Fading Puritanismby Rit Nosotro
Change Over Time essay
Trace the social changes related to Puritanism in New England between the first religiously separatist and then puritan settlers from England to the gradual fading of the puritan movement (at least in name).
The Great Awakening, and simple growth in numbers and diversity would end pure Puritanism within a few generations.
-The first Puritans were those who wanted to purify the Church of England and immigrated to America during the 17th century to escape persecution
-The Puritans formed a colony in New England where church and state were meshed together
-At the beginning all Puritans were required to attend church
-As time went on the Puritans began to expand and the Quakers and Baptists began expanding as well
-In 1662 the Puritans instituted the Halfway Covenant where a person could be baptized and be a part of the church while still not having a conversion
-In 1734 the Great Awakening broke out which emphasized a personal individual repentance and minimized the importance of the relation of religion to the community
“The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely
with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his
present help from us, we shall be made a story and byword throughout the world…”1
said John Winthrop, en route to New England with a thousand other Puritans in
1630. The society the Puritans built would have a profound effect on the history
of the United States. Puritan values like freedom of religion, education, and
hard work as the path to riches were passed on even as their authority-heavy
church-based community gradually disintegrated through the proliferation of
different denominations, the greater individualism of the Great Awakening, and
simple growth in numbers and diversity would end pure Puritanism within a few
The original Puritans were reformers, almost idealists. Leaving England, they had acknowledged their failure to purify (hence the name) the Anglican church, but they had a new hope: to create a Godly society in the New World, protected from the intrusions of the king by their charter, the document which authorized the colony. This society was centered around the village and the church. All colonists were legally required to attend church, and only confirmed Christian men could vote. Paradoxically, while each village/church kept close watch on its members, there was no church hierarchy, and to a degree, individual churches were free. Under the circumstances, this was not discrimination, since practically all members of the colony were Christians. The conformism the colonists required was a natural offshoot of their unity and the oppression they’d faced on both sides of the Atlantic. They created a rarity in the history of Christianity: a society made up totally of Christians and melding church and government.
Between 1630 and 1640 around 20,000 emigrants, not all of them Puritan, crossed the Atlantic to New England. After 1640 political upheaval in England would practically end emigration, but the colonists would continue to expand in numbers and in territory, spreading westward and along the coast into Indian property. But as their numbers increased and as Puritans of slightly different persuasions arrived in New England, losses of unity were inevitable. The Puritans’ normal recourse was to send troublemakers back to England, but a man named Roger Williams (who supported Indians’ rights and greater religious freedom) escaped this and led a group who broke off in 1636 and started a new colony, building the town of Providence and eventually obtaining a royal charter for the territory of Rhode Island. Another split came when John Davenport founded New Haven in 1640. Quakers and Baptists also began to appear in the area, and were often ill-treated by the Puritans.
By 1662, even the mainstream Puritans were realizing that they couldn’t maintain such a tightly restricted environment. Change came in the form of the Half-Way Covenant, which essentially expanded the possibility of partial membership – a halfway position in which a person could be baptized but had not yet had a conversion “experience”. Specifically, children of partial members could now also be baptized. The aftermath of the tragic Salem Witch Trials, which marked a huge travesty on justice and killed twenty people, further weakened the integration between government and religion.
In 1734, a little more than a century since the Puritans had arrived in New England, a second great religious event occurred – the Great Awakening. Most credit Jonathan Edwards for beginning the American Great Awakening with his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Interestingly, though, the Great Awakening did not prompt a re-emergence of Puritanism. Because it emphasized individual repentance, it decreased community’s importance in relation to religion and increased the importance of the individual. This increased the number of new denominations emerging. While individuals would continue to follow the Puritan lifestyle, as a community affair Puritanism was at an end.
Puritan ideas continued to have a large effect on American society. Historians heatedly debate the role of the Puritans in the American Revolution. While some emphasize the economic factors or the role of deists, it’s clear that the Puritans built much of the foundation for the revolution. Their self-reliance was in stark contrast to many colonies’ dependence on the colonizing country, and set the stage for a complete severance of ties. Many Puritan ideas would become important concepts in the revolution, such as a favorable attitude toward Parliament as opposed to the king, no man being higher than the law, and the emphasis that they gave to personal consent in different institutions.
Many paradoxes surround the Puritans. They left England because of religious persecution and emphasized freedom from a controlling church hierocracy, but exiled their own members who had small theological differences. They encouraged hard work and well-earned riches, but opposed worldly excesses. Their tight-knit, restrictive society could not maintain itself as their numbers and territory increased, but they left America with key values that would lead the country toward prosperity, a republican form of government, and education, as well as leaving a valuable legacy of the importance of faith.
Although the essay is about a denomination of Christianity the author wrote the essay rather objectively. It is difficult to tell whether the author had a Biblical worldview or not. In order to integrate a Biblical worldview the author could’ve expounded upon the reasons why the society eventually failed; such as the society was eventually made up of those forced to be Christians and not those who had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ or the fact that man has a natural tendency towards evil, chaos, and disorder. The author also could’ve commented on the importance of having a personal relationship with Jesus rather than simply being “Christian” because your family or community are Christians.
1 “John Winthrop”. A biography. Bigelow, Rod. http://bigelowsociety.com/rod/winthis2.htm
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