American Puritanism

In the mid 1530's Henry VIII (1509-47), king of England, broke with the Church of Rome (the Catholic Church) and the Pope to form his own church.  Henry's break with the Church of Rome and the Pope was part of the Protestant Reformation prompted by Martin Luther (On Oct. 31, 1517, German monk Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany), John Calvin and others.

Many English held the hope that Henry VIII would create a church more in keeping with what they thought the early church to have been. 

Henry, however, established the Church of England along much the same structural lines as the the Church of Rome, with archbishops and priests in control of congregations.

A minority of English Christians, abhorred by this "look-alike" church, protested, bringing upon themselves punishment and exile by English authorities.

We call this group the Puritans (root word--"purify") because its members felt that Henry had not "purified" his new church of what they believed to be the Church of Rome's flaws.  They wanted no part of Henry's church because they believed it was just as susceptible to Satan's influence as they believed the Church of Rome had been.

Persecution led many of these Puritans to Holland first, and then on to the New World where they received charters to establish colonies which would become financially profitable to their sponsors.

Puritan Beliefs

Puritan beliefs grew out of the Reformation, principally from the teachings of Martin Luther and John Calvin.

Puritans regarded humans as stained creations because of Adam and Eve's disobedience in the Garden of Eden (Original Sin).  Because of this Original Sin or stain,  all humans fall short of worthiness in the eyes of God.

It then followed that humans could not save themselves, no matter how devout their lives.  Because of their Original Sin, even the best of them fall short of deserving heaven.

So Puritans believed that salvation came only by GRACE.  It was a gift to those God had "elected" before time began to bestow it on.

This concept of Election or being "elected" to heaven was central to Puritan belief.  Their reasoning went something like this:  God is all-knowing (omniscient); therefore, before the beginning of time, He decided which humans would go to heaven and which would go to hell.  Put another way, God had "elected" particular people to be saved.

Nothing in life could change this decision, since to change God's mind would imply a God who was not all-knowing from the beginning.

Puritans believed that "elected" people would discover their election sometime in life and through "regeneration" would begin to live a life that reflected their having been chosen to heaven.  Therefore, living a devout life was seen as the RESULT of having been "elected," not a way to earn a salvation still to be decided.


Puritan Contributions to America

Puritans believed that "power corrupts."  In fact, the corrupting influence of too much power  had been one explanation for their belief that first the Popes and later the English rulers had been misled about the "true" religion--that because these figures held an excess of power, they were most vulnerable to the lies and temptations of the devil and their own sinfulness as humans.  To protect against this, the Puritans divided power among themselves, so that no one held too much power.  Our governmental system of "checks and balances" derived from this.

Puritans emphasized education and literacy.  Martin Luther had recommended that each person become "his own priest,"  read his own Bible and come to a personal understanding of it.  In addition, widespread literacy was seen as an effective preventative against an entire group being misled.. 

Literacy is also the raw material of a democracy;  it is assumed that each citizen will read and listen to various candidates' positions and make an informed choice.

In addition, Puritans saw keeping a personal diary as a valuable way to examine one's life and actions.