Puritans

The Puritans were a group of religious reformers that arose in England during the late sixteenth century. They wanted to reform the Church of England and bring it closer to the views of John Calvin. Amid persecution for their religious views, the Puritans emigrated to British North America. The church leaders believed that they carried the true message of God and that the Lord would bless them as they established the ‘‘true’’ church, away from the bishops of the Church of England. The Puritans have often been subjected to fierce criticism for being intolerant of others and enforcing their views on the population.

The leader of the Puritan mission to the New World was John Winthrop, who shrewdly managed to bring with him the royal charter of the colony. By having possession of the royal charter, the Puritans were able to establish their society with little interference from the Crown. As the Puritans sailed towards Massachusetts Bay in 1630, Winthrop preached a sermon entitled, ‘‘A Model of Christian Charity,’’ in which he outlined the purpose of the Puritan mission. This mission had the goal of founding the ‘‘city on a hill’’ where the world could view a place where God blessed those living under the covenant of grace.

Puritan family life developed around the ideas of a close-knit community revolving around family life and the church. Families in New England were extremely patriarchal, and often the father closely monitored the fates of his children. One way that fathers used their control was to refuse to give land grants to their sons until their deaths, therefore forcing adult sons to live with them or take on risky ventures of their own.

As the Puritan church evolved, the most important point became the idea of conversion. The idea was that if a person did not have a life-changing moment, then his or her salvation was not real. After listening to captivating sermons describing fantastic conversion experiences, the Puritans began to judge their worthiness by the conversion experience. Churches began to test members for the validity of their conversions and soon developed a standard within the church. Puritans used their experiences to try to establish themselves as a ‘‘saint,’’ or person who had achieved salvation by church guidelines. People who fell outside church guidelines were often pushed to the margins of Puritan society.

Every important decision made in the Puritan community was made at the meeting house, which was used as a place of worship and business. Usually on Mondays, citizens met to make decisions that affected the town. They decided on such things as which roads needed repairing and which new lands needed surveying. During these meetings the leaders decided who got land, and how much. Most of these decisions were made by the leadership of the community: a group of men known as ‘‘selectmen.’’ The meeting house belonged to all the people and, whether a person belonged to the church or not, everyone paid for its upkeep.

The Puritans of New England developed a society that kept religion at its core. The founders of the Puritan church succeeded, at least initially, in founding a society where religion was at the center of people’s lives. However, the strict rules of the Puritan church led to a great deal of discontent, seen in the persons of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. The case of Hutchinson especially demonstrates the patriarchal dominance of Puritan society. She claimed that Puritan leaders were teaching a false gospel and leading people to hell. Hutchinson was put on trial and, because she claimed to have spoken to God directly, was banished.

Perhaps the leading tragedy of the Puritan era was the various witch trials culminating with the Salem witch trials. The idea of putting men and women on trial for their ideas is seen as very incongruous to the notion of civil liberties in the United States. Often women aroused suspicion as being witches by ‘‘flamboyant dress’’ or being outspoken in the community. The case of Bridget Bishop exemplifies how the civil liberties of many were violated in Puritan society. Bishop violated many of the ‘‘norms’’ of Puritan women. She wore colorful clothing, was married three times, and owned a tavern. She was accused of being a witch, and many male witnesses testified to seeing visions of her at night. Bishop was convicted and the town of Salem witnessed her hanging in 1692.

The Puritan communities in North America played an important part in the development of American society. However, many of their views, such as the strict enforcement of church law and patriarchal ideals, took away the rights of many people.

CHRISTOPHER R. TINGLE

References and Further Reading

  • Greven, Philip. Four Generations: Population, Land, and Family in Colonial Andover, Massachusetts: Population, Land, and Family Colonial Andover, Massachusetts. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972.
  • Lockridge, Kenneth. A New England Town: The First Hundred Years, Dedham, Massachusetts, 1636–1736. New York: Norton Press, 1985.
  • Morgan, Edmund. Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1965.

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