Sometimes, it is hard to imagine that religious ideas have enough power not only to change the minds of people but also to build a new society with new principles. The most significant example of such religious power that radically changed the world is Puritanism. Puritanism is usually explained as a religious movement that emerged in England in the late 16th century. Nobody could suppose that its followers would define the destiny of the United States of America. Puritanism should be recognized by people as a phenomenon that provided the ethical basis of this country because the American society in a way everyone can see it nowadays takes roots in the times of British colonization.
The teaching of Puritanism arose in the British Isles around 1560, “when dissident members of the Church of England, still the mother church of the Anglican Communion today, attempted to “purify” it by removing all trace of its Roman Catholic past.” The Puritans were sure that the Church of England did not work enough on its reforms according to the fact that a lot of elements of the outer religiosity seemed to be extremely Catholic. New bishops continued leading the luxurious life, whereas Ecclesiastical courts were quite remarkable for their corruption. As one knows, the king of England owned positions of both state and church state; therefore, Puritanism followers opposed not only the religious but also the civil authority of the country.
1630 was the crucial year in the history of humankind, especially future American history, because it was the time when the Puritans decided to move to America. It was not the first migration to America because the Pilgrims have already settled in America ten years before. However, there was a difference between these two groups of English religious people. The Pilgrims aimed to break with the Church of England, whereas the Puritans had a strong vision of its reformation. Approximately 700 people, including the leader John Winthrop, came on the board of the ship “Arbella” and started the way to the new life.
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After the arrival to the modern American territories that they called “New England,” the followers of Puritanism set up the Colony of the Massachusetts Bay in a particular city they called Boston. At this place, they established churches that were functioning in a similar way as Pilgrims’ churches at Plymouth. In 10 years, their community had grown to more than 10 000 people and spread to other areas beyond the New England such as Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire and Connecticut.
The important fact that should be mentioned is that the Puritans moved to America with the entire families unlike previous waves of migrations that consisted mostly of young unattached men. Such migration had more chances to save and even spread their religious and social ideas because family connections were strong, and it provided the unity among people who were dedicated to each other as well as their occupation and God. However, this unity was a specific one because it became a source for a Protestant pluralism in America: Baptists, Quakers, Antinomians emerged as particular sects. It is not a surprise because the history of religion shows that such divisions take place in the process of development of every religion sooner or later.
Primary Principles of Puritanism and Their Impact on American Society
Life of the Puritans was not easy after the arrival to the New Land, but the most essential thing was that they were free to show their faith to God and worship him as they wanted. The Bible was a core of the worship. Church service was simple and not as pompous as a Catholic one. All musical instruments, including organ, were under ban. Psalms were sung by the Puritans a cappella.
This way, the question how these things could influence the formation of America arises. The answer is that what is told represents only the cult side of Puritanism, but there is something specific beyond the human eyes, and this is Puritan ethical and world-view principles. Among them, Kenneth and William Hopper distinguish “a conviction that the purpose of life, however vaguely conceived, was to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth; an aptitude for the exercise of mechanical skills; a moral outlook that subordinated the interests of the individual to the group; and an ability to assemble, galvanize and marshal financial, material and human resources to a single purpose and on a massive, or a lesser, scale.” All these and other characteristics of Puritanism were put into the world-view of the traditional American society.
First of all, the Puritans were followers of the teaching of the reformer John Calvin. He preached that God was almighty, whereas human beings were vicious sinners. Nevertheless, God chose a certain number of people for salvation, but nobody knew if he or she was in this list or the list of the damned ones. That is why Puritans were always searching for some signs that could be interpreted as God’s anger or favour.
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Calvin also taught that human salvation was not dependent on outward actions, but on inner radical changes that touch the deepest parts of heart and soul. As it is possible to see, Calvinists as well as other Protestants took faith as a key to salvation. Besides, the matter concerned not only the possibility of individual salvation but also the welfare of the whole community. That is why there were strict limits of behavior and religious conformity, which were those factors that let them save the integrity of the Puritan developing society.
One of the primary Puritan ideas was the idea that this world is corrupt that should be reformed. They hoped to change the world both to serve the God and be sure that next generations of Puritan people will live in a better place. In the state of higher-mentioned religious conformity, the Puritans worked hard, trying to achieve the American dream they had. It was a successful process because the Puritan discipline and decisive confidence to bring changes had really brought visible changes for the new American society. Without their efforts, it would not be possible.
Besides, Puritans had a strong feeling of religious mission. They compared themselves with Moses and his people who spent forty years in the desert and founded the Israeli nation after this wandering. Definitely, this feeling gave them even more strength to work on the establishment of the new country and new nation that could be a role model for the old society they left. Thus, aiming to make the world a better place and being sure that God supports them in this idea, the Puritans did not see any barriers to spread their influence over the neighboring territories.
Logically, three corner stones of the Puritan teaching are self-improvement, morality and community. Slightly, they have been already mentioned above, but it is worth dedicating them a separate paragraph because these corner stones represent the basis of the traditional American society as well.
Self-improvement meant that human beings should never stop learning to overcome the damned nature of themselves and be higher than those who caused the emergence of the original sin in the whole humankind as well as those who follow the wrong way of worship. Morality and ethics were connected both with the attitude to God and other people. Undoubtedly, it meant that people should have adhered to the Ten Commandments and all biblical prescriptions about morality. The moral features of Puritanism were those that mostly influence the development of the society.
The last corner stone, namely community, meant that self-improvement and morality should be done not only for Self and God but for the social life. That is why community and morality were always interconnected. The cultural and historical value of Puritanism consisted in the establishment of specific Puritan way of life that condemned wastefulness, idleness, social parasitism and declared the cult of diligence and business success, persistence and inexorability, stoical attitude to life failures that could lead human beings to desired salvation. These values were perfectly described by the German philosopher and sociologist Max Weber who believed that they played the vitally important role in the formation of the early capitalism in Europe and North America.
Nowadays, it is hard to imagine how the United States of America would look like if the Puritans have not decided to leave England because of religious conflicts and start developing the New Land at these territories. Their discipline, austerity, loyalty to the Holy Bible and community of like-minded people helped to form the nation of spiritual Americans with honesty, strong will, determination and aspirations for education and business. Without doubt, many modern Americans are not like this anymore, but they definitely should remember about those who made America a strong country of possibilities, implementing the American dream into practice. It is not necessary to bring all principles of Puritanism back into life, but it would be extremely useful for many people to learn how to be disciplined and concentrated on the success as Puritans were.
- Kenneth Hopper and William Hopper, The Puritan Gift: Triumph, Collapse and Revival of an American Dream (London: I.B. Tauris, 2007), 3.
- Francis J Bremer and Tom Webster. Puritans and Puritanism in Europe and America: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2006), 12.
- Hopper and Hopper, The Puritan Gift: Triumph, Collapse and Revival of an American Dream, 3.
- Bremer and Webster, Puritans and Puritanism in Europe and America: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia, 45.
- Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Student’s ed. New York: Scribner, 1958), 124.