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Puritanism in New England

For a much more extensive description than appears on this brief page, see the works listed in the  Selected Bibliography on Puritanism.
Definitions The term "Puritan" first began as a taunt or insult applied by traditional Anglicans to those who criticized or wished to "purify" the Church of England. Although the word is often applied loosely, "Puritan" refers to two distinct groups: "separating" Puritans, such as the Plymouth colonists, who believed that the Church of England was corrupt and that true Christians must separate themselves from it; and non-separating Puritans, such as the colonists who settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who believed in reform but not separation. Most Massachusetts colonists were nonseparating Puritans who wished to reform the established church, largely Congregationalists who believed in forming churches through voluntary compacts.  The idea of compacts or covenants was central to the Puritans' conception of social, political, and religious organizations.
 Beliefs Several beliefs differentiated Puritans from other Christians. The first was their belief in predestination. Puritans believed that belief in Jesus and participation in the sacraments could not alone effect one's salvation; one cannot choose salvation, for that is the privilege of God alone. All features of salvation are determined by God's sovereignty, including choosing those who will be saved and those who will receive God's irresistible grace. The Puritans distinguished between "justification," or the gift of God's grace given to the elect, and "sanctification," the holy behavior that supposedly resulted when an individual had been saved; according to The English Literatures of America, "Sanctification is evidence of salvation, but does not cause it" (434). When William Laud, an avowed Arminian, became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633, the Church of England began to embrace beliefs abhorrent to Puritans: a focus on the individual's acceptance or rejection of grace; a toleration of diverse religious beliefs; and an acceptance of "high church" rituals and symbols.

According to Samuel Eliot Morison's Oxford History of the American People, the Puritans "were deeply impressed by a story that their favorite church father, St. Augustine, told in his Confessions. He heard a voice saying, tolle et lege, 'Pick up and read.' Opening the Bible, his eyes lit on Romans xiii:12-14: 'The night is far spent, the day is at hand; not in carousing and drunkenness, not in debauchery and lust, not in strife and jealousy. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts therof'" (62).

 or  Federal 
and the New 
England Way
The concept of a covenant or contract between God and his elect pervaded Puritan theology and social relationships. In religious terms, several types of covenants were central to Puritan thought.

The Covenant of Works held that God promised Adam and his progeny eternal life if they obeyed moral law. After Adam broke this covenant, God made a new Covenant of Grace with Abraham (Genesis 18-19).

Covenant of Grace. This covenant requires an active faith, and, as such, it softens the doctrine of predestination. Although God still chooses the elect, the relationship becomes one of contract in which punishment for sins is a judicially proper response to disobedience. During the Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards later repudiated Covenant Theology to get back to orthodox Calvinism. Those bound by the covenant considered themselves to be charged with a mission from God.

Covenant of Redemption. The Covenant of Redemption was assumed to be preexistent to the Covenant of Grace. It held that Christ, who freely chose to sacrifice himself for fallen man, bound God to accept him as man's representative. Having accepted this pact, God is then committed to carrying out the Covenant of Grace. According to Perry Miller, as one contemporary source put it, "God covenanted with Christ that if he would pay the full price for the redemption of beleevers, they should be discharged. Christ hath paid the price, God must be unjust, or else hee must set thee free from all iniquitie" (New England Mind 406).

For more information, see also the following works suggested by EARAM-L members:

  • Perry Miller's "The Marrow of Puritan Divinity" in Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge:  Harvard UP, 1956): 48-98.
  • Emory Elliott, Power and the Pulpit in Puritan New England
  • Charles Lloyd Cohen, "Covenant Psychology" in God's Caress: The Psychology of Puritan Religious Experience (Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 1986)
  • John von Rohr, The Covenant of Grace in Puritan Thought (Atlanta, GA:  Scholars Press, 1986)
  • Darrett Rutman, American Puritanism
  • David Hall, The Faithful Shepherd
  • David Hall, The Antinomian Controversy
  • Sargent Bush, The Writings of Thomas Hooker
  • Michael McGiffert, "Grace and Works:  The Rise and Division of Covenant Divinity in Elizabethan Puritanism," Harvard Theological Review 75.4 (1982): 463-502.
  • Amy Schrager Lang, Prophetic Woman

  • Janice Knight, Orthodoxies in Massachusetts
The New 
England Way
The concept of the covenant also provided a practical means of organizing churches.  Since the state did not control the church, the Puritans reasoned, there must be an alternate method of of establishing authority. According to Harry S. Stout, "For God's Word to function freely, and for each member to feel an integral part of the church's operations, each congregation must be self-sufficient, containing within itself all the offices and powers necessary for self-regulation.  New England's official apologist, John Cotton, termed this form of church government 'Congregational,' meaning that all authority would be located within particular congregations" (The New England Soul  17). 

Cotton's sermon at Salem in 1636 described the basic elements of this system in which people covenanting themselves to each other and pledging to obey the word of God might become a self-governing church.  Checks and balances in this self-governing model included the requirement that members testify to their experience of grace (to ensure the purity of the church and its members) and the election of church officials to ensure the appropriate distribution of power, with a pastor to preach, a teacher to "attend to doctrine," elders to oversee the "acts of spiritual Rule," and a deacon to manage the everyday tasks of church organization and caring for the poor (Stout 19).  The system of interlocking covenants that bound households to each other and to their ministers in an autonomous, self-ruling congregation was mirrored in the organization of towns.  In each town, male church members could vote to elect "selectmen" to run the town's day-to-day affairs, although town meetings were held to vote on legislation. 

Thus the ultimate authority in both political and religious spheres was God's word, but the commitments made to congregation and community through voluntary obedience to covenants ensured order and a functional system of religious and political governance.  This system came to be called the Congregational or  "New England Way." According to Stout, "By locating power in the particular towns and defining institutions in terms of local covenants and mutual commitments, the dangers of mobility and atomism--the chief threats to stability in the New World--were minimized. . . . As churches came into being only by means of a local covenant, so individual members could be released from their sacred oath only with the concurrence of the local body. . . . Persons leaving without the consent of the body sacrificed not only church membership but also property title, which was contingent on local residence.  Through measures like these, which combined economic and spiritual restraints, New England towns achieved extraordinarily high levels of persistence and social cohesion" (23). 

Unlike Anglican and Catholic churches of the time, Puritan churches did not hold that all parish residents should be full church members. A true church, they believed, consisted not of everyone but of the elect. As a test of election, many New England churches began to require applicants for church membership to testify to their personal experience of God in the form of autobiographical conversion narratives. Since citizenship was tied to church membership, the motivation for experiencing conversion was secular and civil as well as religious in nature. God's covenant that bound church members to him had to be renewed and accepted by each individual believer, although this could be seen as a dilution of the covenant binding God and his chosen people.
The children of first-generation believers were admitted to limited membership in the Congregational church, on the grounds that as children of the elect, they would undoubtedly experience conversion and become full members of the church. Not all underwent a conversion experience, however, thus leaving in doubt the future of their children, the grandchildren of the original church members. 

Drafted by Richard Mather and approved in 1662, the Half-way Covenant proposed that second-generation members be granted the same privilege of baptism (but not communion) as had been granted to the first generation. According to Norman Grabo, "This encouraged individual congregations to baptize the infant children of church members but not to admit them to full membership until they were at least 14 years old" and could profess conversion. "The partaking of the Lord's Supper became a lure to struggling half-way members to discover their right to full membership and a public sign of the purest in the congregation." 

Richard, and, later, Increase Mather supported it, as did Edward Taylor; but Solomon Stoddard from Northampton argued that, according to the Half-Way Covenant, no man was permitted to partake of the Lord's Supper until he had certain knowledge and assurance of salvation; without this knowledge, attendance at the sacrament was damning.  Stoddard said that no man could know he was saved with absolute certainty; thus all well-behaved Christians should be admitted to the sacrament in hopes that they might secure saving grace or be converted by it. (Grabo 32)

Plain Style
The plain style is the simplest of the three classical forms of style. In choosing the plain style, Puritan writers eschewed features common to the rhetoric of the day; they declined to stuff their sermons with the rhetorical flourishes and learned quotations of the metaphysical style of sermon, believing that to be the province of Archbishop Laud and his followers. The Puritan sermon traditionally comprised three parts: doctrine, reasons, and uses. According to Perry Miller in The New England Mind,
    "The Anglican sermon is constructed on a symphonic scheme of progressively widening vision; it moves from point to point by verbal analysis, weaving larger and larger embroideries about the words of the text. The Puritan sermon quotes the text and "opens" it as briefly as possible, expounding circumstances and context, explaining its grammatical meanings, reducing its tropes and schemata to prose, and setting forth its logical implications; the sermon then proclaims in a flat, indicative sentence the "doctrine" contained in the text or logically deduced from it, and proceeds to the first reason or proof. Reason follows reason, with no other transition than a period and a number; after the last proof is stated there follow the uses or applications, also in numbered sequence, and the sermon ends when there is nothing more to be said. The Anglican sermon opens with a pianissimo exordium, gathers momentum through a rising and quickening tempo, comes generally to a rolling, organ-toned peroration; the Puritan begins with a reading of the text, states the reason in an order determined by logic, and the uses in an enumeration determined by the kinds of person in the throng who need to be exhorted or reproved, and it stops without flourish or resounding climax" (332-3).
  • In a similar manner, Puritans preferred the plainness of the Geneva Bible to the rich language of the King James version.
  • © 1997-2010. Donna M. Campbell. Some information adapted from Resisting Regionalism: Gender and Naturalism in American Fiction, 1885-1915 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997).
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    Campbell, Donna M. "Puritanism in New England." Literary Movements. Dept. of English, Washington State University. Date of publication or most recent update (listed above as the "last modified" date; you don't need to indicate the time). Web. Date you accessed the page.


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