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The Original Puritans

At Thanksgiving, Americans recount a lot of mythology about the Pilgrims and their religious ideology. But what did they actually believe?

Maggie Phillips
November 22, 2022
Religious Literacy in America
Tablet talks about Judaism a lot, but sometimes we like to change the subject. Maggie Phillips covers religious communities across the U.S.—from Christians to Muslims, Hindus to Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witnesses to pagans—to find out what they’re talking about.
See all in Religious Literacy in America →︎
Karlotta Freier
Karlotta Freier
Karlotta Freier
Karlotta Freier

This Thanksgiving, we’ll be treated to the usual images of Pilgrims sitting down to dinner with their Native American neighbors—alongside reminders that the first Thanksgiving wasn’t like that, actually—and a host of New York Times and NPR stories about the historically fraught nature of the modern celebration. We’ll hear less about what the Pilgrims actually believed as Puritans.

As the root word suggests, the Puritans were interested in purity. Based on the name, the understandable assumption is often that they were interested in moral purity of the sterner sort, which is why they came down so hard on extramarital sex, gambling, and Christmas. And while that was definitely part of it (for a lot of them), they were actually primarily interested in curing the Protestant Church of England of its popish hangover, which meant purifying it of the vestments, chanting, smells, and bells. However, as you may have noticed from the pomp and circumstance of the last few royal weddings and funerals in the U.K., or from the lack of people identifying as such here in the States, the Puritans who set out to reform the Church of England, before finally deciding to start from scratch in New England, didn’t exactly succeed on their own terms. Their movement of independent congregations continues today, although modern progressive Congregationalist churches offering comprehensive sex ed are a far cry from Arthur Dimmesdale and Samuel Parris. But if, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about, recent books like Noah Rothman’s Rise of the New Puritans: Fighting Back Against Progressives’ War on Fun and Andrew Doyle’s The New Puritans: How the Religion of Social Justice Captured the Western World are only the latest indicators that throughout our nation’s history, Puritans have enjoyed continued success.

Americans learn the basics about the Pilgrims in school: They were 17th-century Puritans from England by way of the Netherlands, who sought religious freedom and authored the Mayflower Compact. They had a rough initial go of it after they arrived at Plymouth Rock, and they brought disease with them that devastated the indigenous population. Depending on where you went to high school or your college major, you might also be familiar with King Philip’s War, but the American history curriculum tends to treat Puritan New England as simply the opening strains of the overture before the curtain opens on the Revolution. In English class, assigned reading like The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible is the likely reason “puritan” or “puritanical” are often used as epithets in the broader culture. So, this Thanksgiving, let’s get some answers. What exactly was a Puritan? Was it the same thing as a Pilgrim? Where did they go after they killed all those poor people in Salem? And why do they reemerge every so often as a national metaphor for either paranoid intolerance or the indomitable American spirit?

“Pilgrim” is more of an aesthetic association in the U.S. at this point (take, for example, the iconic buckled hat signs that dot the Massachusetts Turnpike, the arrow through it long since removed). Like Spinal Tap and the Druids, most Americans don’t really know who the Pilgrims were, or what they were doing, beyond seeking religious freedom far from the meddling of the British crown. Patriotic rhetoric and school history books point to freedom to worship as the guiding principle of early New England colonists, and hence, a foundational virtue of the American experiment, but they seldom elaborate on the actual beliefs that motivated them.

One reason for this might be that an American audience doesn’t need much convincing that a small religious sect would want to escape persecution from the king of England, because the king of England is always the bad guy. School House Rock taught us this, and Hamilton confirmed it. But the other might be that Puritanism itself was pretty complicated.

Michael P. Winship’s book Hot Protestants is an exhaustive chronicle of the rise and fall of the Puritan movement, from its earliest inception at the beginning of the Reformation, to its brief run under Cromwell’s Interregnum as the only going religious concern in the republican Commonwealth, and finally, its collapse as a result of factional rivalry among its various splinter groups. (Presbyterians were also Puritans, as it happens, and often the Congregationalists’ chief rivals for the direction of the movement in England, although they didn’t really take off in the New World until the 18th century.) The Puritans’ goal was a pure church in a Calvinist England, and they saw themselves as the vanguard of that future. At last wearying of the pushback from various quarters against their model of autonomous congregations free from state control, a group of Puritans left for the Calvinist stronghold of the Netherlands, before finally striking out for America in 1620 (the name “Pilgrim” was bestowed on them later).

Calvinism came out of Geneva, originating in the mid-1500s with an influential French Protestant thinker and former lawyer named John Calvin. The precise definition of Calvinism itself is a subject of debate in theological and historical circles, and there are those who argue that Calvin himself did not set out to establish a theological system, per se. Calvin biographer William J. Bouwsma wrote that Calvin’s school of Christian thought is better thought of as a kind of spirituality that was focused on personal experience, and applying Christian scriptures to daily life. In Bouwsma’s telling, it was later Protestant theologians who cherry-picked and emphasized different aspects of Calvin’s writings to develop Calvinism as a set of formal doctrines, which various burgeoning Protestant denominations in turn adopted and systematized. According to Winship’s summary of the brand of Calvinism that took hold with the English Puritans, each person was seen as being born in “total depravity,” with a nature so thoroughly corrupted by original sin that the only thing humanity deserved by right was eternal damnation. This theology argued that Jesus Christ’s suffering and death repaid the debt to God that each person inherits by dint of their inherently sinful natures. Accompanying this set of beliefs was the doctrine of double predestination, or the belief that only the “elect” are chosen for salvation, while some are destined for hell. In this schema, once the elect choose to commit their lives to God through Jesus Christ, they are effectively part of Christ’s own person. It followed for the Puritans, Winship writes, that in the eyes of God, the elect were then considered by God to be sharers in Christ’s life of obedience to the divine will, up to and including his own suffering and death at the Crucifixion, which was the atonement for their sinfulness.

An overriding preoccupation of the Puritan mind, then, was to determine whether one was among the heaven-bound elect. On the one hand, they believed, there was a Covenant of Grace, in which Christ’s good works and blameless life meant that the elect did not have to, nor could they, merit heaven by their own good works, with Jesus supplying everything on that front. On the other, they believed that “if it be a right faith, it will worke, there will be life and motion in it,” in the words of John Preston, an Anglican minister with Puritan sympathies. Therefore, the Puritan religious experience was intensely personal and interior-focused, with close, fervent attention paid to conduct, thoughts, and feelings that would indicate once and for all that one was among the elect. This process was an intense journey into one’s own heart of darkness that was intended to be challenging. The Reformation’s emphasis on reading the Bible for oneself, and the Puritan perception of religion as a deeply personal struggle, is why, according to Winship, the highly literate New England Puritans left behind so many personal written accounts trying “to decipher what God was teaching” them through the events of their lives. Such primary sources formed the basis for much of the dialogue in director Robert Eggers’ Puritan horror film The VVitch: A New-England Folktale, and to be sure, working out one’s own predestined status could be so harrowing, and was such a dominant topic in 17th-century Europe, that even the future Catholic saint Francis de Sales became convinced he was predestined for hell, and sank into a deep depression for weeks.

A little over decade after landing on Plymouth Rock, Winship writes, the Pilgrims in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were requiring prospective new members of their churches to not only visibly act like members of the elect, but to provide personal narrative statements on how, exactly, they really knew they were elect. The men of the church would then assess the quality of the narratives to deliberate membership and, if accepted, male members were accorded voting rights in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Unlike their Presbyterian counterparts in the Puritan movement, who still held out for the idea of a national church, albeit less hierarchical than the extant Anglican one, the Pilgrims were Congregationalists, which meant they had broken entirely with the Church of England model of bishops and parish churches, in favor of autonomous congregations run by democratically elected laymen, and which cooperated with other independent congregations on a purely voluntary basis. In Massachusetts, the governor worked closely with churches to keep things running smoothly. Winship writes that rather than a state church, the “Congregationalist ideal” was a “a voluntary, spiritually elitist, state-encouraged church.” (New World Presbyterians would later emerge as an influential faction in the more theologically tolerant mid-Atlantic colonies, their numbers increasing rapidly in the early 18th century as a wave of Presbyterian Scottish and Scotch-Irish immigrants arrived.)

Winship’s book chronicles the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II in 1661, which saw the fortunes of Puritans and other “nonconformist” offshoots such as the Quakers and Baptists wax and wane, depending on the leadership in Parliament or the Church of England at any given time. The king himself, suspected of harboring Catholic sympathies, was generally in favor of religious tolerance. His brother James was openly pro-Catholic, however, which created a temporary alliance of convenience among the country’s various Protestant factions to replace him with the Protestant Dutch ruler William of Orange and his wife, James’ daughter, Mary (of William & Mary fame) in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. However, by that time, there was very little convinced Calvinism to be found in the Church of England, and as Winship writes, Congregationalism was a victim of its own lack of a unified doctrine, which “dissolved [their] hope for a national network of autonomous churches held together by a state-supported Calvinist doctrine.” In England, the dream was effectively dead.

Meanwhile, as Massachusetts got bigger and wealthier throughout the 1660s, Winship’s account said that the colony was seeing more Anglicans arrive in their prosperous ports, and the Crown wanted them to be able to worship in the state-sanctioned Anglican manner, a right that the colony’s Puritan leaders were unwilling to grant out of concern that it would “disturb our peace.” This external threat of religious pluralism was exacerbated by an internal one that proved to be a feature, rather than a bug, for the colonies’ radical experiment in theological self-government. The initial revolutionary fervor, which had led Puritans to abandon the comforts and familiarity of home in order to build the “New Jerusalem,” had burned bright, but it was fizzling out. Intense commitment to their all-consuming theological program was not necessarily replicating itself in their children, for whom the rigors of that old time religion were frequently proving burdensome. Winship writes that the result in many places was a lower barrier to entry, with less rigorous scrutiny over members’ personal character, and in some places, members’ children being baptized into churches more or less automatically, by the logic of a kind of spiritual transitive property.

Eventually, this more expansive version of Congregationalism won out in America. Moreover, in the 1680s, the restored monarchy took away the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s original royal charter, which had allowed them relative autonomy, and sent them a royally appointed governor (with an Anglican priest in tow). By 1692, Winship writes, the four horsemen of the Puritan Apocalypse—an Anglo-French proxy war, Quakers making theological inroads with the population while dissenters decamped for other more tolerant colonies, the end of close church and state relations in Massachusetts under William of Orange’s policy of broad inter-Protestant toleration, and an apparent epidemic of witchcraft in and around Salem—had arrived in New England, and made themselves thoroughly at home.

Even as Puritanism diluted and transmuted into other philosophical and spiritual movements, Americans in nearly every era remained fascinated by perceived Puritan influence on contemporary mores and behavior. Although the word “Puritan” evoked censorious reactionary prudishness almost since the beginning, for most of the 20th century, it was leveled at conservatives and reactionaries. Targets included McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, or the types, as Rothman writes in The Rise of the New Puritans, who “wanted to limit your access to the perverting influences” of (the artists formerly known as) The Dixie Chicks. In recent years, however, the pendulum appears to have swung, and we see accusations of scolding dogmatism being applied frequently by the right toward progressives, and their perceived intransigence on the need to conform to certain (secular) pieties.

But it was not ever thus, according to Rothman. There is “a popular mythology that long ago outlived its usefulness,” he said in a direct Twitter message to Tablet, which “postulates that the vestiges of prudish American puritanism are exclusive to the political right.” Instead, he said, “with the policing and enforcement of moral frameworks again becoming a feature of the left, America’s vestigial puritanism is assuming a form that is far more historically familiar.”

Progressive causes and Protestantism in the U.S. frequently went hand-in-hand, from Prohibition to expanded public education, as the 19th century became the 20th. Indeed, the Social Gospel movement, the inspiration for many of the reforms of the Progressive Era, was led in its early years by Congregationalist minister Washington Gladden. In his book, Rothman quotes George McKenna, author of The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism, on the art of the overlapping Gilded Age and early Progressive Era: “The Puritans’ ethic of self-discipline and austerity was reflected in the numerous paintings and sculptures of Puritans that appeared during this period.” If this seems somewhat paradoxical—the cultural exultation of sober self-reliance alongside the excesses of the robber barons—consider that the progenitor of the New Deal was the blue-blooded FDR, himself the son of a cradle Congregationalist.

Rothman has a theory behind what he sees as a shift, from the late-20th-century paradigm of conservative Republicans as the “Just Say No” party fearful that “someone, somewhere, may be happy,” to progressive “New Puritans,” who, he writes in his book, “are draining life of its spontaneity, authenticity and fun.” Contending in his book that while the Democratic Party had broadened its tent by the 1990s to include upholders of the ’60s’ revolutionary legacy, by contrast, in 2016, Republicans were nominating a three-time divorced Howard Stern Show regular. “Conservatives didn’t so much lose the culture wars as much as they simply fled the field,” he writes.

Of course, the actual spiritual descendants of the New England Puritans, who began as radicals in their native England, are Congregationalists like the United Church of Christ, who are themselves fairly progressive on social issues. And when the idealistic utopianism of the Transcendentalist movement arose in the 19th century, with a focus on the primacy of the self and individual personal experience, it did so in the old Puritan stronghold of New England. Among its most prominent spokesmen was Ralph Waldo Emerson, the son of a Unitarian (itself an outgrowth of Congregationalism) minister at the First Church of Boston, which had been founded by the Puritan John Winthrop of “City Upon a Hill“ fame. In his landmark address, Winthrop warned his fellow New England Puritans that the eyes of the world were upon them, and as such, righteous living was essential. The reward, he wrote, would be a New England that was “a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, ‘the Lord make it like that of New England.’”

“Today,” Rothman said in his message to Tablet, “as the left gravitates away from liberalism and toward progressivism, they are assuming many of progressivism’s conceits—chief among them, a messianic utopianism that views everything, even life’s most banal pleasures, through the prism of political activism.”

But contradiction is something the Puritans accepted as a fact of life. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” wrote the Apostle Paul to the young church at Philippi, and the Puritans took this charge seriously. “The [P]uritan life,” Winship writes, was “much more likely to involve protracted struggle with fear and doubt than it would a steady sense of God’s love.” They were a people ill-at-ease: with themselves, with each other, and with the wider world. That we perennially recast each other and ourselves in the New England Puritans’ story may suggest that the real mark that they left on the American character is something altogether more ambiguous than the saccharine annual depictions at Thanksgiving suggest.

This story is part of a series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.

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