Why the Puritans Didn't Like the Roman Catholic Church

by David Kenneth

The Puritans were religious dissenters in England who thought the Anglican Church needed purification. To Puritans, Anglicanism was too similar to Catholicism, the religion that the English renounced in 1534. When King James I made it clear that England had no plans to institute religious reforms, Puritans, in 1630, joined the Great Migration to the New World. Once in the American colonies, the group began focusing its attentions on the supposed Catholic threat. Puritans held a serious dislike for Catholicism because of a complex set of historical, political and theological concerns.

Catholic Ceremonies

Puritans thought Catholic religious ceremonies exhibited ostentatious, or vulgar, displays of wealth. Stained-glass windows, statues and crucifixes were common fixtures in Catholic houses of worship. Catholic priests dressed in elaborate vestments, or robes, apparently symbolic of their elite status. Puritans believed simplistic, understated meetinghouses were proper. Ministers in Puritan New England eschewed lavish, colorful vestments for simple, black robes.

Hierarchy

Puritans believed salvation was a matter between the individual and God. The rigid Catholic hierarchy of priests, bishops, archbishops and popes was superfluous, in this thinking. Puritans, always protective of their independence, organized churches on a congregational model in which each individual church held complete autonomy over its members. There were no external authorities to whom to answer in New England. This structure represented a complete renunciation of the once dominant Catholic model.

The French and Irish in America

Once in the American colonies, the Puritans began to perceive threats coming from two groups: French colonists and Irish immigrants. Quebec, a French colony to the north of New England, presented a close, military threat. From 1688 to 1763, the English battled the French in a series of continuous wars across Europe and America. Often employing local Indians, the French battled the colonists throughout the New England frontier. Fear of the French, who were largely Roman Catholic, was so common in Puritan culture, that parents would often scare bad children with tales of horned and devilish Frenchmen that would do them harm. A long history of national animosity colored the relationship between Irish Catholics and Puritans. Many English saw the Irish as immoral and uncivilized. In general, Puritan New England did not tolerate Irish Catholics in the area. One common justification for the explicit prejudice was the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, in which Catholics attempted to bomb the English King and other dignitaries.

Evil Powers

The Catholic Church was, to Puritans, a site of evil that performed the devils work. Catholic priests supposedly possessed supernatural powers. Many considered the Pope, the head of the Catholic Church, to be the anti-Christ, the personification of evil. Known for their independent interpretations of the Christian Bible, Puritans cast Vatican City, home of Catholicism, in the role of Babylon, the city that symbolizes evil and destruction in the last parts of the New Testament.

About the Author

David Kenneth has a Ph.D. in history. His work has been published in "The Journal of Southern History," "The Georgia Historical Quarterly," "The Southern Historian," "The Journal of Mississippi History" and "The Oxford University Companion to American Law." Kenneth has been working as a writer since 1999.

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