. They were staunch believers in their cause and even stronger fighters for they kept on demanding reformation despite efforts by the crown itself to silence and discriminate them from the rest of their society. Their migration to New England is not a sign of defeat but a new tactic. In New England, they established the society they believed in and practiced what they believed was aligned with God’s will. In doing so, and perhaps without fully noticing, the Puritans formed an entirely new culture—the American culture of individualism, egalitarianism, and hard work. These three attitudes serve as the foundation not just of American culture as we know it today, but also of American society that values freedom and democracy.
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Kang, N. “Puritanism And Its Impact upon American Values.” Review of European Studies, vol. 1, no. 2, 2009, pp. 148-151. https://www.mrmyersissy.com/uploads/5/7/0/4/57048405/puritanism_and_its_impact_upon_american_values.pdf
Britannica. “Puritanism.” www.britannica.com/topic/Puritanism. Accessed May 5, 2021.
History. (2019, July 30). "The Puritans." https://www.history.com/topics/colonial-america/puritanism