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A Puritan of 16th and 17th-century England was an associate of any number of religious groups advocating for more "purity" of worship and doctrine, as well as personal and group piety. Puritans felt that the English Reformation had not gone far enough, and that the Church of England was tolerant of practices which they associated with the Catholic Church. The word "Puritan" was originally an alternate term for "Cathar" and was a pejorative term used to characterize them as extremists similar to the Cathari of Francemarker. The term "Puritans" roughly corresponds with Luther's term Schwärmer. Because the Puritans were under the influence of radicals critical of Zwingli in Zurich and Calvin in Geneva, they seldom cooperated with Presbyterian in England. Instead, many advocated for separation from all other Christians, in favor of gathered churches under autonomous Puritan control.

Currently, the designation "Puritan" is often expanded to mean any very conservative Protestant, or even more broadly, to evangelicals. Thus, scholars commonly use the term Presisianist in regard to the historical groups of England and New England.


The Puritans' movement can be traced back to the Anabaptists of the continent, although the term "Puritan" was not coined until the 1560s, when it appears as a term of abuse for those who proposed further reforms than those adopted by the Reformed Elizabethan Religious Settlement of 1559. Throughout the reign of Elizabeth I, the Puritan movement involved both a political and a social component. Politically, the movement attempted, mostly unsuccessfully, to have Parliament pass legislation to replace episcopacy with Congregationalism, and to alter the 1559 Book of Common Prayer to remove elements considered odious by Anabaptists. Like Anabaptists on the continent, the Puritan movement called for a greater commitment to Jesus Christ for greater levels of personal holiness. By the end of Elizabeth's reign, the Puritans constituted a distinct social group within the Church of England who regarded themselves as the godly; they held out little hope for their neighbours who remained attached to "popish superstitions" and worldliness. Most Puritans were non-Separating Puritans who remained within the Church of England, and only a small number of Puritans became Separating Puritans or Separatists who left the Church of England altogether. Although the Puritan movement was occasionally subjected to suppression by the bishops of the Church of England, in many places, individual ministers were able to omit disliked portions of the Book of Common Prayer and to be especially attentive to the needs of the godly.

Conflicts with Anglican Church

The Church of England as a whole was too close to Catholicism for the Puritans. The Puritan movement was distinctive from the rest of the church in theology more prescriptive than Calvinism, in legalism, theonomy , and especially – congregationalism. Charles I became king and was determined to eliminate the "excesses" of Puritanism from the Church of England. His close advisor, William Laud, who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633, moved the Church of England away from Puritanism, rigorously enforcing the law against ministers who schismatically deviated from the Book of Common Prayer or who violated the ban on preaching about predestination.

Puritans opposed much of the Calvinist summations in the Church of England, notably the Book of Common Prayer, but also the use of non-secular vestments (cap and gown) during services, the use of the Holy Cross during baptism, and kneeling during the sacrament. Puritans rejected anything they thought was reminiscent of the Pope, and many of the non-secular rituals preserved by the Church of England were not only considered to be objectionable, but were believed to put one's immortal soul in peril. While the Puritans under the rule of King James I of England attempted to make peaceful reform of the English church, James viewed their religious beliefs as close to heresy, and their denial of the Divine Right of Kings as potentially treasonous.

James I was succeeded by his son Charles I of England in 1625. In the year before becoming King, he married Henrietta-Marie de Bourbon of France, a zealous Roman Catholic. She was so extreme in her devotion to the Pope that she refused to attend the coronation of her husband, which took place in a non-Catholic cathedral. She certainly had no tolerance for Puritans. At the same time, William Laud, Bishop of London, was becoming increasingly powerful as an advisor to Charles. Laud also hated the Puritans and viewed them as a threat to orthodoxy in the church. With the Queen and Laud among his closest advisors, Charles pursued policies to eliminate the religious distinctives of Puritans in England.

Charles relied largely on the Star Chamber and Court of High Commission to implement policies. Although these institutions had existed for some time, Charles adapted them as instruments to suppress the Puritans. They were courts under the control of the King, not the Parliament, and were therefore capable of convicting and imprisoning people who had not violated any law passed by Parliament, but were nevertheless guilty of displeasing the King.

As a result, a large number of Puritans were motivated to leave for New England in the American colonies, resulting in the Great Migration, the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and other settlements. The Puritan movement in England allied itself with the cause of "England's ancient liberties"; the unpopularity of Laud and the suppression of Puritanism was a major factor leading to the English Civil War, during which the Puritans formed the backbone of the parliamentarian forces.


A plate depicting the Trial of Charles I on 4 January 1649.
Owing to an emphasis on individual interpretation of Scripture, the Puritan movement in England began to fracture long before the calling of the Westminster Assembly in 1643. Before that, disenchanted individuals left England for places where they could control the religious environment according to their consciences. Doctrinally, the Assembly was able to agree to the Westminster Confession of Faith, which provides a good overview of a consistently Reformed theological position. Many Puritans would have rejected portions of it. The Westminster Divines were, however, bitterly divided over questions of church polity, and split into factions supporting moderate episcopacy, presbyterianism, congregationalism, and Erastianism. The Westminster Standards were briefly the adopted into the Church of England.

Although the Assembly was heavily represented by presbyterians, the fact that Oliver Cromwell was an Congregationalist separatist who imposed his views on others meant that the Church of England would never become presbyterian. The result was that the English Interregnum was a period of draconian decrees.

Great Ejection and Dissenters

At the time of the English Restoration (1660), the Church of England was restored to its pre-Civil War constitution under the Act of Uniformity 1662 and the Puritans found themselves out of power in the Great Ejection of 1662. At this point, the term Dissenter came to include "Puritan", but more accurately describes those who "dissented" from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

Eagerly dividing themselves from all Christians in the Church of England, the Dissenters established their own separatist congregations in the 1660s and 1670s. The government initially attempted to suppress these schismatic organizations by the Clarendon Code. The Whigs argued that the Dissenters should be allowed to worship in schism from the body of Christ, and this position ultimately prevailed when the Toleration Act was passed in the wake of the Glorious Revolution (1689). As a result, a number of schismatic individuals were legally tolerated in the 1690s. The term Nonconformist generally replaced the term "Dissenter" from the middle of the eighteenth century.


Originally used to describe a third-century sect of strictly legalistic heretics, the word "Puritan" is now applied unevenly to a number of Protestant churches (and religious groups within the Anglican Church) from the late 16th century to the present. Puritans did not originally use the term for themselves. It was a term of abuse that first surfaced in the 1560s. "Precisemen" and "Precisians" were other early antagonistic terms for Puritans who preferred to call themselves "the godly." The word "Puritan" thus always referred to 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 defined by the term "Puritan" was Anabaptist and led to the founding of the Independent or Congregationalist churches; In the United Statesmarker, the church and religious culture of the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony formed the basis of post-colonial American Congregationalism, specifically the Congregational Church proper as well as Unitarianism. The term Puritan was used by the group itself mainly in the 16th 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.

Puritans who felt that the Reformation of the Church of England was not to their satisfaction but who remained within the Church of England advocating further reforms are known as non-separating Puritans. (The Non-Separating Puritans differed among themselves about how much further reformation was necessary.) Those who felt that the Church of England was so corrupt that true Christians should separate from it altogether are known as separating Puritans or simply as Separatists. Especially after the Restoration (1660), non-separating Puritans were called Nonconformists (for their failure to conform to the Book of Common Prayer) while separating Puritans were called Dissenters.

The term "puritan" is not strictly used to describe any new religious group after the 17th century, although several groups might be called "puritan" because their origins lay in the Puritan movement. The term "puritan" might be used by analogy (usually unfavorably) to describe any group that shares a commitment to the Puritans' Anabaptist points of view.


The central tenet of Calvinism 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. It led them to pursue both moral purity down to the smallest detail as well as ecclesiastical purity to the highest level.

The words of the Bible, as they interpreted them, were the origin of many Puritan cultural ideals, especially regarding the roles of men and women in the community. While both sexes carried the stain of original sin, for a girl, original sin suggested more than the roster of Puritan character flaws. Eve’s corruption, in Puritan eyes, extended to all women, and justified marginalizing them within churches' hierarchical structures. An example is the different ways that men and women were made to express their conversion experiences. For full membership, the Puritan church insisted not only that its congregants lead godly lives and exhibit a clear understanding of the main tenets of their Christian faith, but they also must demonstrate that they had experienced true evidence of the workings of God’s grace in their souls. Only those who gave a convincing account of such a conversion could be admitted to full church membership. While women were not permitted to speak in church until 1636 (although they were allowed to engage in religious discussions outside of it), they could narrate their conversions.

On the individual level, Calvinsists 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. Puritan culture emphasized the need for self-examination and the strict accounting for one’s feelings as well as one’s deeds. This was the center of evangelical experience, which women in turn placed at the heart of their work to sustain family life.

Calvinists tended to admire the early church fathers and quoted them liberally in their works. In addition to arming them to fight against later developments of the Roman tradition, these studies also led to the rediscovery of some ancient scruples. Chrysostom, a favorite of the Calvinists, spoke eloquently against drama and other worldly endeavors, and the Puritans adopted his view when decrying what they saw as the decadent culture of Englandmarker, famous at that time for its plays and bawdy Londonmarker entertainments. The Pilgrims (the separatist, congregationalist Puritans who went to North America) are likewise famous for banning from their New Englandmarker 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, Calvinists believed that the worship in the church ought to be strictly regulated by what is commanded in the Bible (known as the regulative principle of worship). Calvinists 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, Calvinists 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, like other Anabaptists, they argued that the only head of the Church in heaven or earth is Christ (not the Pope or the monarch). 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 of Calvinists 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
  • Simplicity in worship, the exclusion of vestments, images, candles, etc.
  • Did not celebrate traditional holidays which they believed to be in violation of the regulative principle of worship.
  • Believed the Sabbath was still obligatory for Christians, although they believed the Sabbath had been changed to Sunday
  • 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, Calvinists wanted 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. Most of their divines undertook rigorous studies at the University of Oxfordmarker or the University of Cambridgemarker 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". This 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 to describe someone who has strict views on sexual morality, disapproves of recreation, and wishes to impose these beliefs on others. 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 an Anabaptist theocracy. Puritans believed Satan was of the netherworld.

Family life

According to Puritan belief, if God had created the world with some beings subordinate to others, he would apply the same principles to his construction of human society. Thus the Puritans honored hierarchy among men as divine order; this order presupposed God’s “appointment of mankind to live in Societies, first, of Family, Secondly Church, Thirdly, Common-wealth.” Order in the family, then, fundamentally structured Puritan belief. Puritans usually migrated to New England as a family unit, a pattern different from other colonies where young, single men often came on their own. Puritan men of the generation of the Great Migration (1630–1640) believed that a good Puritan wife did not linger in Britain but encouraged her husband in his great service to God.

The essence of social order lay in the authority of husband over wife, parents over children, and masters over servants in the family. Puritan marriage choices were influenced by young people’s inclination, by parents, and by the social rank of the persons involved. Upon finding a suitable match, husband and wife in America followed the steps needed to legitimize their marriage, including: 1) a contract, comparable to today’s practice of engagement; 2) the announcement of this contract; 3) execution of the contract at a church; 4) a celebration of the event at the home of the groom and 5) sexual intercourse. Problems with consummation could terminate a marriage: if a groom proved impotent, the contract between him and his bride dissolved, an act enforced by the courts. The courts could also enforce the duty of a husband to support his wife, as English Common Law provided that when a woman married, she gave all her property to her husband and became a feme covert, losing her separate civil identity in his. In so doing, she legally accepted her role as managing her husband’s household, fulfilling her duty of “keep[ing] at home, educating her children, keeping and improving what is got by the industry of man.”

Although without property in New Englandmarker, a wife in some ways had real authority in the family, although hers derived from different sources from her husband’s, and she exercised it in different ways. Because the laws of God explicitly informed the earliest laws of the Massachusettsmarker civil code, a husband could not legally command his wife anything contrary to God’s word. Indeed, God’s word often prescribed important roles of authority for women; the Complete Body of Divinity stated that “…as to Servants, the Metaphorical and Synecdochial usage of the words Father and Mother, heretofore observed, implys it; for tho’ the Husband be the Head of the Wife, yet she is an Head of the Family.” Adhering to this ideology, Samuel Sewall, a magistrate, advised his son’s servant that “he could not obey his Master without obedience to his Mistress; and vice versa.” For the Puritans, ideas of proper order both sharply defined and confined a woman’s authority.

In Puritan New England, the family was the fundamental unit of society, the place where Puritans rehearsed and perfected religious, ethical, and social values and expectations of the community at large. The English Puritan William Gouge wrote:“…a familie is a little Church, and a little common-wealth, at least a lively representation thereof, whereby triall may be made of such as are fit for any place of authoritie, or of subjection in Church or commonwealth. Or rather it is as a schoole wherein the first principles and grounds of government and subjection are learned: whereby men are fitted to greater matters in Church or common-wealth.”

The relationships within the nuclear family, along with interactions between the family and the larger community, distinguished Puritans from other early settlers. Authority and obedience characterized the relationship between Puritan parents and their children. Proper love meant proper discipline; in a society essentially without police, the family was the basic unit of supervision. Disciplining disobedient children mostly derived from a spiritual concern: a breakdown in family rule indicated a disregard of God’s order. “Fathers and mothers have ‘disordered and disobedient children,’” said the Puritan Richard Greenham, “because they have been disobedient children to the Lord and disordered to their parents when they were young.” Thus disobedient parents meant disobedient children. Because the duty of early childcare fell almost exclusively on women, a woman’s salvation necessarily depended upon the observable goodness of her child.

Puritans connected the discipline of a child to later readiness for conversion. Accordingly, parents attempted to check their affectionate feelings toward a disobedient child, at least after the child was about two years old, in order to break his or her will. This suspicious regard of “fondness” and heavy emphasis on obedience placed complex pressures on the Puritan mother. While Puritans expected mothers to care for their young children tenderly, a mother who doted could be accused of failing to keep God present. Furthermore, Puritan belief prescribed that a father’s more distant governance check the mother’s tenderness once a male child reached the age of 6 or 7 so that he could bring the child to God’s authority.

The home gave women the freedom to exercise religious and moral authority, performing duties not open to them in public. (After the banishment of Anne Hutchinson, most congregations did not permit women to speak in church). The Puritan family structure at once encouraged some measure of female authority while supporting family patriarchy.


As John Winthrop sailed toward New England in 1630, he exhorted his fellow passengers that the society they would form in New England would be "as a city upon a hill", and that they must become a pure community of Christians who would set an example to the rest of the world. To achieve this goal, the colony leaders would educate all Puritans. These men of letters, who viewed themselves as a part of an international world, had attended Oxford or Cambridge and could communicate with intellectuals all over Europe. Just six years after the first large migration, colony leaders founded Harvard Collegemarker.

By the 1670s, all New England colonies (excepting Rhode Island) had passed legislation that mandated literacy for children. In 1647, Massachusetts passed a law that required towns to hire a schoolmaster to teach writing. Different forms of schooling emerged, ranging from the “dame” or “reading” school, a form of instruction conducted by women in their private homes for small children, to “Latin” schools for boys already literate in English and ready to master grammar through Latin, Hebrew, and Greek. Reading schools would often be the single source of education for girls, whereas boys would leave their reading mistresses to go to the town grammar schools. Indeed, gender largely determined educational practices. Women introduced all children to reading, and men taught boys in higher pursuits. Since girls could play no role in the ministry, and since grammar schools were designed to “instruct youth so far as they may be fited for the university,” Latin grammar schools did not accept girls (nor did Harvard). Evidence mostly suggests that girls could not attend even the less ambitious town schools, the lower-tier writing-reading schools mandated for townships of over fifty families.

The motive to educate was largely religious. In order for Puritans to become holy, they needed to read the Scriptures. As the articles of faith of 1549 had proclaimed, “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation”. Although reading the Bible did not guarantee conversion, it laid its groundwork, and a good Puritan’s duty was to search out scriptural truth for oneself.

Social motives for mandating reading instruction grew out of a concern that children not taught to read would grow “barbarous”; the 1648 amendment to the Massachusetts law and the 1650 Connecticut code, both used the word “barbarisme”. Further, children needed to read in order to “understand…the capital laws of this country,” as the Massachusetts law declared. Order was of the utmost importance for the Puritan community, a group trying to make a home in a new wilderness and create a perfected society from scratch.

The emphasis on education in Puritan New England differed significantly from other regions of colonial America. The founding fathers established New England in pursuit of a model of Christian living, fueling strong motivations for literary instruction. But New England also differed from its mother country, as nothing in English statute required schoolmasters or the literacy of children. Indeed, with the possible exception of Scotland, the Puritan model of education did not exist anywhere else in the world.

The Puritan spirit in the United States

Because of the Puritans' emphasis for autonomy from other Christians and independent views of Scripture, the Puritans are often credited as being the first individualists in the United States. Others have noted that the Puritan predilection to control others and how they live has led to an American social cultural tendency to oppose things such as alcohol and open sexuality. However, non-Puritan Reformed Christians were not opposed to drinking alcohol in moderation, or to enjoying their sexuality within the bounds of marriage as a gift from God. In fact, spouses (albeit, in practice, mainly females) were disciplined if they did not perform their sexual marital duties, in accordance with 1 Corinthians 7 and other biblical passages. Because of these beliefs, the Puritans publicly punished drunkenness and sexual relations outside of marriage, as did Christians.

Reformed laws, however, regarded alcohol as a gift of God and demonstrated the subtle difference between a government's responsibility to punish sin versus its action to remove temptation. Early New England laws banning the sale of alcohol to Indians were criticized because it was “not fit to deprive Indians of any lawfull comfort aloweth to all men by the use of wine.” One reason for laws banning the practice of individuals toasting each other was that it led to wasting God's gift of beer and wine. Another was that it was carnal. The Puritans of New Englandmarker disapproved of Christmas. Celebration was outlawed in Bostonmarker from 1659 to 1681. The ban was revoked in 1681 by an English-appointed governor Sir Edmund Andros, who also revoked a Puritan ban against festivities on Saturday night. However it wasn't until the mid 1800's that celebrating Christmas became fashionable in the Boston region.

Late 19th century view
Alexis de Tocqueville suggested in Democracy in America that 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. Others decry this piety as works-righteousness and a form of supererogation. The theme of a religious basis of economic discipline is echoed in sociologist Max Weber's work, but both de Tocqueville 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 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—are at the root of America's current political landscape.

The traditional American Southern view alleges that the Puritan ethic was at root the cause of the Civil War. In this view, the South resisted Puritan intolerant aggression with mainstream Reformed Christianity. Owing to Puritan beliefs that emphasize the individual's autonomous interpretation of Scripture, separation from mainstream Christianity, and that economic success suggested God's blessings, the traditional Southerner attributed the regional conflict to the greed of the Northern ("Yankee") Puritan mindset, which believed it was more righteous than others.


A historian has said that the English Puritans who founded New England were nearer to doctrine to the Catholic Church than to liberal Protestants of the 19th and 20th centuries. They believed that man existed for the glory of God; that his first concern in life was to do God's will and so to receive future happiness.


Some old documents spell "Puritan" Puritain.

See also


  1. Neil (1844), p. 246
  2. Lancelotte (1858), p. 684
  3. Gardiner (1895), pp. 10,11
  4. Spurr (1998), p. 16; cites and quotes Patrick Collinson (1989). The Puritan Character, p. 8.
  5. Collins (1999), pp. 63-65. Quoting an excerpt from John Winthrop's sermon.
  6. Ward, Dana, The Hypocrisy of Puritanism, Anarchist Archives, Pitzer College. A copy from Emma Goldman's Anarchism and Other Essays. Second Revised Edition. New York & London: Mother Earth Publishing Association, 1911. pp. 173-182.
  7. West (2003) pp. 68ff
  8. Lewis (1969), pp. 116–117. "On many questions and specially in view of the marriage bed, the Puritans were the indulgent party, ... they were much more Chestertonian than their adversaries [the Roman Catholics]. The idea that a Puritan was a repressed and repressive person would have astonished Sir Thomas More and Luther about equally."
  9. When Christmas Was Banned - The early colonies and Christmas
  10. Morone (2003).


  • Collins, Owen (1999). Speeches That Changed the World, Westminster John Knox Press, ISBN 0664221491.
  • Morone, James A. (2003). Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History, Yale University Press. ISBN 0300105177.
  • West, Jim (2003). Drinking with Calvin and Luther!, Oakdown Books, ISBN 0-9700326-0-9

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