Puritans

A religious reform movement in the 16th and 17th centuries that aimed to “purify” the Church of England of Roman Catholic practices.


Puritanism was a significant movement within Protestant Christianity that emerged during the late 16th and 17th centuries, primarily in England. The Puritans sought to reform the Church of England, aiming to purge it of what they considered Roman Catholic remnants. This drive for reform was grounded in a desire for a more ‘pure’ form of worship and doctrine, along with a personal and collective piety.

Origins and Development in England

The Puritan movement can be traced back to the English Reformation, which began when King Henry VIII separated the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church. Under successive reigns, particularly those of Edward VI and Mary I, England oscillated between Protestantism and Catholicism, with the Puritans often facing opposition and persecution. This period saw a growing dissatisfaction among Puritans with the limited extent of the English Reformation and the Church of England’s toleration of practices associated with Roman Catholicism.

Puritans were known for their strict adherence to the Calvinist doctrine, especially the belief in predestination, and they placed great emphasis on a covenant relationship with God. They sought a complete overhaul of the Church of England to align it more closely with their interpretation of the Bible and their Calvinist theology.

Puritanism in America

In the 1620s and 1630s, facing increasing hostility in England, many Puritans migrated to the New World, particularly to the Northern English colonies. They established communities where they could practice their religion freely and laid the foundation for the religious, intellectual, and social order of New England. Puritan migration was largely family-based, contributing to a high literacy rate and a deep devotional life within these communities.

In America, Puritans established an ecclesiastical order that mirrored the intolerance they had fled from in England. However, they also contained within themselves the seeds of fragmentation, which led to the emergence of various dissident groups, such as Quakers, Antinomians, and Baptists.

Impact and Legacy

Puritanism significantly influenced both English and early American history. Although the Puritan movement in England changed radically after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and the Uniformity Act of 1662, with many Puritans continuing their faith in nonconformist denominations, its impact in New England was more enduring.

The movement’s ideals, such as the rejection of Roman Catholicism and an emphasis on individual piety and community, were woven into the fabric of American life. The Congregational churches, which are part of the Reformed tradition, are direct descendants of the Puritans.

Puritanism’s influence extended beyond the religious sphere, impacting American social ethics, particularly those of self-reliance, moral rigor, and political localism. These qualities became intrinsic to American identity, especially during the Age of Enlightenment.