Lecture 4:
The Puritans

By the late 1500s and early 1600s, people were emigrating from various parts of Europe to settle permanently in the North American colonies. Those who had the most influence on American culture were the Puritans.

A bit of historical background: The Protestant Reformation began in 1517 in Germany, when Martin Luther challenged the authority of the Catholic Church. The Reformation was begun as an attempt to reform the Catholic Church, but the reformers quickly splintered into various groups, each with its own set of doctrines. Those who rejected the doctrines of the Catholic Church to form or join one of these new groups came to be known as Protestants.

In 1531, England joined the Protestant Reformation, as King Henry VIII rejected the authority of the Catholic Church and declared himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England. The Church of England, also known as the Anglican Church, kept much of the ritual and doctrine of the Catholic Church.

Not all welcomed the split from the Catholic Church, but there were others who thought Henry hadn't gone far enough. The Puritans were among these. The Puritans believed that the Church of England should be purged of the hierarchy, traditions, and ceremonies inherited from the Roman Church. Their doctrines differed from those of the Anglicans in several other ways, as well:

Henry VIII was succeeded by Queen Elizabeth I; after her death in 1603, King James I took the throne. He favored the Catholic Church more, and his decisions were disturbing to the Puritans, who saw signs of economic depression as signs of God's anger with the English government. In 1625, Charles I became king. He was married to a Catholic, and was, the Puritans considered, too "soft" on Catholicism. He allowed the Church to fall into the "sin" of Arminianism, i.e., the belief that men, by their own will power, could achieve grace and thus win salvation.

More and more Puritans began to consider leaving England, especially as new laws were passed that made it harder and harder for them to work or run businesses. Some had already left: in 1608, a large group (including William Bradford) went to Holland. There, despite the religious freedoms offered by the Dutch government, they found themselves isolated and poor, and returned to England. They applied for a charter to settle in the Virginia Plantation, which then stretched from Virginia to New England. They sailed from Southampton in September 1620. Sixty-six days later, they arrived at Cape Cod and established a colony at Plymouth.

John Smith was part of this group.

The more influential group was that which came to Plymouth on the Arbella in 1630, led by John Winthrop.

John Winthrop was a respected, wealthy, influential lawyer and landowner. When he left England, he left his wife, Margaret, who was pregnant, behind. They agreed to think of each other every Monday and Friday between 5 and 6 o'clock.

The sea voyage was very rough, and lasted 2 months. The travellers were plagued by inadequate food and lots of illness. When they arrived June 30, 1630, at Salem, they were already exhausted. But at the Salem settlement, they found no help. They saw only a straggling collection of huts, hovels, and canvas booths. Only a few hundred acres of forest had been cleared. Of the original 144 settlers, 39 had died on the voyage and 45 died shortly after of malaria. A number had died the preceding winter. By now, there were only a few left, living in horrible conditions. Instead of getting help, Winthrop's people would have to give it. This was a frightening prospect. There were 400 people on Winthrop's ship. Six hundred more were on the way. Many had no provisions, and those who did often had provisions that were useless. Few knew how to hunt or fish. Only a few had brought tents. The French and Spanish had rival colonies nearby which could attack at any time, as could the hostile Indians in the neighborhood.

After doing some investigating, Winthrop ordered the whole group to relocate to Charlestown, several miles away. It was larger, lighter, less damp, closer to a protected bay, and more defensible. Then he organized the settlers into groups to gather and grow food, mostly corn. The settlers dug caves in hillsides, roofed over cellars, and built wigwams. Only a few built frame houses that first year; there simply wasn't time before winter came.

But the water supply in Charlestown turned out to be limited, and after a few settlers died of drinking polluted water in October 1630, Winthrop and most of the others crossed over to what became Boston, where they remained. Boston became the political and economic center of the colony.

The first winter was the worst. Over 200 people died, most of cold, starvation, and fire. In the spring, 80 people returned to England. But the rest stayed, planted crops, and flourished. During the next ten years, over 20,000 people crossed the ocean to the Massachusetts colony.

The Puritans made many demands on human nature. They had committed themselves to create a society in which the will of God would be observed in every detail. To achieve this, they felt, they must all work together. Individual needs came behind the needs of the community. They'd been singled out to serve as models for others, and no sin, therefore, could be allowed to go unpunished. Families were the basis of righteousness: parents disciplined children and also servants and boarders. No one was allowed to live alone: unmarried men and women were required to live with families. Parents were obligated to teach children and servants to read, so they could read the Bible for themselves. Church attendance was required, and church members felt it was their obligation to censure, even excommunicate, those who sinned.

This makes it sound as if the Puritans were austere and humorless, but they weren't. They enjoyed life. Extremes of all sorts were considered immoral, but moderate behavior was acceptable. For example, alcohol was allowed, but drunkenness was immoral. The Puritans didn't dress in drab clothes or repress their sexual desires or avoid physical pleasures. They ate well when they could; they had parties and wrestling matches. Adultery was a sin, but engaged couples indulged in "bundling." That is, they slept in the same bed, but with a "bundling board"--a board that separated the two halves of the bed--between them. Everyone smoked. Young men grew their hair long, and both young men and women dressed flamboyantly, with wigs, straw hats, satin trousers, silk stockings, golden gloves, and fancy shoes with gold and silver buckles.

But they took their religion very seriously. Puritanism had two major doctrines:

The Puritans found this doctrine terrifying and challenging. They worked hard: acquisition of wealth was, to them, a sign that one may be "saved." One's good works or hard work could not determine one's salvation, of course, but success might reveal one's election.

Every act, every event, was thus given heightened significance. Anything could be a sign or a symbol. And anything that was perceived as a threat to the established order--God's order--must be eliminated. Quakers, for example, were imprisoned or banished. Some were whipped through the streets, or had ears or tongues cut off. Some, one a woman, were hanged. In response, some came to church services to rebuke the Puritans. Some even came naked to church.

As more people arrived in the new colonies, and more dissenters, governing became important. It was the only way to keep the various churches from splintering society.

John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, didn't believe in democracy. He believed that most people were uneducated and unfit to rule. But, ironically, he started the Massachusetts colony on its way to democracy. On October 19, 1630, at Charlestown, he held a town meeting. All free men voted to accept their first constitution and elect officers. The people's power was limited: once they had elected governing officers, those officers made the rules and laws until the next election. But Winthrop knew that people would submit to rule more easily if they had had a voice in electing the rulers.

One of the responsibilities of the Puritans was to spread their beliefs. They established Harvard at Cambridge in 1636, only 6 years after Winthrop settled in Boston. More important, they wrote. There were many other groups of settlers but the Puritans were the most influential because they wrote sermons, journals, tracts, poems, and pronouncements detailing their reasoning about religious issues.

They held in especially high regard history and biography. They believed that lasting truths were learned by studying the lives of noble men. The Puritans saw all of time as a progression towards the fulfillment of God's design on earth. Small events, they believed, carried God's lessons, and nothing was chance. Thus, every action, every event was examined from many angles to determine its significance in this scheme.

So although the Puritans didn't survive, their influence did: their habit of self-inquiry and analysis; their view of human nature; their attitude toward history--all can still be seen in our culture today in one form or another. So can their belief, as stated so eloquently by John Winthrop, that their purpose was to be "as a city upon a hill."

For more information on this topic, go to the Links page.

Some of the information in this lecture derives from:

1. Morgan, Edmund S. The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop.
2. Eds. George and Barbara Perkins. The American Tradition in Literature.

--The mural on this page is called "Rural Highway." It's the mural painted for the Middleport, N.Y. Post Office by Marianne Appel in 1941. More information about this mural can be found at Western New York Heritage Press.

--During the Depression in the 1930s and early 1940s, the U.S. government commissioned a number of murals for post offices across the United States. Many of these were quite amazing. To read more about them, CLICK HERE.