The Puritans

by Jennifer Keirans

In the rare instances that Puritans turn up in romance novels, they are almost always portrayed as malevolent, hypocritical bigots. This is a very misleading and one-sided interpretation. In this article, I'll briefly trace the development of the Puritan movement in England, examine its offshoot in America, and describe some of the religious beliefs that characterized it. Then I'll specifically address some of the well-known myths about the Puritans.

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A Concise History:

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, people all over western Europe regarded themselves as being foot soldiers in a cosmic battle between Protestantism and Catholicism. Whichever branch of Christianity they belonged to was regarded as holy, and the other side was therefore evil. Cultural relativism was unknown: they believed there could only be one right way, and that the other way was Satanic.

England was no exception. Its Protestant Reformation was a relatively peaceful one: King Henry VIII created the Protestant Church of England and dissolved the monasteries, and the kingdom remained Protestant under his son, Edward VI. During these reigns there was some persecution of those who remained Catholic, and a good many works of religious art, associated with Catholicism, were tragically destroyed. The next monarch, Queen Mary I, caused the nation to revert to Catholicism; her reign is best remembered for her violent persecution of Protestants. Finally, during the reign of Elizabeth I, the nation was settled permanently with a Protestant Church of England, beholden to no foreign power, but retaining several ceremonial and theological vestiges of Catholicism. (You can read more about these monarchs and the course of England's Reformation here.)

Thanks in part to Elizabeth's compromise, England was spared the kind of decades-long wars of religion that convulsed other European nations. However, some English Protestants felt that the Elizabethan settlement didn't go far enough. They believed that the Church of England was still tainted with the wickedness of Catholicism. The controversy centered around such practices as episcopacy (the authority of bishops and archbishops); the fact that bishops and ministers wore vestments and officiated at altars; the role of ceremony in church services versus sermon and extemporaneous speaking; and the use of the Book of Common Prayer.

Although these matters do not seem terribly important to us today, at the time they were literally issues of heaven and hell. On the one hand were those who believed that the Church of England as settled by Queen Elizabeth represented a godly middle way, and that to tamper with it was to introduce the sins of extremism, controversy and arrogance. On the other hand were those who wanted to purify the church of all Catholic elements. They were scornfully nicknamed Puritans by their opponents. They were convinced that the Church of England was going to hell in a handbasket, and that they had a sacred duty to save England and all her people from its iniquity.

By the time 17th century was under way, England was on fire with this raging controversy. Ordinary people traveled to go to several services every Sabbath in order to hear different preachers hash these issues out. Queen Elizabeth had largely left the Puritans alone, but her successor, James I, hated them and harried them with imprisonment and other punishments for speaking out against the established Church. Charles I was even worse - not only did he continue his father's policy of harassing the Puritans, he was married to a Catholic and himself adhered to a rigid form of Anglicanism. Many Puritans felt that Charles had betrayed the religious interests of his people. Something had to be done.

In 1630, a small group of Puritan divines decided to emigrate, with their loyal congregations, to the wilds of America. There they would start a new society, operated in a manner they deemed wholly godly, free of any taint of Catholicism or any other abomination. They were not abandoning the English Church - to do that would have been a sin on the highest order. Nor, for the most part, did they go to America to flee persecution, as is so often asserted. The Puritan colonists in America had a holy mission: they thought that their new church in New England would be like a beacon for the Old World to follow - a righteous community that would lead the sinful nations of Europe into Paradise.

To read some accounts, you might think that all Puritans came to New England. In fact, most Puritans remained in England and continued to battle the king and the bishops, with sermons and pamphlets their weapons. When England's Parliament led a revolt against King Charles in 1642, the Puritans, almost en masse, took up arms against him as well. The Parliamentary side's greatest general, Oliver Cromwell, was a devout Puritan; when King Charles was tried and executed, Cromwell became England's Lord Protector for nine years.

What happened to the Puritans? After the restoration of Charles II to England's throne, a series of acts known as the Clarendon Code cracked down on the freedom of the Puritans to practice their religion. Those ministers who did not swear an oath to obey bishops and accept the doctrines of the Church of England were forced out of the ministry; any religious gathering that was not part of the Church of England was made illegal. This heralded in a long period of persecution. Many of England's Puritans (not to mention Quakers and a host of other non-Anglican Protestants) left the Church of England and became known as the Nonconformist or Dissenting churches. Many Puritans, exhausted by the endless strife of the wars and the interregnum and fearing persecution, accepted the doctrines of the Church of England and subsided from political importance.

In America, succeeding generations of Puritans did not have the same zeal as the original immigrants, leading to a series of crises of faith within the colony. Preachers' sermons grew more and more centered upon hellfire and damnation as the ministers strove to maintain the fervency of the flock. In this atmosphere of increasing paranoia and fear of God's retribution, witch hysteria exploded, resulting in several trials and executions in 1692. At about the same time, the colony's charter denied the Puritans the right to exclude Anglicans and Quakers from politics. Between loss of political power and widespread public remorse for the witch trials, the Puritans lost their supremacy in America after the 1690s.

A Little Theology:

For purposes of clarity, I will refer to Anglicans and Puritans as separate groups. It is well to remember, however, that Puritanism was not a different religion from the Anglican church; rather, it was an intensely critical subgroup. On most points of theology and doctrine, Puritans and Anglicans were entirely in agreement. They were united in their abhorrence of Catholics. Both groups believed that the Bible contained God's true word, and that prayerful study of it would yield God's will. Both groups felt that anyone who claimed to have received instructions direct from God's mouth (like the Quaker leader John Fox, for instance) was a dangerous charlatan. Most importantly of all, both Anglicans and Puritans believed that everything, from life to death to the change of the seasons to the potholes in the road, was controlled by God's direct, active hand.

What then distinguished the Puritan from the Anglican? He felt that God called upon him to reform England's church. He regarded Scripture as the only reliable guide to law, government, and behavior (while Anglicans also turned to reason and tradition to guide them). And, increasingly as time went by, he subscribed to the theology promulgated by Jean Calvin in the rigidly Protestant city of Geneva. There is no space here to discuss the intricacies of Calvinist theology, except to mention its best-known and most troublesome tenet: predestination.

All Protestants believed that a man cannot earn his way into heaven by performing good works: only through God's grace could he be saved. Predestination is the logical conclusion that, not only does God bestow His grace upon some and not upon others, but that in His omnipotence He has known whom He would save since before the beginning of time. Therefore, some people are predestined to go to hell, and some to heaven, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. Calvin did not emphasize predestination as much as the Puritans of England and New England. For Puritans, predestination was the theological expression of a mindset composed of equal parts fatalism, humility, and determination. Historian Perry Miller describes this mindset this way:

"There is an eternal obligation upon men to be equitable, fair, and good, but who can say that any such morality is also binding on the universe? There are certain amenities which men must observe in their dealings with men, but who can say that they must also be respected by the tiger, by the raging storm, by the lighting, or by the cancer? . This is the law of life; some men are born rich and some poor, some intelligent and some stupid, some are lucky and others unfortunate, some are happy and some melancholy, some are saved and some are not."

In his biography of John Winthrop, the great historian Edmund S. Morgan sums up the frame of mind of the Puritan:

"Puritanism required that a man devote his life to seeking salvation but told him he was helpless to do anything but evil. Puritanism required that he rest his whole hope in Christ but taught him that Christ would utterly reject him unless before he was born God had foreordained his salvation. Puritanism required that man refrain from sin but told him he would sin anyhow. Puritanism required that he reform the world in the image of God's holy kingdom but taught him that the evil of the world was incurable and inevitable. Puritanism required that he work to the best of his ability at whatever task was set before him and partake of the good things that God had filled the world with but told him he must enjoy his work and his pleasures only, as it were, absent-mindedly, with his attention fixed on God."

Small wonder, then, when faced with the pressures thus described, that the Puritans seemed humorless and rigid to observers (and even more so to us, from a distance of four hundred years).

Some Myths About Puritans:

  • Puritans thought sex was evil and condemned those, especially women, who enjoyed it. False. This is myth is wrongly implied by most modern-day uses of the word "puritan," as in this famous line, attributed to H.L. Mencken: "A Puritan is someone who is deathly afraid that someone, somewhere, is having fun." In fact, Puritans had no particular issue with sex. They knew that both men and women were subject to sexual desires. They certainly knew that women experienced arousal and orgasm - conventional Protestant wisdom of the 16th and 17th centuries was that women might grow ill or mad if they didn't experience regular sexual release. Puritans thought that sex should only happen in the marriage bed, and that adultery and premarital sex were sins. They also thought that married couples should embark upon lovemaking prayerfully - they should always remember that sexual pleasure is a gift from God. In all these attitudes towards sex, they were in perfect agreement with Anglicans and other Protestants of the same period, and with quite a few modern-day Christians as well.

    In a similar spirit, alcohol was never forbidden by any Puritan group; drink was one of the blessings that God provided and everyone was allowed to enjoy it. However, habitual drunkenness was regarded as a wicked sin and was met with severe punishment. Music, dancing, and poetry were all enjoyed, though wild enthusiasm was discouraged. The Puritans shut down London's theaters, not because they believed plays to be inherently sinful, but because theaters were places where people could (and did) meet prostitutes and form illicit liaisons. The closing of theaters and other such dens of iniquity (public bathhouses also got the axe) was as much a public health measure as a moral one, for syphilis was a horrific epidemic with no known cure.

  • Puritans believed in a theocratic government that denied people the rights to free speech and religion. True and False. The colony in Massachusetts, a model for everything they believed an earthly community should be, was definitely fashioned along these lines. They believed that God had allowed them to make the dangerous Atlantic crossing, and had helped them to survive in the howling wilderness, because they had a commission from him to succeed in their godly community. Therefore, they had an obligation to punish every transgression immediately and thoroughly. God's eye was upon them.

    It should be remembered that the concept of "separation of church and state" had not been formulated yet, and that no government in Europe or America kept moral and civil law apart. Too, this "theocracy" was not imposed by tyrannical ministers upon their helpless flock, but was entered into with enthusiasm by the Puritan immigrants.

    Not all Puritans had the same outlook, however. Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan Lord Protector of England during the Interregnum, was faced with a kingdom of subjects who held a challenging mix of religious beliefs. In response, he enforced religious toleration for all Protestant groups. He was tolerant and protective of England's Jews as well. As I've already noted, it was after the restoration of Charles II that religious orthodoxy was enforced - not during the Puritan-led Interregnum.

  • Puritans were dogmatic and anti-intellectual. False. The Puritans taught all their children, even girls, to read. As they struggled against bitter cold, starvation, poor farming conditions, wild beasts and Indians in the terrifying wilds of North America, the Puritan colonists not only maintained schools, but in 1636 they started Harvard College. When the college suffered financial setbacks, ordinary farmers and fisherman contributed what they could to keep it open.

    They didn't just read the Bible, either. Heirs of the Renaissance, Puritans found value in the philosophers, poets and dramatists of antiquity, even though they considered these classical writers to be heathens. Anyone who has read the work of the great Puritan poet John Milton must recognize a dazzling degree of scholarship. Few Puritans were as accomplished as Milton, but the point remains: learning, literacy, and reason were important to the Puritans. When they heard of scientific advances, they were not threatened or appalled; they believed that through study, scholarship, experiment and logic, one might divine God's plan.

  • Puritans burned witches and others at the stake. False. While it is true that several people were executed by Puritans in the New World, usually for witchcraft, none were burned. 1692, the famous witch trials of Salem resulted in the deaths of twenty-five people and the imprisonment of dozens of others. Nineteen were hanged, one was tortured to death, and five died in prison. These deaths were tragic and unnecessary, as many Puritans realized after the hysteria had subsided; influential minister Increase Mather proclaimed, "It were better that ten suspected witches should escape than that one innocent person should be condemned." A far more common punishment for serious crime in Massachusetts was banishment. In 1635, a devout Puritan minister named Roger Williams got into serious trouble. He preached that the Church of England was Antichrist and that the Massachusetts churches were infected with evil for refusing to separate totally from the Anglicans. (Remember that the New England Puritans thought that they had a mission to lead the Church of England into righteousness by their holy example.) He urged his congregation to denounce all other congregations in Massachusetts (and the rest of the world) as untrue churches. For his extremely seditious opinions, Williams was exiled. As far as I know, no person was ever burned at the stake by Puritans in the New World for any reason.

    Witches were burned at the stake in England and throughout Europe, most intensively from the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries; but Puritanism can hardly be blamed for that.

  • Puritans were self-righteous hypocrites. True and False. Some of them certainly were. They were human, and like all humans they brought their faults with them when they came to church. Certain individuals surely used their faith as platform from which to raise themselves up and to judge others. Other individuals were genuinely virtuous. Most Puritans, as is true with most members of any group then and now, fell somewhere in between.


  • Jacques Barzun. From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.
  • Antonia Fraser. The Weaker Vessel. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.
  • Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson, eds. The Puritans: A Sourcebook of their Writings, volumes 1 and 2. New York: Harper and Row, 1938.
  • Edmund S. Morgan. The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1958.
  • Billy G. Smith and Gary B. Nash, eds. The Encyclopedia of American History, Volume 2: Settlement, 1908 to 1760. Harper, 2003.


Jennifer is an AAR senior editor and review - you can email her via the link here

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