Puritans were members of the Church of England, or Anglican Church, who, in the 16th century, began to protest against what they perceived as serious abuses by religious authorities. The label "Puritan" spoke to the desire of these reformers to purify the Anglican Church by eradicating both corruption and remaining traces of Catholicism. Committed Anglicans, Puritans wanted to remain in the church to create change. Unsuccessful in their objective within England, the group eventually relocated to the American colonies, settling largely in the northeast region, which they renamed New England.
The Puritans were Calvinists, meaning they embraced John Calvin’s theory of predestination. This theory claimed that God had decided the fate of each person before birth. There was nothing a person could do to become one of the enlightened saints with the gift of salvation. Likewise, there would be little church authorities could do for one's soul. Puritans had doubts about the Anglican -- and Catholic -- belief in the role of intermediaries, usually priests, between individuals and God. To Puritans, individuals had a personal relationship with God.
Types of Puritans
There were two main types of Puritans: Presbyterians and Congregationalists. Both of these groups' ideas would conflict with the formal organization of the Anglican Church. There were Separatist reformers, as well; however, since their goal was to leave the Anglican Church, most scholarship considers them outsiders to the Puritan reform movement. Presbyterians thought the Church of England should restructure its hierarchy. The Anglicans had a strict structure led by formal religious authorities. This structure, patterned after the Catholic Church, had little room for leadership from laypeople, those without official training. Presbyterians desired a more influential role for individuals in religion. Power needed to remain in the hands of local units, rather than larger religious bodies. These units, or Presbyters, would allow local ministers and laypeople to work together to ensure the church served the needs of parishioners. Congregationalists wanted each congregation, or individual church, to conduct business free of any influence from local or national religious authorities. This form of worship would prove popular in the American colonies.
To Puritans, reforming the Church of England, of which all British citizens were members, required a form of cleansing, or purification. The Puritans had multiple problems with English religion. The first problem was that everyone was a member of the church. Sinners received baptism along with the elect. Belonging to a church should not be a right of birth, as it was in England, Puritans proclaimed. The church also needed to stop tolerating gambling and drunkenness, which some Puritans associated with Catholic corruptness. Bishops wearing expensive vestments during elaborate ceremonies reminded Puritans of Catholicism, which, as Protestants, Puritans abhorred. Last, the clergy were not knowledgeable enough to instruct the people properly in the faith. Puritans often referred to the clergy as “dumb dogges” (Nation of Nations: Laypeople, if educated, could perform church functions, Puritans argued.
Why Puritans Left England
In 1603, James I ascended to the throne as King of England and head of the Anglican Church. The new King wanted to eradicate any dissent. He and his successor, Charles I, suppressed Puritan beliefs. As a result, Puritans reluctantly accepted relocation to the American colonies. Once in the colonies, Puritans attempted to establish a “New England” that would be an example of what they considered the potential of the real England. The Puritans did want to purify the Anglican Church, but they didn't achieve that objective. Nevertheless, they did create a lasting influence in the world by shaping American society to a large degree.
- Puritanism: A Very Short Introduction; Francis J. Bremer, Ph.D.
- Nation of Nations: A Concise Narrative of the American Republic; James West Davidson, Ph.D.
- Moderate Puritans and the Elizabethan Church; Peter Lake, Ph.D.
- Godly Republicanism: Puritans, Pilgrims, and Massachusetts' City on a Hill; Michael P. Winship, Ph.D.
- The Puritan Experiment: New England Society from Bradford to Edwards; Francis J. Bremer, Ph.D.
- Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images