Due to religious persecution stemming from the constant struggles between Catholics and Protestants in England, the Puritans traveled to the New World with the hopes of purifying the Church of England from within and establish a model society. In doing so the Puritans had high religious, political, and social aspirations that would lead to the formation of the “Protestant work ethic” as well as a transformation of New England into a haven for learning and Puritan religion. While the Puritans’ religious aspirations would prove to be too strict, their political and social aspirations would achieve profound success and would eventually form the foundation of many American values.
The Calvinistic Puritans held their religious views highly and with a precedent revolving around the idea that their community was a “City on a Hill,” as spoken by John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts, and that they would serve as a beacon to all other people. In Calvinism, at birth a person was chosen either to be saved or condemned to a fiery hell by the grace of God leading to a “covenant of grace” that the Puritans made with God to create this model society in America, where the congregation would be in control and worshippers would be free from outside influence. Each person had a personal calling from God and the elect, or already saved, were “visible saints” that worked hard to maintain this “covenant of grace” through hard work and moderation so that they could receive a conversion, a sign from God that they were to be saved.
The Puritans’ political aspirations were uniquely autonomous and straightforward. They believed that the purpose of government was to enforce God’s laws, as set in the Bible, and to ensure that officials would safeguard religious doctrine. This government expected obedience and had an ideology of control, which tolerated little diversity and demanded that the community be held more important than a single individual. However, male members of the church were free to vote and make laws and while the system was not a democracy, it was much more egalitarian than England or most of the world at the time. This early democratic spirit is exemplified in the town meeting, where male church members were free to speak and vote on government matters and what Thomas Jefferson considered, “The best school of political liberty the world ever saw.” To combat clerical corruption and pluralism, ministers were not allowed to hold public office and there was a definite separation of church and state, which later provided the American ideal of separation of church and state.
The demand for government obedience (and thus to God) would eventually be challenged by dissenters such as Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, who threatened to spread doubt and to undermine the community. Roger Williams argued against allowing church officials into peoples’ conversion experience and the Puritans’ aggressive nature towards the Indians. Anne Hutchinson held the dangerous ideals of antinomianism, which argued that the elect need not obey the laws of man, and which culminated in a fiery trial in 1638 lasting multiple days. Both dissenters were banished and Anne Hutchinson was slaughtered by Indians, thereby preserving the eminence of the government and keeping the faith of the people. Here the Puritans were able to prove the importance of obedience and holding the community above oneself.
Puritan social aspirations revolved around moderation, a rigorous work ethic, and a close-knit community. Ralph Barton Perry described the Puritan as a “moral athlete,” a term stemming from the amount of work needed to maintain a covenant with God. A Puritan was responsible for his own salvation and this led to an almost individualistic society working tirelessly to achieve grace in the eyes of God. Community and town members practiced “holy watching” in order to make sure other members remained holy and honest.
Education was vital in all of these communities, as it allowed them to read the scriptures and further understand God. This educational fervor led to the founding of the first American college, Harvard, in 1636 to educate boy for the ministry and the Massachusetts code of 1648 requiring towns with at least fifty families to have a school.
While the Puritans watched one another, they did not prevent or inhibit enjoyment. Anything could be done in moderation, and was, whether it pertained to sex, drinking, or lotteries. In his article, “Were the Puritans Puritanical?” Carl Degler provides a light on the subject referring to the fact that pregnant prides were not common and that there were many cases of rape and adultery in the New England colonies. Furthermore, he writes that that the ministers of Boston, “found no difficulty in condoning public lotteries,” which signified that even gambling was allowed in moderation. Degler includes a quote from Cotton Mather stating, “The wine is from God but the drunkard is from the Devil,” warning that only excess drinking was intolerable. Art, music, and fashion, Degler writes, were never a problem to the Puritans as long as it was not intrusive or it was, “performed outside the church.
Unfortunately, the often strict religious code of the Puritans proved to be too difficult for the second generation, leading to a decline of baptisms, and thus, less children going to heaven. Therefore the half-way covenant was introduced in 1662, proclaiming that if one was merely baptized then the children could be baptized and so on. While this helped to stave off declining church participation, it was a compromise of Puritans values, made clearer by the loss of distinction between condemned church members and the elect, and ultimately signaled the decline of the Puritan religious aspirations.
The Puritans were an ambitious group, escaping to America and establishing the New England colonies in order to create a Utopian society of sorts. Led by leaders such as John Winthrop, they set high standards for their Calvinistic views, high aspirations for a new governmental system, and new ideas for social communities. With the introduction of the half-way covenant it would become evident that Puritan religious aspirations failed, but as evidenced by the longevity of congregational schools such as Harvard and the hard-working democratic individualism of the American spirit today, the Puritans’ social and political aspirations were largely successful.
Degler, Carl. “Were the Puritans Puritanical?”. in Out of Our Past: The Forces That Shaped Modern America,:HarperCollins Publishers. 1970.
Kennedy, David M. and Thomas Bailey and Lizabeth Cohen. The American Pageant. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1998.