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Religion in New England Puritans & Pilgrims

The Puritan Faith

Faith was central to the Puritan experience, for it was the source from which all other aspects of their society and values emerged. The word "Puritan" was actually a term of ridicule devised by opponents of the late-sixteenth-century movement that arose in England. The Puritans remained unsatisfied with the progress and extent of the Protestant Reformation that began in 1517. They resented the persistence of Catholic influence on Anglican doctrine and rituals, but beyond that the movement split into a number of factions that disagreed over doctrine and strategy. The Pilgrims who settled Plymouth Colony were part of a faction known as Separatists; they had left the Church of England to create their own denominations. Separatists were a minority, and most Puritans, including the ones who later settled Massachusetts Bay Colony, sought to reform the Church from within.


Puritans subscribed to their religion with varying degrees of fervor. The towns of New England were not as homogenous as we often imagine them to have been. Certain individuals attended church regularly and became full church members; others attended meetings but never underwent conversion. Everyone had to attend meetings, regardless of their status. Many towns functioned well because there was a great degree of consensus between members and nonmembers. Nonetheless, tensions abounded between the ministerial elite and the more secular centers along the coast, where inhabitants were primarily focused on their fishing or trading livelihoods than the question of their immortal souls. Even in the more pious towns, many inhabitants questioned their status as God's elect and wondered whether the latest Indian raid or witchcraft case wasn't an indication of divine disfavor.

The Doctrine

Most Puritans thought of themselves as members of the Church of England who wanted to purge the church of its sins; they thought it was too political, permissive, and reminiscent of Catholicism in its liturgy and episcopal hierarchy. Yet Anglicans perceived Puritans as a heretical threat and persecuted them; the Puritans sought refuge first in the Netherlands and then in America. They still believed that they could purge the sins of the Church, although the New England separatists at Plymouth were so-called because they thought Anglicanism was broken beyond repair and they separated from it entirely.

Puritans believed in the concept of predestination: that God chose each human being from birth for salvation or for condemnation. Only God knew the fate of each person; unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the Puritans rejected the concept of free will. But during his or her lifetime, a Puritan could search for clues as to the fate of their soul by performing good works, praying, and attending church services (even though none of this could change the person's predetermined fate). Why do all of this stuff if God has already written your ticket? Because leading a good life ("good" meaning all the stuff mentioned above, such as praying, working hard, etc.) might be an indication of God's grace. Clearly there is a delicate balance here; it would be heretical to suggest that you could alter the outcome of your soul's destiny, but you might provide an indication of which way you are going to go if you take on the appearance of a good soul who is bound to be saved. On the other hand, if you are lazy and immoral, most Puritans would take these characteristics as signs that you are going to Dante's Inferno, so to speak. This portentous question of whether one was destined for heaven or hell on Judgment Day obviously produced a powerful mixture of hope and fear among Puritan believers, reflected in the sermons of their ministers.

Not to completely confuse you, but some of the greatest Puritan ministers actually rejected this whole notion of "visible signs" of God's grace. John Cotton, one of the early New England Puritans and an immensely influential minister, thought that other ministers erred in emphasizing these superficial indicators. He was more concerned with the internal process of preparing for salvation (by cultivating and embodying humility, love, and contrition). In 1633, Cotton sermonized that there were two types of "carnal men": "some belong unto the Election of Grace, though they be not yet called; others are not written in the Lambs Book of Life, but will in the end finally perish." Translation? Some of these worldly guys are saved and they just don't know it yet (they have not received a sign of grace from God); others are just the way they are and they won't receive eternal life with Jesus ("the Lamb" = Jesus). Either way, Cotton argued that "the Law of God" is of use to both. Why? Well, in the case of the saved men, once they receive the sign that they are predestined for salvation, God's law will "set home the burden of their sins unto their souls, thereby to drive them to feel their great need of the Lord Jesus Christ, whom otherwise they should for ever have despised." That is, they will appreciate the gravity of their sins and benevolence of Christ. On the other hand, the law of God simply gives the damned man no excuse: "now they have no Cloak for their sin."8 He will have to face God's wrath.

Whereas Catholicism would admit anyone who repented and accepted Jesus Christ as his or her savior (after baptism and confirmation), the Puritans had a higher standard for full members and few believers reached the status of full membership in the church. Anyone could worship at church, and the Puritans promised all congregants equal access to visible sainthood (embodying the traits of someone who appeared to be saved). Yet to become a member, a congregant had to be able to demonstrate that he or she had personally experienced divine grace, usually by testifying about a conversion experience. Only a Puritan who had personally experienced God's power through a conversion experience could be considered one of the "visible saints" (and therefore a fully fledged member) in the Puritan faith.


In the spirit of the Protestant Reformation that had proposed an alternative to Catholicism a century before, the Puritans encouraged their members to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. Yet this emphasis on individual interpretation of God's word inevitably led to tensions, and even rebellions, within the Puritans' strict hierarchical societies. Additionally, the Puritans were bound to suffer the repercussions inherent in their decision to persecute dissenters and adherents of other faiths, despite the fact that they had come to America partly in order to escape such persecution themselves. When Quakers emerged in Massachusetts during the 1640s, they were fined, whipped, and banished by colonial officials. Because Quakers believed that there was no distinction between the "elect" and the rest of the population, that the Divine spirit dwelled within everyone, they were deemed heretical to Puritan doctrine. The Quakers' suggestion that their members' "inner light" offered a surer spiritual guidance than the Bible or ministers deeply offended Puritan sensibilities. As a result, four Quakers who returned to Massachusetts from exile were hung between 1659 and 1660. Baptists were also attacked, as they did not prioritize a learned ministry and were therefore deemed threatening to the Puritans, who maintained that an intellectual elite of ministers were the rightful interpreters of the Bible (and therefore of God's will).

Roger Williams

After his arrival in Massachusetts in 1631, a young minister by the name of Roger Williams began to preach in support of religious toleration and the separation of church and state. Williams thought he was helping to strengthen the Puritan faith by trying to rid it of the inherently corrosive influence of government. He also rejected the notion of Puritan exceptionalism, that the Puritans were a specially chosen people on a divine mission to disseminate the true faith.

Within five years of his arrival, Williams was banished from Massachusetts for his unorthodox teachings, and he took his followers south to Rhode Island, where they established their own colony, which eventually received a crown charter. Williams's settlement became an exceptional bastion of religious freedom for the colonial period. Rhode Island had no established church; its inhabitants did not have to attend church and could vote regardless of their religion (until the eighteenth century). Because the governor was elected annually and the assembly twice annually, the government was also more democratic, and the colony's town meetings were held more frequently than elsewhere in the region. Jews, Catholics, and Protestant dissenters quickly flocked there, after having been persecuted elsewhere.

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