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The roots of Puritanism are to be found in the beginnings of the English Reformation. The name “Puritans” (they were sometimes called.
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Puritanism may be defined primarily by the intensity of the religious experience that it fostered. Calvinist theology and polity proved to be major influences in the formation of Puritan teachings. Still, because of the importance of preaching, the Puritans placed a premium on a learned ministry. During the reign of Queen Mary —58 , however, England returned to Roman Catholicism, and many Protestants were forced into exile. Many of these Puritans—as they came to be known during a controversy over vestments in the s—sought parliamentary support for an effort to institute a presbyterian form of polity for the Church of England.

Both groups, but especially the Separatists , were repressed by the establishment. Denied the opportunity to reform the established church , English Puritanism turned to preaching, pamphlets, and a variety of experiments in religious expression and in social behaviour and organization. Its successful growth also owed much to patrons among the nobility and in Parliament and its control of colleges and professorships at Oxford and Cambridge.

Some were deprived of their positions; others got by with minimal conformity; and still others, who could not accept compromise, fled England. The pressure for conformity increased under Charles I —49 and his archbishop, William Laud. Nevertheless, the Puritan spirit continued to spread, and when civil war broke out between Parliament and Charles in the s, Puritans seized the opportunity to urge Parliament and the nation to renew its covenant with God. Parliament called together a body of clergy to advise it on the government of the church, but this body—the Westminster Assembly —was so badly divided that it failed to achieve reform of church government and discipline.

Meanwhile, the New Model Army , which had defeated the royalist forces, feared that the Assembly and Parliament would reach a compromise with King Charles that would destroy their gains for Puritanism, so it seized power and turned it over to its hero, Oliver Cromwell. A number of radical Puritan groups appeared, including the Levelers , the Diggers , the Fifth Monarchy Men , and the Quakers the only one of lasting significance.

Thus, English Puritanism entered a period known as the Great Persecution. The Puritan ideal of realizing the Holy Commonwealth by the establishment of a covenanted community was carried to the American colony of Virginia by Thomas Dale, but the greatest opportunity came in New England.

The New England Puritans fashioned the civil commonwealth according to the framework of the church. Only the elect could vote and rule. When this raised problems for second-generation residents, they adopted the Half-Way Covenant , which permitted baptized , moral, and orthodox persons to share the privileges of church membership. We welcome suggested improvements to any of our articles. You can make it easier for us to review and, hopefully, publish your contribution by keeping a few points in mind. Your contribution may be further edited by our staff, and its publication is subject to our final approval.

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Story of the Church - The English Puritans

Learn More in these related Britannica articles: The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, like the Pilgrims, sailed to America principally to free themselves from religious restraints. In the 18th century Puritan leaders continued the struggle against slavery as an institution. The roots of Puritanism are to be found in the beginnings of the English Reformation. Although the epithet first emerged in the s, the process through which Puritanism developed had been initiated in the s, when King Henry VIII repudiated papal authority and transformed the Church of Rome into a state Church of England.

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But the Church of England retained much of the liturgy and ritual of Roman Catholicism and seemed, to many dissenters, to be insufficiently reformed. Well into the sixteenth century many priests were barely literate and often very poor. Employment by more than one parish was common, and the resulting itinerancy of priests, along with their immunity to certain penalties of the civil law, fed anticlerical hostility and contributed to their isolation from the spiritual needs of the people. Through the reigns of the Protestant King Edward VI , who introduced the first vernacular prayer book, and the Catholic Queen Mary , who sent some dissenting clergymen to their deaths and others into exile, the Puritan movement—whether tolerated or suppressed—continued to grow.


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Some Puritans favored a presbyterian form of church organization; others, more radical, began to claim autonomy for individual congregations. Still others were content to remain within the structure of the national church, but set themselves against the doctrinal and liturgical vestiges of Catholic tradition, especially the vestments that symbolized episcopal authority. As they gained strength, Puritans were portrayed by their enemies as hairsplitters who slavishly followed their Bibles as guides to daily life; or they were caricatured as licentious hypocrites who adopted a grave aspect but cheated the very neighbors whom they judged inadequate Christians.

They appeared in drama and satire as secretly lascivious purveyors of feigned piety. Yet the Puritan attack on the established church gained popular strength, especially in East Anglia and among the lawyers and merchants of London.

By Dr. J.I. Packer

The movement found wide support among these new professional classes, in part because it was congenial to their growing discontent with mercantile economic restraints. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I , an uneasy peace prevailed within English religious life, but the struggle over the tone and purpose of the church continued.

Many men and women were more and more forced to contend with the dislocations—emotional as well as physical—that accompanied the beginnings of a market economy. Subsistence farmers were called upon to enter the world of production for profit. Under the rule of primogeniture, younger sons tended to enter the professions especially the law with increasing frequency and seek their livelihood in the burgeoning cities.

With the growth of a continental market for wool, land enclosure for sheep farming became an attractive alternative for large landowners, who thereby disrupted centuries-old patterns of rural communal life. The English countryside was plagued by scavengers, highwaymen, and vagabonds—a newly visible class of the poor who strained the ancient charity laws and pressed upon the townsfolk new questions of social responsibility. One such faction was a group of separatist believers in the Yorkshire village of Scrooby, who, fearing for their safety, moved to Holland in and thence, in , to the place they called Plymouth in New England.

A decade later, a larger, better-financed group, mostly from East Anglia, migrated to Massachusetts Bay. But in practice they acted—from the point of view of Episcopalians and even Presbyterians at home—exactly as the separatists were acting. By the s their enterprise at Massachusetts Bay had grown to about ten thousand persons, and through the inevitable centrifugal pressures of land scarcity within the borders of the swelling towns, ecclesiastical quarreling, and sheer restlessness of spirit, they had outgrown the bounds of the original settlement and spread into what would become Connecticut , New Hampshire , Rhode Island , and Maine , and eventually beyond the limits of New England.

The Puritan migration was overwhelmingly a migration of families unlike other migrations to early America, which were composed largely of young unattached men. The literacy rate was high, and the intensity of devotional life, as recorded in the many surviving diaries, sermon notes, poems, and letters, was seldom to be matched in American life.

The Example of the English Puritans - by Erroll Hulse

Yet, as a loosely confederated collection of gathered churches, Puritanism contained within itself the seed of its own fragmentation. Following hard upon the arrival in New England, dissident groups within the Puritan sect began to proliferate— Quakers , Antinomians, Baptists—fierce believers who carried the essential Puritan idea of the aloneness of each believer with an inscrutable God so far that even the ministry became an obstruction to faith. These sorts of disputes—which have a certain inevitability in any community where the quality of true faith is the only value worth disputing—make the history of American Puritanism seem a story of family rancor and, ultimately, of disintegration.

But Puritanism as a basic attitude was remarkably durable and can hardly be overestimated as a formative element of early American life. Among its intellectual contributions was a psychological empiricism that has rarely, if ever, been exceeded in categorical subtlety. It furnished Americans with a sense of history as a progressive drama under the direction of God, in which they played a role akin to, if not prophetically aligned with, that of the Old Testament Jews as a new chosen people.

Perhaps most important, as Max Weber profoundly understood, was the strength of Puritanism as a way of coping with the contradictory requirements of Christian ethics in a world on the verge of modernity.

The Protestant Reformation

It supplied an ethics that somehow balanced the injunction to charity and the premium on self-discipline; it counseled moderation within a psychology that virtually ensured exertion toward worldly prosperity as the best sign of divine favor. Such an ethics was particularly urgent in a New World where opportunity can be as obvious as the source of moral authority is obscure. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, Puritanism had both declined and shown its tenacity. But if we regard Puritanism as a way of seeing the world, as an excruciating but exquisite program of self-scrutiny by which the stirrings of grace might be acknowledged and the divinely sanctioned energies of the soul put to use—in both benevolent and violently destructive ways—then we must account it the dominant spiritual regimen of early America.