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The Puritan movement of 16th and 17th century England was a movement of people seeking "purity" of worship and doctrine. Those who sought further reform of liturgy and theology away from that of the Roman Catholic Church and those who justified separation from the Church of England following the Elizabethan Religious Settlement are commonly called "Puritans" by historians and critics.


Puritanism seems to have risen out of discontent with the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, which was felt by the more radical Protestants to be giving in to "Popery" (i.e., the Roman Catholic Church). While Protestant movements in Europe were driven by issues of theology and had broken radically with Catholic models of church organization, the English Reformation had brought the Church under control of the monarchy while leaving many of its religious practices intact. In the eyes of the Puritans, doctrine had been made unacceptably subservient to politics. Persecuted under Mary I of England ("Bloody Mary"), Protestants like Thomas Cartwright, Walter Travers, and Andrew Melville had gone into exile as Puritans in Europe, where they came into close contact with the magisterial reformers in Calvinist Geneva and Lutheran Germany. These contacts shaped their position towards Elizabeth's religious via media (middle way).

Although all influenced by Calvinism, Puritans were not united on every issue. This reflects the origins of the movement, which developed through several phases. They shared a belief that all existing churches had become corrupted by practice, by contact with pagan civilizations (particularly that of Rome), and by the impositions of kings and popes. They all argued for a restructuring and "purifying" of church practice through biblical supremacy and shared, to one degree or another, a belief in the priesthood of all believers. However, they differed from one another on issues of church polity (organization of church power).

Because the puritans were simply the informed, committed and relatively radical Protestants, they wanted the Church of England to resemble more closely the Protestant churches of Europe, especially the church of Geneva. Puritans objected to ornaments and ritual in churches (vestments, musical organs, genuflection) as idolatrous. They also objected to ecclesiastical courts. They refused to endorse completely all of the ritual directions and formulas of the Book of Common Prayer; the imposition of its liturgical order by legal force and inspection sharpened Puritanism into a definite opposition movement.

By the 1570s, Puritans were arguing for a Presbyterian model or a Congregationalist model, but all were outspoken in their criticism of the structure and liturgy that the monarchy required. Attempts by the bishops of the Church of England to enforce uniformity of usage in the Book of Common Prayer turned the episcopal hierarchy into a specific target of their grievances. Tracts such as the Martin Marprelate series lampooned the government and the church hierarchs.

The issue of church hierarchy was difficult, and Elizabeth sponsored Richard Hooker to write Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity to counter Presbyterian arguments. Hooker writes in direct refutation of the "brothers of the Geneva Church," outlining a via media for the English church that, rather than eliminating doctrine, offered a set of specifically ordained rules. His thinking on the matter became the backbone of the Anglican Church and would later be put to use by Archbishop William Laud.

These radicals were looked down on by the dominant faction in the Church of England and were given the name "Puritan", in mockery of the radicals' apparent obsession with "purifying" the Church.

Contemporarily with the English Reformation, the Church of Scotland had been reformed on a Calvinist Presbyterian model which many Puritans hoped to extend to England. When James VI of Scotland became James I of England, he appointed several known Puritans to powerful positions within the Church of England and checked the rise in power of William Laud. Nevertheless, he was not a Puritan and regarded them with great suspicion, viewing the Puritan movement as potentially dangerous to the royal control of the Church. He authorized the King James Bible in part to reinforce Anglican orthodoxy against the Geneva Bible. Popular among Puritans, the Geneva Bible had anti-royalist translations and interpolated revolutionary notes. Martin Luther had called for vernacular Bible translations and church services; for the Puritans, who believed in biblical supremacy, having an English-language Bible was of paramount importance.

Each new round of political disappointments during this period faced each individual Puritan and the Puritan congregations with a new crisis. The question was whether they should continue in outward conformity with a distasteful religious regime, or should they take the separatist and illegal step of withdrawal from the state church? Each fresh controversy led to a new round of schisms, and, as such, the groundwork was set for the eventual heirs of Puritanism, from the "low-church" Protestant and Evangelical wing of the Church of England, to the various dissenting sects.

During the reign of Charles I, a committed High Churchman, relations soured and it is generally held among historians that religious tensions created by the dominance of the Laudian faction during the Personal Rule were a major factor in the outbreak of the English Civil War. Puritans certainly agitated against the King, and reform of the religion was a rallying cry for the Parliamentary forces. However, Puritanism by this point had become not merely a religion, but a cultural entity.

By this time, Puritans were more often referred to as Dissenters. Since English Dissenters were barred from any profession that required official religious conformity, Puritans became instrumental in a number of new industries. They dominated the export/import business and were eager to colonize the New World. With the flourishing of the trans-Atlantic trade with America, Puritans in England were growing quite wealthy. Similarly, the artisan classes had become increasingly Puritan. Therefore, the economic issues of the English Civil War (tax levies, liberalization of royal charters), the political issues of the English Civil War (purchasing of peerages, increasing discontent between the House of Lords and the people, rebellion over the attempt to introduce a Divine right of kings by Charles I), and the religious tensions were all bound together into a general dispute that pitted Church of England Cavaliers against Puritan Roundheads.

Puritan factions played a key role in the Parliamentarian victory and became a majority in Parliament, after the withdrawal of royalists and the forcible exclusion of those who wished to continue negotiation with the King. In due course, the Puritan military leader Oliver Cromwell became head of the English Commonwealth. In the Commonwealth period, the Church of England was removed from royal control and reorganized to grant greater authority to local congregations, most of which developed in a Puritan and semi-Calvinist direction. There was never an official Puritan denomination; the Commonwealth government tolerated a somewhat broader debate on doctrinal issues than had previously been possible, and considerable theological and political conflict between Puritan factions continued throughout this period. The label "Puritan" fell out of use when their movement became the status quo; it was replaced by the broader term Nonconformist, which was used after the English Restoration to refer to all Protestant denominations outside of the official Church. The pejorative name "Dissenter" (for non-Conforming Anglicans, as opposed to Roman Catholics) was also used.

Many Puritans emigrated to North America in the 1620-1640s because they believed that the Church of England was beyond reform. However, most Puritans in both England and New England were non-separatists. They continued to profess their allegiance to the Church of England despite their dissent from Church leadership and practices.

Most of the Puritans who emigrated settled in the New England area. However, the Great Migration of Puritans was relatively short-lived and not as large as is often believed. It began in earnest in 1629 with the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and ended in 1642 with the start of the English Civil War when King Charles I effectively shut off emigration to the colonies. From 1629 through 1643 approximately 21,000 Puritans emigrated to New England,. This is actually far less than the number of British subjects who emigrated to Ireland, Canada, and the Caribbean during this time.

The Great Migration of Puritans to New England was primarily an exodus of families. Between 1630 and 1640 over 13,000 men, women, and children sailed to Massachusetts. The religious and political factors behind the Great Migration influenced the demographics of the emigrants. Rather than groups of young men seeking economic success (as predominated Virginia colonies), Puritan ships were laden with "ordinary" people, old and young, families as well as individuals. Just a quarter of the emigrants were in their twenties when they boarded ship in the 1630s, making young adults not predominant in New England settlements. The New World Puritan population can be seen as more of a cross section in age of English population than those of other colonies. This meant that the Massachusetts Bay Colony retained a relatively "normal" population composition. In contrast to the Chesapeake colony in Virginia – where the ratio of colonist men to women was 4:1 in early decades and at least 2:1 in later decades and where considerable intermarriage with native women took place – nearly half of the Puritan immigrants to the New World were women, and there was little intermarriage with natives. The majority of families who traveled to Massachusetts Bay were families in progress, with parents who were at not through with their reproductive years and whose continued fertility would make New England’s population growth possible. The women who emigrated were critical agents in the success of the establishment and maintenance of the Puritan colonies in North America. Success in the early colonial economy depended largely on labor, which was conducted by members of Puritan families. It was through this labor that Puritans endeavored to create their "city on a hill", a productive, morally exemplary colony far from the corruption of the Church of England.

In the 1660s the Puritan settlements in the New World were confronted with the challenge posed by an aging first generation. Those who created the colonies were the most fervent in their religious beliefs, and as their numbers began to decline, so did the membership of churches. The demographics of the churches changed because fewer men were joining. The resulting decrease in male religious participation was a problem for the established church (that is, the colony’s official church for which people were taxed and which they were expected to attend). If the men who wielded secular power in the colony were absent from the church, its legitimacy would be undermined. As early as 1660, women constituted the great majority of church members. However, since Anne Hutchinson’s banishment, they were not allowed to talk in church (for more information, see below under beliefs). Puritan ministers, concerned for the continued existence and power of their churches in the colonies, pushed for a solution to declining church membership. This push led to the creation of the Halfway Covenant, in order to boost participation in the Puritan church.

Emigration resumed under the rule of Cromwell, but not in large numbers as there was no longer any need to "escape persecution" in England. In fact, many Puritans returned to England during the war.

The influence of the Puritan movement persisted in England in various forms. All official discrimination against Puritans in England ended in the 1640s when Puritan forces under Oliver Cromwell overthrew the monarchy in the English Civil War. With the Restoration of the monarchy in the 1660s the Church of England attempted to re-assert its authority as the official English church. However, respect for the Puritan Church's separatism and freedom of conscience won by them and other English Dissenters under Cromwell, continued despite the Restoration and the 1662 Act of Uniformity.

Puritan experience also motivated the later Latitudinarian and Evangelical trends in the Church of England. Meanwhile, in Europe, in the 17th and 18th century, a movement within Lutheranism based on puritan ideology became a strong religious force known as pietism. In the USA, the Puritan settlement of New England was a major influence on American Protestantism.

Many immigrants to New England, who were motivated by a desire for greater religious freedom, actually soon found repression under the Puritan theocracy to be far more repressive than any "oppression" of their faith that they had experienced back in Britain. Puritan oppression, including torture and imprisonment of many leaders of non-Puritan Christian sects, led to the (voluntary or involuntary) "banishment" of many Christian leaders and their followers from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This negative impact of Puritanism on many new colonists led to the founding of many new colonies including, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and New Hampshire as religious havens that were created for devout Christians who wanted to live outside the oppressive reach of Puritan theocracy. The power and influence of Puritan leaders in New England declined further after the Salem Witch Trials in Salem , Massachusetts in the 1690s. Although they began as a trial of one or several self-avowed witches who admitted to practicing voodoo-type rituals with malicious intent, the trials got out of hand and ended with a number of innocent people being falsely accused, found guilty, and executed by Puritan leaders. Although most of the magistrates never admitted fault in the matter, at least one publicly apologized in later life. Because most people of that era believed in the existence and efficacy of witchcraft, the witch trials can be seen as a very unfortunate miscarriage of justice in the face of public hysteria, and less as the result of a prejudice specific to the Puritan leaders. In addition to rival Christian clergy members and suspected witches, the Puritan leaders' strict governing of their own people led to their ouster from direct political control in Massachusetts by 1700 and the decline of the influence of Puritanism as a religious sect in many areas by the mid-1700s.

Some modern Presbyterian denominations are descended, at least in part, from the Puritans. Likewise, Congregational Churches also trace their lineage back to the Puritans. One example is the Congregational Christian Churches (CCC) denomination in the United States (which merged with the Evangelical and Reformed Church in 1957 to form the United Church of Christ) is the direct descendant of New England Puritan congregations.


The central tenet of Puritanism was God's supreme authority over human affairs, particularly in the church, and especially as expressed in the Bible. This view led them to seek both individual and corporate conformance to the teaching of the Bible, and it led them to pursue both moral purity down to the smallest detail as well as ecclesiastical purity to the highest level.

The words of the Bible were the origin of many Puritan cultural ideals, especially regarding the roles of men and women in the community. For example, women were not permitted to speak in church after 1636 (although they were allowed to engage in religious discussions outside of it, in various women-only meetings).

On the individual level, the Puritans emphasized that each person should be continually reformed by the grace of God to fight against indwelling sin and do what is right before God. A humble and obedient life would arise for every Christian. Puritan culture emphasized the need for self examination and the strict accounting for one’s feelings as well as one’s deeds.

The Puritans tended to admire the early church fathers and quoted them liberally in their works. In addition to arming the Puritans to fight against later developments of the Roman Catholic tradition, these studies also led to the rediscovery of some ancient scruples. Chrysostom, a favorite of the Puritans, spoke eloquently against drama and other worldly endeavors, and the Puritans adopted his view when decrying what they saw as the decadent culture of England, famous at that time for its plays and bawdy London. The Pilgrims (the separatist, congregationalist Puritans who went to North America) are likewise famous for banning from their New England colonies many secular entertainments, such as games of chance, maypoles, and drama, all of which were perceived as kinds of immorality.

At the level of the church body, the Puritans believed that the worship in the church ought to be strictly regulated by what is commanded in the Bible (known as the regulative principle of worship). The Puritans condemned as idolatry many worship practices regardless of the practices' antiquity or widespread adoption among Christians, which their opponents defended with tradition. Like some of Reformed churches on the European continent, Puritan reforms were typified by a minimum of ritual and decoration and by an unambiguous emphasis on preaching. Like the early church fathers, they eliminated the use of musical instruments in their worship services, for various theological and practical reasons. Outside of church, however, Puritans were quite fond of music and encouraged it in certain ways.

Another important distinction was the Puritan approach to church-state relations. They opposed the Anglican idea of the supremacy of the monarch in the church (Erastianism), and, following Calvin, they argued that the only head of the Church in heaven or earth is Christ (not the Pope or Archbishop of Canterbury). However, they believed that secular governors are accountable to God (not through the church, but alongside it) to protect and reward virtue, including "true religion", and to punish wrongdoers — a policy that is best described as non-interference rather than separation of church and state. The separating Congregationalists, a segment of the Puritan movement more radical than the Anglican Puritans, believed the Divine Right of Kings was heresy, a belief that became more pronounced during the reign of Charles I of England.

Other notable beliefs include:

  • An emphasis on private study of the Bible
  • A desire to see education and enlightenment for the masses (especially so they could read the Bible for themselves)
  • The priesthood of all believers
  • Simplicity in worship, the exclusion of vestments, images, candles, etc.
  • Did not celebrate traditional holidays that they believed to be in violation of the regulative principle of worship.
  • Believed the Sabbath was still obligatory for Christians, although they believe the Sabbath had been changed to Sunday.
  • Some approved of the church hierarchy, but others sought to reform the episcopal churches on the presbyterian model. Some separatist Puritans were presbyterian, but most were congregationalists.

In addition to promoting lay education, it was important to the Puritans to have knowledgeable, educated pastors, who could read the Bible in its original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, as well as ancient and modern church tradition and scholarly works, which were most commonly written in Latin, and so most of their divines undertook rigorous studies at the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge before seeking ordination. Diversions for the educated included discussing the Bible and its practical applications as well as reading the classics such as Cicero, Virgil, and Ovid. They also encouraged the composition of poetry that was of a religious nature, though they eschewed religious-erotic poetry except for the Song of Solomon, which they considered magnificent poetry, without error, regulative for their sexual pleasure, and, especially, as an allegory of Christ and the Church.

Modern use

In modern usage, the word puritan is often used as an informal pejorative for someone who has strict views on sexual morality, disapproves of recreation, and wishes to impose these beliefs on others. None of these qualities were unique to Puritanism or universally characteristic of the Puritans themselves, whose moral views and ascetic tendencies were no more extreme than many other Protestant reformers of their time, and who were relatively tolerant of other faiths — at least in England. The popular image is slightly more accurate as a description of Puritans in colonial America, who were among the most radical Puritans and whose social experiment took the form of a Calvinist theocracy.



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