Puritanism for Beginners

Engraving of English Puritans

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Puritanism was a religious reformation movement that began in England in the late 1500s. Its initial goal was removing any remaining links to Catholicism within the Church of England after its separation from the Catholic Church. To do this, Puritans sought to change the structure and ceremonies of the church. They also wanted broader lifestyle changes in England to align with their strong moral beliefs. Some Puritans emigrated to the New World and established colonies built around churches that fit those beliefs. Puritanism had a broad impact on England’s religious laws and the founding and development of the colonies in America.

Beliefs

Some Puritans believed in total separation from the Anglican Church, while others simply sought reform and wished to remain a part of the church. The belief that the church should not have any rituals or ceremonies not found in the Bible united the two factions. They believed that the government should enforce morals and punish behavior such as drunkenness and swearing. However, Puritans did believe in religious freedom and generally respected the differences in belief systems of those outside the Church of England. 

Some of the major disputes between the Puritans and the Anglican Church regarded the beliefs that priests should not wear vestments (clerical clothing), that ministers should actively spread the word of God, and that the church hierarchy (of bishops, archbishops, etc.) should be replaced with a committee of elders. 

Regarding their relationships with God, Puritans believed that salvation was entirely up to God and that God had chosen only a select few to be saved, yet no one could know if they were among this group. They also believed that each person should have a personal covenant with God. The Puritans were influenced by Calvinism and adopted its beliefs in predestination and the sinful nature of man. Puritans believed that all people must live by the Bible and should have a deep familiarity with the text. To achieve this, Puritans placed a strong emphasis on literacy and education. 

Puritans in England

Puritanism first emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries in England as a movement to remove all vestiges of Catholicism from the Anglican Church. The Anglican Church first separated from Catholicism in 1534, but when Queen Mary took the throne in 1553, she reverted it to Catholicism. Under Mary, many Puritans faced exile. This threat and the increasing prevalence of Calvinism—which provided support for their viewpoint—further strengthened Puritan beliefs. In 1558, Queen Elizabeth took the throne and reestablished the separation from Catholicism, but not thoroughly enough for the Puritans. The group rebelled and, as a result, were prosecuted for refusing to abide by laws that required specific religious practices. This factor contributed to the eruption of the English civil war between the Parliamentarians and the Royalists, who fought in part over religious freedom in 1642. 

Puritans in America 

In 1608, some Puritans moved from England to Holland. In 1620, they boarded the Mayflower to Massachusetts, where they established Plymouth Colony. In 1628, another group of Puritans founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Puritans eventually spread throughout New England, establishing new self-governing churches. To become a full member of the church, seekers had to testify of their personal relationship with God. Only those who could demonstrate a "godly" lifestyle were permitted to join. 

The witch trials of the late 1600s in places like Salem were run by the Puritans' religious and moral beliefs. But as the 17th century wore on, the cultural strength of the Puritans gradually waned. As the first generation of immigrants died out, their children and grandchildren became less connected with the church. By 1689, the majority of New Englanders thought of themselves as Protestants rather than Puritans, though many of them were just as sharply opposed to Catholicism.

As the religious movement in America eventually fractured into many groups (such as Quakers, Baptists, Methodists, and more), Puritanism became more of an underlying philosophy than a religion. It evolved into a way of life focused on self-reliance, moral sturdiness, tenacity, political isolationism, and austere living. These beliefs gradually evolved into a secular lifestyle that was (and sometimes is) thought of as a distinctly New England mentality.