An Introduction to Puritanism

English Puritans
Engraving depicting the English Puritans, with women and children, escaping to America due to persecution by the Church of England, England, circa 1630-1640. Archive Photos / Getty Images

 Puritanism was a religious reformation movement that began in England in the late 1500s. Its initial goal was to remove any remaining links to Catholicism within the Church of England (Anglican Church) 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 these beliefs. Puritanism had a broad impact on England’s religious laws as well as the founding and development of the colonies in America.

Beliefs

Some Puritans believed in total separation from the Church of England, while others simply sought reform, wishing to remain a part of the church. Uniting these two factions was the belief that the church should not have any rituals or ceremonies not found in the Bible. They believed that the government should enforce morals and punish behavior such as drunkenness and swearing. Puritans, however, did believe in religious freedom and generally respected 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 Puritan 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 personal 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 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, combined with the increasing prevalence of Calvinism, which provided writings that supported their viewpoint, further strengthened Puritan beliefs. In 1558, Queen Elizabeth I took the throne and re-established 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 was one factor that led to the eruption of a civil war between the Parliamentarians and the Royalists in England in 1642, fought in part over religious freedom. 

Puritans in America 

In 1608, some Puritans moved from England to Holland, where, in 1620, they boarded the Mayflower to Massachusetts, where they would establish Plymouth Colony.

In 1628, another group of Puritans founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Puritans eventually spread throughout New England, establishing new self-governing churches. In order to become a full member of the church, seekers were required to give testimony of a 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, Massachusetts, were run by the Puritans and fueled by their 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 excess-free living. These beliefs gradually evolved into a secular lifestyle and was (and sometimes is) thought of as a distinctly New England mentality.

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Sember, Brette. "An Introduction to Puritanism." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2017, thoughtco.com/puritanism-definition-4146602. Sember, Brette. (2017, August 26). An Introduction to Puritanism. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/puritanism-definition-4146602 Sember, Brette. "An Introduction to Puritanism." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/puritanism-definition-4146602 (accessed November 19, 2017).