Meet the Puritans: Founders of New England

From the lecture series: The History of the United States, 2nd Edition

By Gary W. Gallagher, PhDUniversity of VirginiaPatrick N. Allitt, PhDEmory UniversityAllen C. Guelzo, PhDGettysburg University

Colonies, such as Jamestown in the American South, were established for the sake of profit or politics, but the colonies in New England—also known as the “Puritan colonies”—were founded for the sake of ideas and religion. Who were the Puritans? Where did they come from, and what were they looking for? Step back in time to meet the forebears of the Puritan colonists.

Embarkation of the Pilgrims
(Image: By Robert W. Weir/Public domain)

The term “Puritan” was not invented by the Puritans, and it was not invented as a compliment. It is a complex and often ambiguous term. “Puritan” refers to England’s most radical Protestants. Finding them on the shores of North America, along with Maryland Catholics and Georgia paupers, may seem odd at first. Since Protestants were the big winners in the struggle for control of English society and religion, what were these Protestants doing in the snowy forests of New England, as though they were on the low rung of a ladder, like everyone else?

Step Back to Elizabethan Times

Pelican portrait of Elizabeth I
The Pelican Portrait by Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619) depicts Elizabeth as the “mother of the Church of England.” (Image: By Nicholas Hilliard/Public domain)

The answer to that question lies in the peculiar way that the Protestant queen, Elizabeth, made England Protestant. Elizabeth had no love for Catholics. Her Catholic sister Mary had threatened Elizabeth’s life while Mary was briefly queen, and Catholic assassination plots surfaced with chilling frequency during Elizabeth’s lifetime. They were a threat to her realm and her person, and she dealt with them according to those lights. If Catholics were unhappy at seeing England made Protestant by Elizabeth, however, there were also Protestants who were unhappy that she had not made England Protestant enough.

The Church of England was of Protestant denomination—the Protestant State Church—created by Henry VIII for England. Under Elizabeth’s eye, the Church of England embraced Protestant thinking by adopting the 39 articles of religion, a thoroughly Protestant statement of Christianity if ever there was one. She allowed the Church of England to retain its Catholic-style governmental structure; however, bishops ruled dioceses like aristocrats, and every English subject was an automatic member of the English Church.

This is a transcript from the video series The History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, Wondrium.

She also sanctioned, as queen, a worship manual, the Book of Common Prayer, in 1559, which used enough Catholic-sounding language to make committed Protestants squirm. She allowed the clergy of the Church of England to retain the old-time forms of liturgical dress. Protestants inclined to squirm about these things advised Elizabeth to jettison these holdovers from the past, but Elizabeth was in no better mood to take their advice than she was to take the advice of the Catholics. She treated Protestant critics as just as much a threat to the stability of her realm as the Catholics. She handed down orders for them to conform, and they refused. When they refused, she had them hunted down, arrested, and punished in the same way that she did for her Catholic subjects.

These radical, critical Protestants were called at first “Precisians,” because they wanted to be so precise about every detail of life in the Church of England. Eventually, the term “Puritan” was attached to them. Elizabeth’s hostility to the Puritans posed a dilemma for them, entirely apart from the dangers of persecution. The Puritans wanted to think of themselves as just as loyal and just as English as Elizabeth herself. They thought of themselves as the cutting-edge of what England was really called to be: Protestant.

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Tour the Calvinist Movement

Sketch of John Calvin
John Calvin’s teachings had enormous influence on the thinking of every Protestant country in Europe. (Image: Solomnikov/Shutterstock)

In truth, however, they owed spiritual allegiance to a transnational ideological movement known as Calvinism. John Calvin played only a comparatively minor political role in the Protestant Reformation, but his teachings had an enormous influence on the thinking of every Protestant country in Europe, whether they eventually agreed with him or not. Put in a nutshell, Calvinism taught the complete and absolute control by God over all human affairs. It also taught that not only was God absolute in his control of human destiny but that humans were also morally helpless. They were morally helpless because of the inherited effect of the sin of Adam against God in the Garden of Eden. Consequently, if the human race were ever to be redeemed from the bondage of sin, it was a work that God would have to undertake out of his own initiative, and out of his own mercy.

This kind of thinking was neither new nor novel. Teachings like this had been in circulation in Christianity since Saint Augustine and the end of the Roman Empire. In the explosive political climate of the 1500s, however, it struck Europeans with the force of a storm. If God was absolute, if God ruled all human events according to his own intents, by his own wisdom and his own plan, then that meant that God was totally sovereign; if God was totally sovereign, kings were not. If kings contradicted God, then God, and not the kings, should be obeyed. If the kings persecuted you as a result, they only did so by God’s permission as a test of your faith.

Calvinism, in other words, bred resistance and defiance to kings, and also, for that matter, to anyone else in authority, since one could just as easily substitute “bishop” or “queen” for “king” in that equation; the result would be the same. Thus, despite the best efforts of Elizabeth and her bishops to silence Puritan criticism in the Church of England, they did not obligingly disappear. If anything, they began to multiply, because if Puritan theology had a short-term pessimism about human nature, and that theology believed that human beings were rendered helpless by sin, it still had a long-term optimism about the future, and about the power of a sovereign God.

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Reforming the Church of England

Some Puritans wanted the Church of England reformed from within and they worked to promote Puritan-minded clergy to the ranks of the bishops. Some Puritans wanted bishops abolished entirely, and the government of the Church of England turned over to local committees of clergy or presbyteries, hence the name of this group of thinkers, Presbyterians.

The most radical of the Puritans elected to leave the Church of England entirely. They set up their own churches, where membership was entirely voluntary, not based simply on the fact of being born English. Their membership was tested by specific signs of sincerity, rather than merely the happenstance of being an English subject. Operating independent churches, of course, was illegal in the 1500s in England. During that time, having more than one type of church was unheard of, and considered irregular. It would be similar to imagining each of the states within the United States adopting separate types of government structures: A monarchy here, a dictatorship there, a republic over there.

The idea of having several types of church structures also involved a kind of cultural treason against England, if trying to set up an independent church separate and apart from the Church of England. Both the “stay-in” sort of Puritans and the Presbyterian kind of Puritans fought with—and dissociated themselves from—the Separatist Puritans. In 1620, a small band of these Separatists took their ideas about church and government to their logical conclusion. They hired themselves out to a joint-stock company that wanted to plant a trading post on the shores of New England and left England entirely; how’s that for independence? We call these Separatists the Pilgrims, which is a little misleading; we usually give them more than is probably their due in the history of early America. They were the smallest, the least popular, and the most radical of Puritans, and it has to be said that they did not come to America to found a new nation so much as to get rid of an old and corrupt one.

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Coming to America

None of these disagreements among Puritans endeared either the stay-in Puritans or the Presbyterians to Elizabeth. The fact that they wanted to put as much distance as they could between themselves and the Separatists meant nothing to Elizabeth; from her perspective, they were all cut from the same cloth. Elizabeth’s successors, James I and Charles I, took an even dimmer view of the Puritans, no matter how they defined themselves.

Charles I, in particular, pursued Puritans with special venom, and by the end of the 1620s, even the stay-in Puritans were losing hope and wondering if the only real alternative was to imitate the Separatists and flee to America. They could not quite bring themselves to admit that they were contemplating flight, however, because that would endanger their contention that they were truly loyal Protestant Englishmen who loved their king and loved their church as well as any other Englishman.

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Continually harassed, the harried Puritans thought of emigration to America not as a Puritan exodus out of a corrupt English government system, but as part of a business venture of a joint-stock company. The Massachusetts Bay Company was managed by a typical company structure of a corporate board, or general court, and charter. Per the usual, it was run by a company president, or governor, who, in this case, was a Sussex lawyer named John Winthrop. The Puritans considered themselves as not on the run, as they told themselves and the king’s officials; that’s what the Separatists did. They were just Englishmen interested in doing business in New England and just happened to be Puritans, purely by happenstance. They were not Separatists. They viewed themselves as going to New England as members of the Church of England, just as solid as they had ever been, whatever that meant.

Common Questions About Puritans in New England

Q: What exactly was the Puritan belief system?

The Puritans in New England were Protestants who believed they were God’s chosen people to represent the ways of the scripture, reform the Church of England, and convince the remaining non-believers in England to abandon their sinful ways.

Q: Why did the Puritans fight with the Church of England?

The Puritans were anti-Catholic and felt the Church of England retained too much Catholicism, was impossibly corrupt, and was no longer interested in spiritual matters. 

Q: Why exactly did the Puritans leave for New England?

The Puritans in New England had left England because the Church of England censored Puritan writings and unjustly terminated their ministers. They wanted freedom for their particular religion.

Q: Did the Puritans encourage religious freedom in their colonies?

The Puritans of New England were very much insular and demanded total devotion and faith to only their version of Protestantism. They routinely jailed and tortured supposed witches.

This article was updated on November 25, 2020

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