The Puritans were a Protestant religious group that disagreed with the direction of the Church of England in the realms of morality and theological doctrines. Many of them left Europe for the New World in the second half of the 17th century to form new Christian communities outside the jurisdiction of the traditional church. By the year 1700, there were 106,000 Puritans in the New World under three distinct denominations: Presbyterians, Baptists and Congregationalists. Their goal was to purify the Christian church by living holy lives. Most of them formed communities in New England, basing their social standards and morals on biblical teachings. They believed that the purpose of the individual and the community was to glorify God in all their activities.
In the aftermath of a Christian conversion, Puritans expected people to live according to biblical standards and no longer walk in the ways of the world. They were deeply interested in seeing converts live out lives of biblical piety. No matter how accurate somebody's theology might be, they were to prove their faith with proper actions. As Dr. Robert Barger of the University of Notre Dame explains, “Actions spoke louder than words, so actions had to be constantly controlled."
Puritan churches set high standards for church membership. Members had to show evidence of living the Christian life before being admitted. Churches required them to be “visibly godly.” Certain denominations required a public testimony of each member's Christian conversion experience. The individual who had not yet experienced conversion was considered alienated from God and called “unregenerate” by the Puritans.
Moderation in all behavior was expected in Puritan society. This was certainly true with regard to sinful behaviors. But this expectation was even applied to godly behaviors associated with living out a person's vocation. English Puritan church leader Richard Baxter (1615-1691) warned that “overdoing” any particular behavior results in the “undoing” of the person.
Puritans distinguished between the covenant of grace and the covenant of works. The covenant of grace was God's covenant to send his Holy Spirit into the world to restore people to a proper relationship with God. This was not dependent on human behavior; it was a legally binding promise that God made to mankind. The covenant of works was God's promise to reward those who were obedient to him with eternal life. This covenant led people in Puritan society to believe that good works were necessary for their eternal salvation.
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