General Information

Puritans was the name given in the 16th century to the more extreme Protestants within the Church of England who thought the English Reformation had not gone far enough in reforming the doctrines and structure of the church; they wanted to purify their national church by eliminating every shred of Catholic influence. In the 17th century many Puritans emigrated to the New World, where they sought to found a holy Commonwealth in New England. Puritanism remained the dominant cultural force in that area into the 19th century.

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English Puritanism

Associated exclusively with no single theology or definition of the church (although many were Calvinists), the English Puritans were known at first for their extremely critical attitude regarding the religious compromises made during the reign of Elizabeth I. Many of them were graduates of Cambridge University, and they became Anglican priests to make changes in their local churches. They encouraged direct personal religious experience, sincere moral conduct, and simple worship services. Worship was the area in which Puritans tried to change things most; their efforts in that direction were sustained by intense theological convictions and definite expectations about how seriously Christianity should be taken as the focus of human existence.

After James I became king of England in 1603, Puritan leaders asked him to grant several reforms. At the Hampton Court Conference (1604), however, he rejected most of their proposals, which included abolition of bishops. Puritanism, best expressed by William Ames and later by Richard Baxter, gained much popular support early in the 17th century. The government and the church hierarchy, however, especially under Archbishop William Laud, became increasingly repressive, causing many Puritans to emigrate. Those who remained formed a powerful element within the parliamentarian party that defeated Charles I in the English Civil War. After the war the Puritans remained dominant in England until 1660, but they quarreled among themselves (Presbyterian dominance gave way to Independent, or congregational, control under Oliver Cromwell) and proved even more intolerant than the old hierarchy. The restoration of the monarchy (1660) also restored Anglicanism, and the Puritan clergy were expelled from the Church of England under the terms of the Act of Uniformity (1662). Thereafter English Puritans were classified as Nonconformists.

American Puritanism

Early in the 17th century some Puritan groups separated from the Church of England. Among these were the Pilgrims, who in 1620 founded Plymouth Colony. Ten years later, under the auspices of the Massachusetts Bay Company, the first major Puritan migration to New England took place. The Puritans brought strong religious impulses to bear in all colonies north of Virginia, but New England was their stronghold, and the Congregationalist churches established there were able to perpetuate their viewpoint about a Christian society for more than 200 years.

Richard Mather and John Cotton provided clerical leadership in the dominant Puritan colony planted on Massachusetts Bay. Thomas Hooker was an example of those who settled new areas farther west according to traditional Puritan standards. Even though he broke with the authorities of the Massachusetts colony over questions of religious freedom, Roger Williams was also a true Puritan in his zeal for personal godliness and doctrinal correctness. Most of these men held ideas in the mainstream of Calvinistic thought. In addition to believing in the absolute sovereignty of God, the total depravity of man, and the complete dependence of human beings on divine grace for salvation, they stressed the importance of personal religious experience. These Puritans insisted that they, as God's elect, had the duty to direct national affairs according to God's will as revealed in the Bible. This union of church and state to form a holy commonwealth gave Puritanism direct and exclusive control over most colonial activity until commercial and political changes forced them to relinquish it at the end of the 17th century.

Because of its diffuse nature, when Puritanism began to decline in America is difficult to say. Some would hold that it lost its influence in New England by the early 18th century, but Jonathan Edwards and his able disciple Samuel Hopkins revived Puritan thought and kept it alive until 1800. Others would point to the gradual decline in power of Congregationalism, but Presbyterians under the leadership of Jonathan Dickinson and Baptists led by the example of Isaac Backus (1724 - 1806) revitalized Puritan ideals in several denominational forms through the 18th century.

During the whole colonial period Puritanism had direct impact on both religious thought and cultural patterns in America. In the 19th century its influence was indirect, but it can still be seen at work stressing the importance of education in religious leadership and demanding that religious motivations be tested by applying them to practical situations.

Henry Warner Bowden

S Bercovitch, The Puritan Origins of the American Self (1975); S Brachlow, The Communion of Saints (1988); C Cohen, God's Caress: The Psychology of the Puritan Religious Experience (1986); P Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement (1967); W Haller, The Rise of Puritanism (1938); C E Hambrick - Stowe, The Practice of Piety (1982); C Hill, Puritanism and Revolution (1967); R D Kendall, The Drama of Dissent 1986); P Lake, Moderate Puritans and the Elizabethan Church (1982); P Miller, The New England Mind (1939, 1953); E S Morgan, Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea (1963); S E Prall, ed., The Puritan Revolution: A Documentary History (1968); D B Ruttman, American Puritanism: Faith and Practice (1970); A Simpson, Puritanism in Old and New England (1955); L J Trinterud, ed., Elizabethan Puritanism (1971); H Trevor - Roper, Catholics, Anglicans, and Puritans (1988); D Wallace, ed., The Spirituality of the Later English Puritans: An Anthology (1988).


Advanced Information

Puritanism was a loosely organized reform movement originating during the English Reformation of the sixteenth century. The name came from efforts to "purify" the Church of England by those who felt that the Reformation had not yet been completed. Eventually the Puritans went on to attempt purification of the self and society as well.


The theological roots of Puritanism may be found in continental Reformed theology, in a native dissenting tradition stretching back to John Wycliffe and the Lollards, but especially in the theological labors of first - generation English reformers. From William Tyndale (d. 1536) the Puritans took an intense commitment to Scripture and a theology which emphasized the concept of covenant; from John Knox they absorbed a dedication to thorough reform in church and state; and from John Hooper (d. 1555) they received a determined conviction that Scripture should regulate ecclesiastical structure and personal behavior alike.

Puritans achieved a measure of public acceptance in the early years of Queen Elizabeth's reign. They then suffered a series of reverses that lasted through the reigns of her successors James I and Charles I. In the days of James I some Puritans grew discouraged about their reforming efforts and separated entirely from the Church of England. These Separates included the "Pilgrims," who after a sojourn in Holland established in 1620 the Plymouth Colony in what is now southeastern Massachusetts.

When Charles I attempted to rule England without Parliament and its many Puritan members, and when he tried systematically to root Puritans out of the English church, a larger, less separatistic body emigrated to Massachusetts Bay (1630), where for the first time Puritans had the opportunity to construct churches and a society reflecting their grasp of the word of God. In England other Puritans continued the struggle for reform. When war with Scotland forced Charles I to recall Parliament in 1640, civil war was the ultimate result.

That conflict ended with the execution of the king (1649), the rise of Oliver Cromwell to the protectorate of England, the production of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, and the erection of a Puritan Commonwealth. Yet Cromwell, for all his abilities, found it impossible to establish a Puritan state. After his death (1658), the people of England asked the son of Charles I to return, a restoration marking the collapse of organized Puritanism in England. Across the Atlantic a vital Puritanism survived only a little longer. By the time of Cotton Mather (d. 1728) Indian warfare, the loss of the original Massachusetts charter, and a growing secularization had brought an end to Puritanism as a way of life in America.


Puritanism generally extended the thought of the English Reformation, with distinctive emphases on four convictions: (1) that personal salvation was entirely from God, (2) that the Bible provided the indispensable guide to life, (3) that the church should reflect the express teaching of Scripture, and (4) that society was one unified whole.

The Puritans believed that humankind was utterly dependent upon God for salvation. With their predecessors in England and with Luther and Calvin they believed that reconciliation with God came as a gift of his grace received by faith. They were Augustinians who regarded humans as sinners, unwilling and unable to meet the demands, or to enjoy the fellowship, of a righteous God apart from God's gracious initiative.

But Puritans also made distinctive contributions to the general Reformed idea of salvation. They advocated a "plain style" of preaching, as exemplified in the masterful sermons of John Dod (1555 - 1645) and William Perkins (1558 - 1602), which was consciously designed to point out simply the broad way of destruction and the strait gate to heaven. They also placed a new emphasis on the process of conversion. In the journals and diaries of leaders like Thomas Shepard (1605 - 49) they charted the slow, and often painful, process by which God brought them from rebellion to obedience. They also spoke of salvation in terms of "covenant." In the notes to the Geneva Bible, the translation of proto - Puritans completed during the reign of Mary Tudor, emphasis was on a personal covenant of grace, whereby God both promised life to those who exercised faith in Christ and graciously provided that faith, on the basis of Christ's sacrificial death, to the elect.

Later Puritans expanded the idea of covenant to take in the organization of churches, seen most clearly in the rise of Congregationalism (or Independency) and the structuring of all society under God, of which the "Holy Commonwealths" of Massachusetts and Connecticut were the major examples.

With the early English Reformers the Puritans believed, second, in the supreme authority of the Bible. The use of Scripture, however, soon came to be a great cause of offense between Puritans and their Anglican opponents and among Puritans themselves. Puritans, Anglicans, and the many in between all believed in the Bible's final authority. But Puritans came to argue that Christians should do only what the Bible commanded. Anglicans contended rather that Christians should not do what the Bible prohibited. The difference was subtle but profound. Among Puritans considerable differences eventually appeared over what Scripture demanded, especially in questions relating to the church.

Some (mostly in England) contended for a presbyterian state - church organization, others (in Massachusetts and Connecticut) supported a congregational organization in league with the state, while still others (English Independents and Baptists as well as Roger Williams in New England) believed that the Bible mandated congregational churches separate from the state. In short, Puritans disagreed with Anglicans about the way to interpret the Bible, but they differed among themselves about which biblical interpretations were best. The former disagreement dominated English religious life so long as the king and his episcopalian allies were in control. The latter came to the fore after the success of the Puritan Revolution, and it led to the disintegration of Puritanism in England.

These disagreements should not hide the Puritans' overriding commitment to the authority of Scripture. They made as serious an attempt as has ever been made in the English - speaking world to establish their lives on the basis of biblical instruction. When Puritan efforts to reform the kingdom of England faltered in the last years of Elizabeth's reign, they turned to the one sphere they could still control, their individual families. It was during this period around 1600 that Puritans began to place new emphasis on the sabbath, to revive family worship, and to encourage personal acts of mercy to the sick and dying. When Puritan prospects brightened in the 164os, this "spiritualization of the household" emerged into the open.

Puritans believed, third, that the church should be organized from Scripture. Anglicans contended that episcopacy, since it was tried and tested by time and did not violate any command of Scripture, was a godly and appropriate way of organizing the church. Puritans responded that the defenders of episcopacy missed the point, for they neglected to follow the positive teachings of the Bible. Puritans argued that Scripture laid down specific rules for constructing and governing churches. Furthermore, the Bible taught a system of church order that was not based on bishops. Puritans maintained this conviction even when they failed among themselves to agree on what that biblical system was. But even these disagreements were fruitful, for they grounded the modern polity of Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists as well.

The reason that Puritan beliefs concerning salvation, Scripture, and the church created such upheaval was their fourth basic conviction, that God had sanctioned the solidarity of society. Most Puritans believed that a single, coordinated set of authorities should govern life in society. The result was that Puritans sought nothing less than to make all England Puritan. Only late during the Puritan Commonwealth did ideas of toleration and of what is known today as pluralism arise, but these ideas were combated by most Puritans themselves and firmly set to rest for another generation by the restoration of Charles II.

From a modern vantage point the intolerance entailed by a unified view of society has harmed the Puritans' reputation. From a more disinterested perspective it is possible also to see great advantages. The Puritans succeeded in bursting the bonds of mere religiosity in their efforts to serve God. Puritanism was one of the moving forces in the rise of the English Parliament in the early seventeenth century. For good and for ill, it provided a foundation for the first great political revolution in modern times. It gave immigrants to Massachusetts a social vision whose comprehensively Christian character has never been matched in America. And, for such a putatively uncreative movement, it liberated vast energies in literature as well.

Notable Puritans

The Puritans enjoyed a great number of forceful preachers and teachers. The learned Dr. William Ames explained "the doctrine of living of God" in The Marrow of Theology, a book used as a text during the first fifty years of Harvard College. The sermons and tracts of William Perkins outlined with sympathy the steps that a repentant sinner should take to find God. John Preston preached the severity of God's law and the wideness of his mercy fearlessly in the courts of James I and Charles I. John Owen, adviser to Cromwell and vice - chancellor of the University of Oxford, wrote theological treatises on the atonement and on the Holy Spirit which still influence Calvinistic thought in the English - speaking world. His contemporary, Richard Baxter, published nearly two hundred works expounding the virtues of theological moderation and the truths of what C S Lewis in the twentieth century would call "mere Christianity." In America, Boston's John Cotton labored to present God's glory in conversion, and Hartford's Thomas Hooker glorified God in the labors of the converted.

The Westminster Confession and Catechisms which Puritan divines wrote at the request of Parliament (1643 - 47) remain a guide to Reformed theology, especially in Presbyterian circles, to this day. Together, the works of the Puritans comprise Protestantism's most extensive library of sacred and practical theology.

Important as the contributions of ministers were, the greatest contribution of Puritans to Christian history probably resided with its laymen. The English - speaking world has never seen such a cluster of thoroughly Christian political leaders as the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, the governor of Massachusetts John Winthrop, or the governor of Plymouth William Bradford. These leaders erred, perhaps often, but they yet devoted their lives to public service, self - consciously and whole - heartedly, out of deepest gratitude to the God of their salvation.

We also glimpse the genius of Puritanism when we look beyond its politicians to its writers. It is all too easy to forget that John Milton, who in Paradise Lost dared "assert Eternal Providence / And justify the ways of God to men," had earlier defended the execution of Charles I and served as Cromwell's Latin (or corresponding) secretary. John Bunyan served in Cromwell's army and preached as a layman during the Commonwealth before he was jailed in Bedford for his Puritan beliefs, where he redeemed the time by writing The Pilgrim's Progress. In America, Puritanism produced a woman poet of note in Anne Bradstreet (1616 - 72). It also gave us the poems of Edward Taylor (1645 - 1729), a retiring country minister. Taylor's meditations, composed to prepare his own heart for quarterly celebrations of the Lord's Supper, are among the finest poems ever written by an American.


The Puritans resemble other groups in Christian history who, in forsaking all for God, have won back not only God but much of the world as well. They stand with the early Franciscans, the Protestant Reformers, the Jesuits, the Anabaptists, the early Methodists, and the Reformed Dutch of the late nineteenth century who, in their own separate ways, were transfixed by the glories of redemption and who went far in redeeming the world around themselves. With these groups the Puritans also verified the truth of the gospel words: they sought first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and much more was added to them besides.

Mark A Noll
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

E H Emerson, ed., English Puritanism from John Hooper to John Milton; D Neal, The History of the Puritans; W Haller, The Rise of Puritanism; P Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement; C Hill, Society and Puritanism in Pre - Revolutionary England; R S Paul, The Lord Protector: Religion and Politics in the Life of Oliver Cromwell; R Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae; P Miller and T Johnson, eds., The Puritans; F J Bremer, The Puritan Experiment; P Miller, The New England Mind; S Bercovitch, The Puritan Origins of the American Self; E S Morgan, The Puritan Family and the Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop; W Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation.


Catholic Information

One of the chief difficulties in studying the various movements loosely spoken of as Puritanism is to frame an exact definition capable of including the varied and sometimes mutually inconsistent forms of belief usually classified under that name. In its original meaning it signified "those who strove for a worship purified from all taint of popery" (Maitland, op. cit. inf., 590). A more recent writer adopting and expanding this definition adds: "The many various sects and persons who fall under this definition, were usually characterized both by an aversion from gaiety and by a passionate love of civic freedom" (Trevelyan, op. cit. inf., 60). We may see the first beginnings of English Puritanism in the attitude of those who in 1563 entered into the "Vestiarian Controversy" by opposing the use, by the clergy, of the cap and gown in daily life and of the surplice in church. English exiles from Geneva were active in the cause, and by 1565 their resistance to the queen's wishes subjected some of them to loss of benefices. This controversy of rights and vestments developed into a controversy of polity, until Presbyterianism emerged in antagonism to Episcopalianism. Yet in the process the movement developed on such divergent lines that Puritanism soon included three different theories of Church government. First there were the moderates who were willing to retain government by bishops, though they preferred the title "superintendent", but who wished the usages of the Establishment to conform more nearly to Genevan practices. Those who held this system were in agreement with the Scottish Presbyterianism which had been established by John Knox. Secondly there were the strict Presbyterians who wished for the Calvinistic form of government as well as the theology and order of worship. In England the movement was led by Thomas Cartwright of Cambridge, whose doctrine that there should be equality of authority and that bishop and presbyter were all one was soon adopted in Scotland. Thirdly there were the Free Churchmen or Independents who repudiated all coercive power in the Church and wished all men to be free in forming congregations. Their leader was Robert Brown, whose followers were at first persecuted by Anglicans and Presbyterians alike, but whose descendants grew in power and influence until under Oliver Cromwell they became the predominant party.

The three bodies differed from one another in doctrine, in ecclesiastical polity, and in their view of toleration. The strength of Puritanism as common to these three bodies lay in the results effected by the general study of the Bible, in which the Puritans learned the relations of man with God as exemplified in the histories and parables of Holy Writ. This private study of the Scriptures was carried on by the aid of private interpretation which inevitably resulted in the multiplication of minor sects such as Fifth Monarchy men, Levellers, Diggers, and others. Thus Puritanism could never attain a recognized dogmatic system. At first it shared many Calvinistic views with the theologians of the Established Church, but these were abandoned by some and Calvin's doctrines were rejected first by the Baptists and afterwards by the Quakers and the Unitarians. However, the lack of a consistent theology was the less felt because of the great stress which the Puritans laid upon "serving God in spirit and in truth" - by feeling and conduct rather than by doctrine. This spirit is most pronounced in the Puritan works which achieved the highest popularity: Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress", George Fox's "Journal", Thomas Ellwood's "History of My Own Life" and Baxter's "Saint's Everlasting Rest". In matters of Church government some kind of system became necessary and the Scottish Presbyterians evolved a plan, embodied in the First Book of Discipline which had been drawn up in the Edinburgh Assembly of 1560, and which was concerned chiefly with the congregation itself. This was supplemented by the Second Book of Discipline of 1578 which regulated the dependence of the congregation on the higher courts. By it Presbyterianism was fully established; for the superintendents were abolished and all authority was transferred from individual ministers to four bodies, the Kirk Session, the Presbytery, the Provincial Synod, and the General Assembly.

The English Puritans regarded this system from two diametrically opposed points of view. It was approved by the Presbyterians and condemned by the Independents. But for a time they were kept united by the common necessity of opposing the alliance between the High Church party and the Crown which took place under James I. The struggle became political, and the Arminianism, Episcopalianism, and divine right of the sovereign maintained by the one party were opposed by the Calvinism, Presbyterianism, and Republicanism of the other. When the enactments of the Long Parliament had resulted in victory for the Puritans, their own internal differences clamoured for settlement and the Westminster Assembly of 1643 was an unsuccessful attempt at composing them. The four parties, Moderate Presbyterians, Scottish Presbyterians, Erastians, and Independents having quarrelled fiercely, agreed on a compromise favouring the Moderates. The Presbyterians, however, gradually lost ground, owing to the growing power of the Independents who had the strong support of Cromwell and his army. They in their turn were destroyed as a political power by the Restoration, since when Puritanism ceased to be a force in England under that name, and survived only in the various Nonconformist sects which have increased and multiplied in number down to the present day, without, however, any augmentation of collective strength. Many of these bodies have long ceased to represent Puritanism in any respect save that of dissent from the Established Church. One of the most picturesque incidents in the history of Puritanism and one of far reaching influence on subsequent American history was the departure of the "Pilgrim Fathers" - seventy-four English Puritans and twenty-eight women - who sailed from England in the May Flower and landed on Plymouth Rock, 25 December, 1620. There they founded a colony, representing both types, the Plymouth colony being Congregationalists, the Massachusetts Bay settlers, Presbyterians.

Publication information Written by Edwin Burton. Transcribed by M.E. Smith. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XII. Published 1911. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York


CAMPBELL, "Puritanism in Holland, England, and America" (London, 1892); DEXTER, "England and Holland" (London, 1906); GREGORY, "Puritanism" (London, 1895); WAKEMAN, "The Church and the Puritans: 1570-1660" (London, 1887); BYINGTON, "The Puritan in England and New England" (London, 1896), giving a useful bibliography; NEAL, "History of the Puritans, 1517-1688" (London, 1822); STOWELL AND WILSON, "History of the Puritans in England" (London, 1849); HOPKINS, "The Puritans: Church, Court and Parliament during the reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth" (Boston, 1859-61); MARSDEN, "History of the early Puritans, to 1642" (London, 1850); IDEM, "History of the later Puritans, 1642-62" (London, 1852); TULLOCH, "English Puritanism and its leaders" (Edinburgh, 1861); MAITLAND, "The Anglican Settlement and the Scottish Reformation" in "Cambridge Modern History", II (Cambridge, 1903); TREVELYAN, "England under the Stuarts" (London, 1904). See also "Reprints of the Clarendon Historical Society" (Edinburgh, 1882-6).

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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