subclass of English Reformed Protestants

Puritanism originated as a Protestant response to Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism. The word now generally denotes strict religious discipline and opposition to social pleasures.


The much-ballyhooed arrival of the Pilgrims and Puritans in New England in the early 1600s was indeed a response to persecution that these religious dissenters had experienced in England. But the Puritan fathers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony did not countenance tolerance of opposing religious views. Their “city upon a hill” was a theocracy that brooked no dissent, religious or political. ~ Kenneth C. Davis
It is the night-black w:Massachusetts legendry which packs the really macabre 'kick', Here is the material for a really profound study in group neuroticism; for certainly, no one can deny the existence of a profoundly morbid streak in the Puritan imagination....~ H.P. Lovecraft
  • A puritan is such a monstrous thing
    that loves Democracy and hates the king...
    A Puritan is he whose heart is bent
    to cross the king's designs in Parliament.
    Where whilst the place of Burgess he doth bear
    He thinks he owes but small allegiance there...
    So that with his wit and valour he doth trye,
    How the prerogative he may deny.
    • Anonymous rhymester (c. 1630s), quoted in Charles Carlton, Archbishop William Laud (1987), p. 121
  • An even greater contribution to the American population, in sheer numbers, began with the Puritans, who believed in purifying the established church, a decade after the voyage of the Mayflower. In 1630, seventeen ships left England for America. The most famous of these was the Arabella, on which the Puritan leader John Winthrop sailed. Mainly stemming from the area of East Anglia in England, the Puritans left during a time when Archbishop William Laud was attempting to eliminate Puritan influences from the Church of England and King Charles I was attempting to rule without calling Parliament into session. The decade of the 1630’s, leading up to the English Civil War (1642-1651), was a time of economic depression, as well as a period in which the Puritans were out of favor in the English church and state.
  • The years 1630 to 1640 are known as the Great Migration. The largely Puritan immigrants from England settled in New England, north of the settlement at Plymouth Bay, in a stretch of land known as the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The major centers of the new colony were the eastern coastal Massachusetts towns of Boston and Salem. During the Great Migration, an estimated two hundred ships reportedly carrying approximately 20,000 people arrived in Massachusetts. Although migration to New England dropped dramatically after the Great Migration, the descendants of the people who entered Massachusetts in those years settled much of the northeastern region of the United States and later spread westward throughout the country.
  • In the South, the tiny Virginia colony that had barely maintained its existence during the years that Massachusetts became a center of European settlement began to expand rapidly just as the Great Migration ended in the North. In 1642, only 8,000 colonists lived in Virginia. At the beginning of that year, Sir William Berkeley became governor of Virginia, a post he would hold until 1676. Berkeley began a campaign to draw some of England’s elite to Virginia. This campaign was assisted by the rise of the Puritans to power and the execution of King Charles I in 1649. Many of the future leaders that Virginia provided to the United States and to the Confederacy were descendants of these aristocratic immigrants.
  • The fact is, there were all kinds of Puritans. There were dismal precisians, like William Prynne, illiberal and vulgar fanatics, the Tribulation Wholesomes, Hope-on-high Bombys, and Zeal-of-the-land Busys, whose absurdities were the stock in trade of contemporary satirists from Johnson to Butler. But there were also gentlemen and scholars, like Fairfax, Marvell, Colonel Hutchinson, Vane, whose Puritanism was consistent with all elegant tastes and accomplishments. Was Milton’s Puritanism hurtful to his art? No and yes. It was in many ways an inspiration; it gave him zeal, a Puritan word much ridiculed by the Royalists; it gave refinement, distinction, selectness, elevation to his picture of the world. But it would be uncritical to deny that it also gave a certain narrowness and rigidity to his view of human life.
    • Henry A. Beers, "Milton’s Tercentenary", in The Connecticut Wits and Other Essays (1920), p. 230
  • Their Doctrines of Predestination is the root of Puritanism, and Puritanism is the root of all Rebellions, and disobedient untractableness in Parliaments, &c. and of all Schism and sawciness in the Countrey, nay in the Church it self; making many thousands of our People, and too great a part of the Gentlemen of the Land very Leightons in their hearts; which Leighton had published not long before, a most pestilent and seditious Book against the Bishops, called Sions Plea, in which he excited the People to strike the Bishops under the fifth rib, reviling the Queen by the name of a Daughter of Heth; and for the same was after censured in the Star-Chamber to Pillory, loss of Ears, &c.
  • Puritanism and paganism — the repression and the expression of the senses and desires — alternate in mutual reaction in history. Generally religion and puritanism prevail in periods when the laws are feeble and morals must bear the burden of maintaining social order; skepticism and paganism (other factors being equal) progress as the rising power of law and governments permits the decline of the church, the family, and morality without basically endangering the stability of the state.
  • The Puritans in New England were not immediately presented with an Indian problem, for diseases introduced earlier by trading ships along the coast had badly decimated the Indian population. Yet when the Pequots resisted the migration of settlers into the Connecticut Valley in 1637, a party of Puritans surrounded the Pequot village and set fire to it. About five hundred Indians were burned to death or shot while trying to escape; the Whites devoutly offered up thanks to God that they had lost only two men. The woods were then combed for any Pequots who had managed to survive, and these were sold into slavery. Cotton Mather was grateful to the Lord that "on this day we have sent six hundred heathen souls to hell."
  • A barn with them is as good as a church; and no church holy with them, but that which is slovenly even to nastiness; but then 'tis void of all superstition.
    • William Laud, The Answer of the Most Reverend Father in God, William, Lord Archbishop of Canterbury, to the Speech of the Lord Say and Seal, Touching the Liturgy (c. 1641), quoted in The Works of the Most Reverend Father in God, William Laud, sometime Lord Archbishop of Canterbury. Volume VI—Part I. Miscellaneous Papers.—Letters (1857), p. 107
  • It is the night-black Massachusetts legendry which packs the really macabre 'kick', Here is the material for a really profound study in group neuroticism; for certainly, no one can deny the existence of a profoundly morbid streak in the Puritan imagination....The very pre-ponderance of passionately pious men in the colony was virtually an assurance of unnatural crime; insomuch as psychology now proves the religious instinct to be a form of transmuted eroticism precisely parallel to the transmutations in other directions which respectively produce such things as sadism, hallucination, melancholia, and other mental morbidities. Bunch together a group of people deliberately chosen for strong religious feelings, and you have a practical guarantee of dark morbidities expressed in crime, perversion, and insanity. This was aggravated, of course, by the Puritan policy of rigorously suppressing all the natural outlets of excuberant feeling--music, laughter, colour, pageantry, and so on. To observe Christmas Day was once a prison offence....
  • The persecution which the separatists had undergone had been severe enough to irritate, but not severe enough to destroy. They had been, not tamed into submission, but baited into savageness and stubbornness. After the fashion of oppressed sects, they mistook their own vindictive feelings for emotions of piety, encouraged in themselves by reading and meditation a disposition to brood over their wrongs, and, when they had worked themselves up into hating their enemies, imagined that they were only hating the enemies of heaven. In the New Testament there was little indeed which, even when perverted by the most disingenuous exposition, could seem to countenance the indulgence of malevolent passions. But the Old Testament contained the history of a race selected by God to be witnesses of his unity and ministers of his vengeance, and specially commanded by him to do many things which, if done without his special command, would have been atrocious crimes. In such a history it was not difficult for fierce and gloomy spirits to find much that might be distorted to suit their wishes.
  • The extreme Puritans therefore began to feel for the Old Testament a preference, which, perhaps, they did not distinctly avow even to themselves; but which showed itself in all their sentiments and habits. They paid to the Hebrew language a respect which they refused to that tongue in which the discourses of Jesus and the epistles of Paul have come down to us. They baptized their children by the names, not of Christian saints, but of Hebrew patriarchs and warriors. In defiance of the express and reiterated declarations of Luther and Calvin, they turned the weekly festival by which the Church had, from the primitive times, commemorated the resurrection of her Lord, into a Jewish Sabbath. They sought for principles of jurisprudence in the Mosaic law, and for precedents to guide their ordinary conduct in the books of Judges and Kings. Their thoughts and discourse ran much on acts which were assuredly not recorded as examples for our imitation. The prophet who hewed in pieces a captive king, the rebel general who gave the blood of a queen to the dogs, the matron who, in defiance of plighted faith, and of the laws of eastern hospitality, drove the nail into the brain of the fugitive ally who had just fed at her board, and who was sleeping under the shadow of her tent, were proposed as models to Christians suffering under the tyranny of princes and prelates. Morals and manners were subjected to a code resembling that of the synagogue, when the synagogue was in its worst state. The dress, the deportment, the language, the studies, the amusements of the rigid sect were regulated on principles not unlike those of the Pharisees who, proud of their washed hands and broad phylacteries, taunted the Redeemer as a sabbathbreaker and a winebibber. It was a sin to hang garlands on a Maypole, to drink a friend's health, to fly a hawk, to hunt a stag, to play at chess, to wear lovelocks, to put starch into a ruff, to touch the virginals, to read the Fairy Queen. Rules such as these, rules which would have appeared insupportable to the free and joyous spirit of Luther, and contemptible to the serene and philosophical intellect of Zwingle, threw over all life a more than monastic gloom.
  • Some precisians had scruples about teaching the Latin grammar, because the names of Mars, Bacchus, and Apollo occurred in it. The fine arts were all but proscribed. The solemn peal of the organ was superstitious. The light music of Ben Johnson's masques was dissolute. Half the fine paintings in England were idolatrous, and the other half indecent. The extreme Puritan was at once known from other men by his gait, his garb, his lank hair, the sour solemnity of his face, the upturned white of his eyes, the nasal twang with which he spoke, and, above all, by his peculiar dialect. He employed, on every occasion, the imagery and style of Scripture. Hebraisms violently introduced into the English language, and metaphors borrowed from the boldest lyric poetry of a remote age and country, and applied to the common concerns of English life, were the most striking peculiarities of this cant, which moved, not without cause, the derision both of Prelatists and libertines.
  • They proved...as intolerant and as meddling as ever Laud had been. They interdicted under heavy penalties the use of the Book of Common Prayer, not only in churches, but even in private houses. It was a crime in a child to read by the bedside of a sick parent one of those beautiful collects which had soothed the griefs of forty generations of Christians. Severe punishments were denounced against such as should presume to blame the Calvinistic mode of worship. Clergymen of respectable character were not only ejected from their benefices by thousands, but were frequently exposed to the outrages of a fanatical rabble. Churches and sepulchres, fine works of art and curious remains of antiquity, were brutally defaced. The Parliament resolved that all pictures in the royal collection which contained representations of Jesus or of the Virgin Mother should be burned. Sculpture fared as ill as painting. Nymphs and Graces, the work of Ionian chisels, were delivered over to Puritan stonemasons to be made decent. Against the lighter vices the ruling faction waged war with a zeal little tempered by humanity or by common sense. Sharp laws were passed against betting. It was enacted that adultery should be punished with death. The illicit intercourse of the sexes, even where neither violence nor seduction was imputed, where no public scandal was given, where no conjugal right was violated, was made a misdemeanour. Public amusements, from the masques which were exhibited at the mansions of the great down to the wrestling matches and grinning matches on village greens, were vigorously attacked. One ordinance directed that all the Maypoles in England should forthwith be hewn down. Another proscribed all theatrical diversions. The playhouses were to be dismantled, the spectators fined, the actors whipped at the cart's tail. Ropedancing, puppetshows, bowls, horse-racing, were regarded with no friendly eye.
  • Perhaps no single circumstance more strongly illustrates the temper of the precisians than their conduct respecting Christmas day. Christmas had been, from time immemorial, the season of joy and domestic affection, the season when families assembled, when children came home from school, when quarrels were made up, when carols were heard in every street, when every house was decorated with evergreens, and every table was loaded with good cheer. At that season all hearts not utterly destitute of kindness were enlarged and softened. At that season the poor were admitted to partake largely of the overflowings of the wealth of the rich, whose bounty was peculiarly acceptable on account of the shortness of the days and of the severity of the weather... Where there is much enjoyment there will be some excess: yet, on the whole, the spirit in which the holiday was kept was not unworthy of a Christian festival. The Long Parliament gave orders, in 1644, that the twenty-fifth of December should be strictly observed as a fast, and that all men should pass it in humbly bemoaning the great national sin which they and their fathers had so often committed on that day by romping under the mistletoe, eating boar's head, and drinking ale flavored with roasted apples. No public act of that time seems to have irritated the common people more. On the next anniversary of the festival formidable riots broke out in many places. The constables were resisted, the magistrates insulted, the houses of noted zealots attacked, and the prescribed service of the day openly read in the churches.
    Such was the spirit of the extreme Puritans, both Presbyterian and Independent.
  • The Puritan conception that we have no natural duties and loyalties produces a cruel way of life. The Bible is taken all of a level, and then the more primitive aspects of the Old Testament become the standards for bloodthirsty cruelty. Cartwright would have executed all priests of the Church of Rome because of the model of Samuel hewing down Agag before the altar. The communicants of the Church of Rome are the Philistines of our day, says Cartwright. They are the anti-christ, and the Scripture tells us to destroy them. The denial of all goodness in human nature, and the contention that we have no obligations except those enunciated in Holy Scripture, is a view which Hooker holds would be one of which Nero might well approve.
    • John Sedberry Marshall, Hooker and the Anglican Tradition: Historical and Theological Study of Hooker's Ecclesiastical Polity (1963), p. 119
  • The public upsurge of piety that became known as the Evangelical Revival in Britain and the Great Awakening in America did not arise out of thin air. Besides the direct influence on continental Pietism, it also benefitted from two movements closer to home. First was a powerful international network of dedicated Calvinists who read each other’s devotional works and eagerly followed news about Calvinist reforms elsewhere in Europe. This network enjoyed two strongholds in the English-speaking world. The Puritans in England, who had mobilized during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) in order to push the Protestant Reformation further, were joined by the Calvinists of Scotland, who were led by the indomitable John Knox, in their pursuit of personal godliness combined with national reform. When monarchs James I (1603-1625) and Charles (1625-1649) frustrated these efforts in England, several thousands Puritans migrated to the wilderness of New England in order to set up a “godly Commonwealth” of the sort that English circumstances prevented. Scottish Puritans and the Puritans of Old and New England retained a great deal of medievalism, especially an understanding of Christianity as always corporate or even national, as well as personal. But they also promoted innovations (like the personal conversion) and underscored specific teachings of the general Protestant inheritance (like the need for saving grace) that fed directly into later evangelical movements.
  • Because their acts of racism often have been so violent and blatant, discussions of racism over the years have centered on conservatives and hardcore racists. But as these few paragraphs have attempted to show, although they have not been publicly associated with acts of physical violence acts, Christian liberals are little different than their conservative counterparts when it comes to embracing the twisted Protestant theological ideas first planted by the Puritans.
    The one glaring difference between the two groups is that liberals throughout American history have learned to be more sophisticated with their antiblackess. From the Puritan era to the present, their sophistication often has been in the form of an eerie silence regarding the matter of race and racism. For example, the writings of heralded American theologians stretching from Jonathan Edwards through H. Richard Niebuhr, and Paul Tilich are conspicuously empty of any critical analysis of the interplay between Christian ideas of racism. While all of these “giants” wrote volumes analyzing the finer points of theology and showing how theology relates to human enterprises, none raised a question about how Protestants repeatedly have corrupted theology in order to justify antiblackness as God-ordained.
  • The Puritan’s utter lack of aesthetic sense, his distrust of all romantic emotion, his unmatchable intolerance of opposition, his unbreakable belief in his own bleak and narrow views, his savage cruelty of attack, his lust for relentless and barbarous persecution—theses things have put an almost unbearable burden upon the exchange of ideas in the United States.


Dolan: They were no different than any of their fellow colonists in trying to survive any way they could. Plymouth was in dire straits in 1646, and the pirates who visited may have been a bunch of unruly, lusty men who raised hell for a couple of days, but they came with money in their pockets and shared it liberally. When those same pirates came to Boston, they gave Winthrop a stolen sedan chair that had been intended for the ruler of Mexico, so Winthrop got his palms greased a little bit. When pirates came to Boston, the people threw out the red carpet for them because they knew that they would be spending a lot of their plunder at the local grog shops and stores and provide a major jolt to the economy.
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