The Puritans

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Date: 2009
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 1,037 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1280L

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The Puritans were a dissenting branch of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestants in England. Many of them migrated to North America, beginning in 1620, to establish religious colonies away from the direct oversight of the crown and the Church of England. According to their beliefs, the Christian church in England based religious doctrine on the laws and politics of humans rather than on the laws of God. They wanted to "purify" Protestantism of both its Catholic and its secular influences by refocusing Christianity on personal morality and the absolute authority of the New Testament in human affairs. In their eyes the reformations begun by Henry VIII (1491-1547) and those introduced by his daughter Elizabeth I (1533-1603) did not go far enough and merely substituted one corrupt figurehead (the pope) with another (the reigning monarch).

One of the most fundamental beliefs of the Puritans was that ordinary people should be able to read and interpret the Bible for themselves rather than relying on church-sanctioned authority figures to interpret it for them. Traditionally the Bible was not available in translations other than Latin. Because few common people at the time could read at all, much less read Latin, education became an important part of the Puritan religious agenda. Similarly, while Roman Catholic masses were held in Latin, Protestants in general and Puritans in particular held that religious services should be said in English so that anyone could understand them. This notion of simplicity and appealing to the common people carried through to the reformists' ideas about ceremony and outward appearances: the formal vestments traditionally worn by Catholic Church leaders were considered vain and ostentatious, and Puritan distaste for them became known as the Vestments Controversy.

Frivolous activities were frowned upon. Anything that was not done in the service of the Lord or to further spiritual growth was considered a waste of time. The notion of "divine providence" was also central to Puritan theology: things happened because they were the will of God, and, according to the Puritans, God had a swift sense of justice. Immoral or impure acts and thoughts would be appropriately punished with a life of hardship or a painful and untimely death.

Once the Puritans began to identify themselves as a movement, they fell into two groups. Conforming Puritans—often referred to as Dissenters—were those who maintained their membership in the Church of England despite their objections, and many remained in England to fight the crown's forces during the English Civil War. Nonconforming Puritans—or Separatists—believed that the English church was beyond reform. Members of both groups migrated to North America. The settlers who founded Plymouth Colony, and came to be known as the Pilgrims, were Separatists.

The Roots of Puritanism

Although Puritanism had its initial stirrings in the attempts by Henry VIII to redefine the English Christian church according to his own beliefs and politics, Puritans were not a unified group in the beginning. In fact, the term "Puritan" was initially used as an insult against reformist Protestants, who were considered radicals. During the reign of Mary I (1516-1558), who was a devout Catholic, all Protestants were ruthlessly persecuted, and hundreds were publicly burned at the stake to discourage others from practicing even moderate Protestantism. To avoid prosecution under Mary's heresy laws, hundreds of Protestants fled England for continental Europe, where they were introduced to the doctrines of Calvinism, an interpretation of Protestantism developed by the French-born theologian John Calvin (1509-1564), who advocated stringent reforms. When Mary died in 1558, many of the "Marian exiles" felt free to return to England after Mary's half-sister, Elizabeth I, took the throne and instituted what became known as the Elizabethan Religious Settlement—a parliament-sanctioned compromise that mandated a mainstream version of Protestantism but also named Elizabeth Supreme Governor of the Church of England (the word "governor" being considered more acceptable, and less papal-sounding, than "head").

The returning Marian exiles brought Calvinism to England. Expecting an atmosphere more open to reform, they began lobbying church and political leaders for more changes. The response to their demands, while not hostile, was far from welcoming. Elizabeth disliked religious extremism in either Catholics or Protestants, and the church under her leadership retained many facets of Catholicism, the main difference being that services were performed in English rather than in Latin. The Puritans were no happier with the policies of James I (1566-1625), who ascended the throne in 1603. They met with James and his representatives at the Hampton Court Conference in January 1604, hoping the king would institute their ideas. James refused all but one of the Puritans' requests: to have the Bible translated into English. This in itself was revolutionary, and the translation became known as the King James Bible. Still deeply unsatisfied with both church and state, the Puritans began to organize and, by the time Charles I (1600-1649) took the throne in 1625, they nearly dominated Parliament. Among other religious and political issues, a national dispute over taxation pitted Puritans and the Parliament against the crown, leading to the bloody English civil war of 1642 to 1651 and the execution of Charles.

The Great Migration

In 1620 a group of Separatist Puritans made their way across the Atlantic on the famous Mayflower voyage. They had intended to land farther south, but instead set up a colony, Plymouth, in what became known as New England. Twenty years later a group of Puritans, mostly Dissenters, bought up the stock of the Massachusetts Bay Company, a trading company, and started an exodus toward what is now Massachusetts. They intended to establish a colony that would be a "religious experiment," in that they would set an example for reforms of both the English church and society. The group set sail in 1630 and settled first in Salem, Massachusetts, and then relocated near the Charles River, founding the city of Boston. Over the following decade thousands of Puritans would arrive in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Its government, while not a theocracy, joined religious and secular activities in a code of laws. It established not only what was legal and illegal, but also what was moral and immoral. Laws covered nearly every facet of daily life, from murder to theft to required church attendance and proper speech and dress.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ3048400012