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People & Ideas: The Puritans
Like the Pilgrims, the Puritans were English Protestants who believed that the reforms of the Church of England did not go far enough. In their view, the liturgy was still too Catholic. Bishops lived like princes. Ecclesiastical courts were corrupt. Because the king of England was head of both church and state, the Puritans' opposition to religious authority meant they also defied the civil authority of the state.
In 1630, the Puritans set sail for America. Unlike the Pilgrims who had left 10 years earlier, the Puritans did not break with the Church of England, but instead sought to reform it. Seeking comfort and reassurance in the Bible, they imagined themselves re-enacting the story of the Exodus. Like the ancient Israelites, they were liberated by God from oppression and bound to him by a covenant; like the Israelites, they were chosen by God to fulfill a special role in human history: to establish a new, pure Christian commonwealth. Onboard the flagship Arbella, their leader John Winthrop reminded them of their duties and obligations under the covenant. If they honored their obligations to God, they would be blessed; if they failed, they would be punished.
Arriving in New England, the Puritans established the Massachusetts Bay Colony in a town they named Boston. Life was hard, but in this stern and unforgiving place they were free to worship as they chose. The Bible was central to their worship. Their church services were simple. The organ and all musical instruments were forbidden. Puritans sang psalms a cappella.
The Puritans were strict Calvinists, or followers of the reformer John Calvin. Calvin taught that God was all-powerful and completely sovereign. Human beings were depraved sinners. God had chosen a few people, "the elect," for salvation. The rest of humanity was condemned to eternal damnation. But no one really knew if he or she was saved or damned; Puritans lived in a constant state of spiritual anxiety, searching for signs of God's favor or anger. The experience of conversion was considered an important sign that an individual had been saved.
Salvation did not depend on outward behavior, but on a radical undertaking that demanded each individual to plumb the very depths of his heart and soul. This "Covenant of Grace" contrasted with the "Covenant of Works," which stressed the importance of righteous behavior. Faith, not works, was the key to salvation. The experience of conversion did not happen suddenly; it proceeded in fits and starts punctuated by doubt, as divine power worked its way on fragile human material.
But it was not only individual salvation that mattered; the spiritual health and welfare of the community as a whole was paramount as well, for it was the community that honored and kept the covenant. The integrity of the community demanded religious conformity. Dissent was tolerated, but only within strict limits.
John Winthrop understood that people were bound to disagree and was willing to tolerate a range of opinion and belief. But he also recognized that if dissent were not kept within bounds, it would undermine the community. And that is precisely what happened. Two members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, challenged the religious authority of the Puritan commonwealth and threatened to destroy Winthrop's vision of "a city upon a hill."
The colony survived, but over time its religious fervor diminished. Scholars disagree about when and why this happened. The Puritans themselves found it difficult to maintain a society in a state of creative uncertainty. In 1679, a Puritan synod met to deliberate the causes of widespread spiritual malaise. Blame was assigned to an increase in swearing; a tendency to sleep at sermons; the spread of sex and alcohol, especially in taverns, where women were known to bare their arms and, upon occasion, even their breasts; and, most telling, the marked increase in lying and lawsuits.
Published October 11, 2010
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