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The Puritans were originally members of a group of English Protestants seeking "purity" — further reforms from the established church — during the Protestant Reformation, though many later sought separation from the church.


Originally used to describe a third-century sect of rigorist heretics, the word "Puritan" is now applied unevenly to a number of Protestant churches from the late 16th century to the present. Puritans did not originally, by and large, use the term for themselves. It was a term of abuse that first surfaced in the 1560s. Recusants, Precisemen, and Precisions were other early antagonistic terms for Puritans who preferred to call themselves "the godly." The word "Puritan" was thus always a descriptor of a type of religious belief, rather than a particular religious sect. To reflect that the term encompasses a variety of ecclesiastical bodies and theological positions, scholars today increasingly prefer to use the term as a common noun or adjective: "puritan" rather than "Puritan."

The single theological momentum most consistently self-centered by the term "Puritan" was Reformed or Calvinist and led to the founding of the Presbyterian, Baptist, and Congregationalist churches. The term was used by the group itself mainly in the sixteenth century, though it seems to have been used often and, in its earliest recorded instances, as a term of abuse. By the middle of the 17th century, the group had become so divided that "Puritan" was most often used by opponents and detractors of the group, rather than by the practitioners themselves. As Patrick Collinson has noted, well before the founding of the New England settlement “Puritanism had no content beyond what was attributed to it by its opponents.” The practitioners knew themselves as members of particular churches or movements, and not by the simple term.


1559 to 1625

Puritanism seems to have risen out of discontent with the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, which was felt by the more radical Protestants to be giving in to "Popery" (i.e., the Catholic Church). While Protestant movements in Europe were driven by issues of theology and had broken radically with Catholic models of church organization, the English Reformation had brought the Church under control of the monarchy while leaving many of its religious practices intact. In the eyes of the Puritans, doctrine had been made unacceptably subservient to politics. Persecuted under Mary I of England ("Bloody Mary"), Protestants like Thomas Cartwright, Walter Travers and Andrew Melville had gone into exile as Puritans in Europe, where they came into close contact with the magisterial reformers in Calvinist Geneva and Lutheran Germany. These contacts shaped their position towards Elizabeth's religious via media (middle way).

Although all influenced by Calvinism, Puritans were not united on every issue. This reflects the origins of the movement, which developed through several phases. They shared a belief that all existing churches had become corrupted by practice, by contact with pagan civilizations (particularly that of Rome), and by the impositions of kings and popes. They all argued for a restructuring and "purifying" of church practice through biblical supremacy and shared, to one degree or another, a belief in the priesthood of all believers. However, they differed from one other on issues of church polity (organization of church power).

Because the puritans were simply the informed, committed and relatively radical Protestants, they wanted the Church of England to resemble more closely the Protestant churches of Europe, especially the church of Geneva. Puritans objected to ornaments and ritual in churches (vestments, musical organs, genuflection) as idolatrous, denouncing them as "popish pomp and rags." (See Vestments controversy.) They also objected to ecclesiastical courts. They refused to endorse completely all of the ritual directions and formulas of the Book of Common Prayer; the imposition of its liturgical order by legal force and inspection sharpened Puritanism into a definite opposition movement.

By the 1570s, Puritans were arguing for a Presbyterian model or a Congregationalist model, but all were outspoken in their criticism of the structure and liturgy that the monarchy required. Attempts by the bishops of the Church of England to enforce uniformity of usage in the Book of Common Prayer turned the episcopal hierarchy into a specific target of their grievances. Tracts such as the Martin Marprelate series lampooned the government and the church hierarchs.

The issue of church hierarchy was difficult, and Elizabeth sponsored Richard Hooker to write Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity to counter Presbyterian arguments. Hooker writes in direct refutation of the "brothers of the Geneva Church," outlining a via media for the English church that, rather than eliminating doctrine, offered a set of specifically ordained rules. His thinking on the matter became the backbone of the Anglican Church and would later be put to use by Archbishop William Laud.

These radicals were looked down on by the dominant faction in the Church of England and were given the name "Puritan", in mockery of the radicals' apparent obsession with "purifying" the Church.

Contemporarily with the English Reformation, the Church of Scotland had been reformed on a Calvinist Presbyterian model which many Puritans hoped to extend to England. When James VI of Scotland became James I of England, he appointed several known Puritans to powerful positions within the Church of England and checked the rise in power of William Laud. Nevertheless, he was not a Puritan and regarded them with great suspicion, viewing the Puritan movement as potentially dangerous to the royal control of the Church. He authorized the King James Bible in part to reinforce Anglican orthodoxy against the Geneva Bible. Popular among Puritans, the Geneva Bible had anti-royalist translations and interpolated revolutionary notes. Luther had called for vernacular Bible translations and church services; for the Puritans, who believed in biblical supremacy, having an English-language Bible was of paramount importance.

Each new round of political disappointments during this period faced each individual Puritan and the Puritan congregations with a new crisis. The question was whether they should continue in outward conformity with a distasteful religious regime, or should they take the separatist and illegal step of withdrawal from the state church? Each fresh controversy led to a new round of schisms, and, as such, the groundwork was set for the eventual heirs of Puritanism, from the "low-church" Protestant and Evangelical wing of the Church of England, to the various dissenting sects.

1625 to 1660

During the reign of Charles I, a committed High Churchman, relations soured and it is generally held among historians that religious tensions created by the dominance of the Laudian faction during the Personal Rule were a major factor in the outbreak of the English Civil War. Puritans certainly agitated against the king, and reform of the religion was a rallying cry for the Parliamentary forces. However, Puritanism by this point had become not merely a religion, but a cultural entity.

By this time, Puritans were more often referred to as Dissenters. Since English Dissenters were barred from any profession that required official religious conformity, Puritans became instrumental in a number of new industries. They dominated the export/import business and were eager to colonize the New World. With the flourishing of the trans-Atlantic trade with America, Puritans in England were growing quite wealthy. Similarly, the artisan classes had become increasingly Puritan. Therefore, the economic issues of the Civil War (tax levies, liberalization of royal charters), the political issues of the Civil War (purchasing of peerages, increasing discontent between the House of Lords and the people, rebellion over the attempt to introduce a Divine right of kings to Charles I), and the religious tensions were all bound together into a general dispute that pitted Church of England Cavaliers against Puritan Roundheads.

Puritan factions played a key role in the Parliamentarian victory and became a majority in Parliament, while Puritan military leader Oliver Cromwell became head of the English Commonwealth. In the Commonwealth period, the Church of England was removed from royal control and reorganized to grant greater authority to local congregations, most of which developed in a Puritan and semi-Calvinist direction. There was never an official Puritan denomination; the Commonwealth government tolerated a somewhat broader debate on doctrinal issues than had previously been possible, and considerable theological and political conflict between Puritan factions continued throughout this period. The label "Puritan" fell out of use when their movement became the status quo; it was replaced by the broader term Nonconformist, which was used after the English Restoration to refer to all Protestant denominations outside of the official Church. The pejorative name "Dissenter" (for non-Conforming Protestants, as opposed to Catholics) was also used.

From 1660 to present day

The influence of the Puritan movement persisted in England in various forms. Puritan beliefs were maintained under the persecution of the 1662 Act of Uniformity by the English Dissenters. The Puritan experience also motivated the later Latitudinarian and Evangelical trends in the Church of England. Meanwhile, in Europe, in the 17th and 18th century, a movement within Lutheranism based on puritan ideology became a strong religious force known as pietism. In the United States, the Puritan settlement of New England was a major influence on American Protestantism.

The Puritan settlers of North America were one branch of dissenters who decided that the Church of England was beyond reform. Escaping persecution from church leadership and the King, some went to America. Most of the Puritans settled in the New England area. As they immigrated and formed individual colonies, their numbers rose from 17,800 in 1640 to 106,000 in 1700. [1]

Some modern Presbyterian denominations are descended, at least in part, from the Puritans, for example the Presbyterian Church (USA), though others pre-date the English influence.

Congregational Churches also trace their lineage back to the Puritans. One example is the Congregational Christian Churches denomination in the United States (which merged with the Evangelical and Reformed Church in 1957 to form the United Church of Christ.) The CCC is the direct descendant of New England Puritan congregations, although in the early 19th century a few of these old congregations adopted Unitarianism. Another example is the United Reformed Church in England and Wales.[1]

A number of contemporary Unitarian congregations also trace their roots back to English and New England Puritan congregations.

Various Baptist denominations also grew in strength in England during the Commonwealth. During this period, the Religious Society of Friends (popularly known as "Quakers") was founded and grew remarkably in strength, though the theology of the Society of Friends is radically different from that of Puritanism (for example, they rejected the doctrine of predestination), and can be seen as a reaction against Calvinist belief in a period of religious upheaval. This period of religious upheaval also saw the appearance of more radical sects, such as the Diggers (Christian communists) and the allegedly antinomian Ranters.


The central tenet of Puritanism was God's supreme authority over human affairs, particularly in the church, and especially as expressed in the Bible. This view led them to seek both individual and corporate conformance to the teaching of the Bible, and it led them to pursue both moral purity down to the smallest detail as well as ecclesiastical purity to the highest level.

On the individual level, the Puritans emphasized that each person should be continually reformed by the grace of God to fight against indwelling sin and do what is right before God. A humble and obedient life would arise for every Christian.

The Puritans tended to admire the early church fathers and quoted them liberally in their works. In addition to arming the Puritans to fight against later developments of the Roman Catholic tradition, these studies also led to the rediscovery of some ancient scruples. Chrysostom, a favorite of the Puritans, spoke eloquently against drama and other worldly endeavors, and the Puritans adopted his view when decrying what they saw as the decadent culture of England, famous at that time for its plays and bawdy London. The Pilgrims (the separatist, congregationalist Puritans who went to North America) are likewise famous for banning from their New England colonies many secular entertainments, such as games of chance, maypoles, and drama, all of which were perceived as kinds of immorality.

At the level of the church body, the Puritans believed that the worship of the church ought to be strictly regulated by what is commanded in the Bible (known as the regulative principle of worship). The Puritans condemned as idolatry many worship practices regardless of the practices' antiquity or widespread adoption among Christians, which their opponents defended with tradition. Like some of Reformed churches on the European continent, Puritan reforms were typified by a minimum of ritual and decoration and by an unambiguous emphasis on preaching. Like the early church fathers they eliminated the use of musical instruments in their worship services, for various theological and practical reasons. Outside of church however Puritans were quite fond of music and encouraged it in certain ways.

Another important distinction was the Puritan approach to church-state relations. They opposed the Anglican idea of the supremacy of the monarch in the church (Erastianism), and following Calvin they argued that the only head of the Church in heaven or earth is Christ (not the Pope or Archbishop of Canterbury). However, they believed that secular governors are accountable to God (not through the church, but alongside it) to protect and reward virtue, including "true religion", and to punish wrongdoers — a policy that is best described as non-interference rather than separation of church and state. The separating Congregationalists, a segment of the Puritan movement more radical than the Anglican Puritans, believed the Divine Right of Kings was heresy, a belief that became more pronounced during the reign of Charles I of England.

Other notable beliefs include:

  • An emphasis on private study of the Bible
  • A desire to see education and enlightenment for the masses (especially so they could read the Bible for themselves)
  • The priesthood of all believers
  • Perception of the Pope as an Antichrist
  • Simplicity in worship, the exclusion of vestments, images, candles, etc.
  • Some approved of the church hierarchy, but others sought to reform the episcopal churches on the presbyterian model. Some separatist Puritans were presbyterian, but most were congregationalists.

In addition to promoting lay education, it was important to the Puritans to have knowledgeable, educated pastors, who could read the Bible in its original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, as well as ancient and modern church tradition and scholarly works, which were most commonly written in Latin, and so most of their divines undertook rigorous studies at the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge before seeking ordination. Diversions for the educated included discussing the Bible and its practical applications as well as reading the classics such as Cicero, Virgil, and Ovid. They also encouraged the composition of poetry that was of a religious nature, though they eschewed religious-erotic poetry except for the Song of Solomon, which they considered magnificent poetry, without error, regulative for their sexual pleasure, and, especially, as an allegory of Christ and the Church.

In modern usage, the word puritan is often used as an informal pejorative for someone who has strict views on sexual morality, disapproves of recreation, and wishes to impose these beliefs on others. None of these qualities were unique to Puritanism or universally characteristic of the Puritans themselves, whose moral views and ascetic tendencies were no more extreme than many other Protestant reformers of their time, and who were relatively tolerant of other faiths — at least in England. The popular image is slightly more accurate as a description of Puritans in colonial America, who were among the most radical Puritans and whose social experiment took the form of a Calvinist theocracy.


Some suggested that it is a "Puritan spirit" in the United States' political culture that create a tendency to oppose things such as alcohol and open sexuality. Historically speaking, the Puritans were not at all opposed to drinking alcohol in moderation[2] or to enjoying their sexuality within the bounds of marriage as a gift from God, though they did publicly punish drunkenness and sexual relations outside of marriage.

Alexis de Tocqueville suggested in Democracy in America that the Pilgrims' Puritanism was the very thing that provided a firm foundation for American democracy, and in his view, these Puritans were hard-working, egalitarian, and studious. The theme of a religious basis of economic discipline is echoed in sociologist Max Weber's work, but both de Toqueville and Weber argued that this discipline was, not a force of economic determinism, but one factor among many that should be considered when evaluating the relative economic success of the Puritans. In Hellfire Nation, James A. Morone suggests that some opposing tendencies within Puritanism—its desire to create a just society and its moral fervor in bringing about that just society, which sometimes created paranoia and intolerance for other views—were all at the root of America's current political landscape.


In the United States, "Puritan" has not always been the only acceptable spelling. Through the twentieth century, "Puritain" was an acceptable alternative spelling in British English. During the seventeenth and eighteenth century in England, the word was spelled both with and without the second i. "Puritain" was more common in the sixteenth century. The word derives from "purity" in English, and the third syllable formation can be justifiably spelled -ain or -an, depending upon which language one derives "dweller"/"practitioner" from.

See also

  • List of Puritans


  1. The modern URC also has congregations in Scotland, but its southern components—the Congregational Church in England and Wales and the Presbyterian Church in England—partly descend from Restoration Dissenters.
  2. Jim West, Drinking with Calvin and Luther!, Oakdown Books, 2003 (ISBN 0-9700326-0-9), pp. 68ff

Further reading

  • Beeke, Joel, Puritan Reformed Spirituality
  • Bozeman, Theodore Dwight, To Live Ancient Lives: The Primitivist Dimension in Puritanism
  • Bozeman, Theodore Dwight, The Precisionist Strain: Disciplinary Religion and the Antinomian Backlash in Puritanism to 1638
  • Brachlow, Stephen, The Communion of Saints: Radical Puritan and Separatist Ecclesiology, 1750-1625
  • Bremer, Francis J., John Winthrop: America's Forgotten Founding Father
  • Collinson, Patrick, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement
  • Collinson, Patrick, Godly People
  • Collinson, Patrick, Religion of Protestants
  • Foster, Stephen, The Long Argument
  • Haigh, Christopher, English Reformations: Religion, Politics, and Society under the Tudors
  • Haigh, Christopher, "The Continuity of Catholicism in the English Reformation," in Past and Present, No. 93. (Nov., 1981), pp. 37-69.
  • Hall, David D., Puritans in the New World: A Critical Anthology
  • Hall, David D., Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England
  • Kizer, Kay. "Puritans"
  • Lake, Peter, Moderate Puritans and the Elizabethan Church
  • Lake, Peter, “Defining Puritanism—again?” in Bremer, Francis J., ed., Puritanism: Transatlantic Perspectives
  • Lewis, Peter, The Genius of Puritanism
  • Ryken, Leland, Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were
  • Tyacke, Nicholas, Anti-Calvinists: The Rise of English Arminianism
  • Underdown, David, Fire From Heaven
  • Morgan, Edmund S., The Puritan Family
  • Miller, Perry, The American Puritans: Their Prose and Poetry
  • Packer, J.I., A Quest For Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life
  • Larousse Dictionary of Beliefs and Religions
  • Oxford Dictionary of World Religions

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Puritanism. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.