The Puritans of New England
Copyright © Henry J. Sage 2012

The forces that led to the settlement of New England both at Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay stemmed from the religious controversy begun by Martin Luther’s Reformation movement.  When Luther attacked the church for the failings he perceived, he opened the door for even more radical theologians such as John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli.  They preached such matters as predestination and the need to rid the Protestant church—or churches, as was soon the case—of remaining elements of Roman Catholicism, the so-called “remnants of popery.”

pilgrimsThose in England who felt the strongest need to “purify” the Anglican Church were called Puritans, and they divided themselves into two groups, one of which felt it was possible to live under the rules of the Church of England (they believed they could continue to push for reform from within the system), and the other of which felt they could not.  The latter were called “Separatists,” and the best known of them moved to Holland for a time and then contracted to come to America under the aegis of the London Company.  They were the famous Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower in 1620.

The other group of Puritans discovered that although they could get along under the relatively benign reign of Elizabeth I, they did not do so well under James I, who threatened to “hound them out of the realm.” During the reign of King Charles I they decided that the only way to find the religious environment they were seeking was to go to America.  Thus the Massachusetts Bay Company was founded, and the great Puritan migration began.  The governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, laid out the plans for the colonists during the journey to America in his “Model of Christian Charity.”

The New England experience was similar in some ways to that of Virginia, but with a much stronger emphasis on religious practice and a theocratic form of government.  Virginia’s Anglicans were also very religious, and the Anglican Church was “established” in Virginia, but it was not as intense as Puritan New England in matters of religion.  Capitalism—the desire for material improvement—was  part of the cultures of both Virginia and Massachusetts, but it is safe to say that capitalism tended to be the primary motive for all that happened in Virginia, whereas religious motives were more controlling in New England.  Additional differences existed between Virginia and Massachusetts generally and, as time went on, between the northern and southern colonies, and those differences were the root of the sectionalism that would later divide colonies and country.

Both Virginia and Massachusetts came to be based on systems of governance that had roots in British philosophy, although those roots are easier to find in the New England case.  Thomas Hobbes wrote in “Leviathan” that man first existed in a state of nature, where he was born absent any constraints and therefore could live in absolute freedom.  Man in nature, however, lived “in continued fear and danger of violent death,” and found that life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  Man’s natural freedom therefore needed to be curbed so that civilization could develop, and because human nature was inherently sinful, man needed to be controlled by a strong authority to control nature.  In other words, in order to live together in harmony, men (and women) are required to give up a portion of their natural freedom so that society can function.

Another facet of the Puritan experience that comes down to us can be seen in the struggle between John Winthrop and Roger Williams over the proper role of the state in matters of religion. Roger Williams was a brilliant man, educated at Cambridge University, with connections to some of the most important figures in England. He came to New England during the harsh first winter in February, 1631. Williams was what we might characterize as a hard-core separatist; he would have nothing to do with the Church of England, and he would not even worship with those who failed to denounce the Church of England. John Winthrop found Williams's views dangerous. Although Winthrop and Williams remained friends, for Williams was personally a very charming man, their differences of opinion over the roles of church and state kept them at odds throughout their lives. Because of his extreme views, Williams had difficulty finding a position as a preacher in one of the New England churches. For a time he served at Salem, then moved to the Plymouth colony, which was more separatist than Massachusetts Bay. Even Governor William Bradford, however, found Williams's ideas excessive.

Williams rejected the right of the state to interfere in religious matters in any way; he even went so far as to denounce what he called "the lies of the King" in calling people to worship or in his writing colonial charters. Williams was constantly in conflict with Winthrop and other leaders of Massachusetts Bay and was eventually banished from the colony. He retreated to the wilderness and eventually formed a new settlement called Providence in what later became the colony of Rhode Island. Roger Williams's insistence on the separation of church and state is a legacy that was carried forward through the revolution, and provides some of the basis for the First Amendment to the Constitution, which calls for a separation of church and state.

See more about William in the section on the Rhode Island colony.

Later, philosopher John Locke wrote that in finding ways for controlling man, good institutions were needed, for man was a blank slate (“tabula rasa”) at birth and his nature would develop according to the kinds of mechanisms that were used to control his baser instincts.  Thus both Locke and Hobbes provided the fundamental concepts that shaped English and, later, American political philosophy, though Locke’s ideas tended to support more republican forms whereas Hobbes leaned more toward the absolutism that is sometimes called “the divine right” of kings.

The Mayflower Compact: A Social Contract

The basic idea that grows out of the philosophy of Hobbes and Locke and that was later elaborated upon by Jean Jacques Rousseau was the social contract, or social compact.  This theory of the social contract—that man is born free, but willingly gives up some freedom in exchange for the benefits of civilization—is at the heart of most Western political thought.  The social contract theory is embedded in our Constitution, which is designed “to promote the general welfare.”

Another example, as nearly pure and perfect as one is likely to find, is the Mayflower Compact.  Looking at that document one is struck by its simplicity, yet it contains everything that is essential in the United States Constitution—all that is missing are the details.  Look at it carefully and see if you agree with that assessment.  The Plymouth colony survived and was later absorbed into Massachusetts Bay.

Massachusetts Bay:  A Puritan Commonwealth

pic7How did the Puritans construct a society from scratch, based on religious belief?  It was not easy, but the New Englanders did it.  People have images of Puritans as somber, sour-visaged people who were, in the words of a famous American journalist, “desperately afraid that somebody, somewhere might be having a good time.”  That image is inaccurate.

Puritans were in fact very passionate people who lived their lives as fully as they could.  They often wore colorful clothes, danced, and even drank “strong waters” on occasion.  They believed that sex was a blessing from God to be enjoyed to the fullest, though within the confines of marriage.  They had large families.  What Puritans opposed was anything that wasted time or resources.  For example, they thought gambling and card playing were sinful, not because they were inherently evil but because they wasted time.

Puritans worked very hard and saw themselves as stewards of God’s bounty—the so-called Protestant work ethic originated with the Puritans and is the source of folk wisdom such as “Early to bed, early to rise . . . ,”  “A penny saved is a penny earned,’ and so on.  The Puritans believed that if one worked hard and pleased God, one would be successful in this life, so prosperity was seen as a good thing—a measure of God’s favor.  Because it is safe to say that hard work will tend to make people prosperous whether or not God is involved, their prosperity—the “serpent prosperity,” as they called it—tended to dilute their intense religiosity.  Their church became the Congregational Church, a religious system that emphasized local control and independence.  Religion was closely connected with the Puritan political structure, so the congregational system spilled over into their civic institutions, which gave us the famous “New England town meeting”—a form of pure democracy, though the church itself was not democratically organized.

The Puritans believed beyond much doubt that they were absolutely on the right track.  John Winthrop’s “Model” describes a society that, if the Puritans had been able to achieve it, would have been a reasonable facsimile of paradise on Earth.  Being human, they could not sustain their religious fervor, nor live up to the idealized conditions Winthrop laid out, but they created a strong, vibrant society that prospered and influenced American behavior and attitudes far beyond their temporal and geographical boundaries.  Highlights of the Puritan era:

  • For some time only those who were theologically acceptable could enter Massachusetts.  The Puritans felt that rigid orthodoxy was necessary for their survival:  “We believe in liberty,” they claimed, “and others are at liberty to stay away from us!”  They meant to create a “New Jerusalem”—Winthrop’s famous “city on a hill”—and were willing to pay a high price to try to achieve that state.
  • When the English Civil War broke out in 1640, Puritan life changed.  Many Puritans, feeling that their time had come or perhaps wanting to get in on the struggle, returned to England.  The center of the Puritan world shifted back to England, and the effects on the colony were sharp.  Immigration into New England slowed markedly, and various adjustments had to be made to keep the colony thriving.
  • By 1660 Massachusetts Puritans were concerned over the restoration of King Charles II to the throne.  Stronger mercantile laws changed economic conditions in all the colonies, and in that decade the Puritans also adopted the “halfway covenant”—a sort of agreement that one was acceptable if one was at least trying to live the right kind of life—and numbers continued to grow.
  • In 1684 the Massachusetts Charter was revoked, and Massachusetts became for a time a crown colony.  Then in 1686 James II issued a new charter for Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire.  Yet another charter was issued in 1691 by William III, which provided for two elected assemblies.  In 1700 the Massachusetts colony was fully absorbed  into the  British Empire.

The “New England Way.” 

The Puritan way of life consisted of a mixture of religion and politics based on principles called the New England Way. First, they believed in both personal and collective autonomy within each village or settlement. Their faith, which survives to this day, was known as Congregationalism. That gave them local control over both religious and political matters. The well-known New England town meeting was testimony to their idea of self-government. They recognized no higher authority than the Bible, which was the basis of much of their antipathy to the hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic church. Along with their congregational approach to community, they believed in individualism to the extent that everyone should be able to interpret the Bible for himself or herself.  That reliance on the Bible had an obvious effect on education and literacy for the obvious reason that in order to interpret the Bible, one had to be able to read it. Teaching Puritan children to read was the mother's job, which in turn gave women a strong voice in family matters.

Second, while the principles above might suggest that Puritans enjoyed religious freedom, that freedom existed only within very strict limits. Their communal approach to society meant that the community had the right to exercise control over individuals tin order to promote the common interest. Thus rigid enforcement of rules and laws was necessary whenever the community was thought to be threatened from within or without. At the same time, they did not believe in unlimited government, for if man is conceived in original sin, how can he be trusted to exercise unlimited power over others? Although man had a one-on-one relationship with God, those whose interpretation of that relationship or of the Bible strayed beyond the bounds of Puritan orthodoxy could be punished, as Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams discovered.

Note:  New England colonies were healthier than those in the South despiteor perhaps because ofthe cold winters. Their first winter, however, was very difficult, and many suffered.

Another View of the Puritans

pic7Puritans have a bad name among most Americans. We think of them as dour, stubborn, cold, unfeeling, anti-romantic prudes who, in the words of H. L. Mencken, were “desperately afraid that somebody, somewhere might be having a good time.” When people think of the Puritans, they think of the Salem witch trials, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter,” Jonathan Edwards’s fire-and-brimstone sermons, the persecution of Anne Hutchinson and other real and perceived wrongs. Yet alongside those real and alleged traits of intolerance, obstinacy, stubbornness and infuriating self-righteousness, there is far more to their story.

Much of what was important about Puritanism is very much alive in the U.S. today. Early in the 20th century the German sociologist Max Weber wrote a book called “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” That Protestant work ethic to which Weber referred originated among the Puritans, who believed above all that their time on this earth should be spent in productive labor—the benevolent and efficient use of God-given resources; they were thrifty, industrious, and wedded to their religious beliefs. They opposed card-playing and gambling, not so much because each was an evil in itself, but because they were considered a waste of time. Furthermore, Puritans did not eschew pleasure by any means; these were people who obviously enjoyed conjugal love. They had very large families; in fact, one of my Puritan ancestors had 107 grandchildren and 227 great-grandchildren. They wore bright clothes on occasion, and they celebrated successful harvest, and drank alcoholic beverages. They sang and danced and made music, but they did so at times they considered appropriate, and always in moderation. They did not regard sex as evil, only that it should be conducted within the sanctity of marriage. In fact, once a Puritan couple were engaged, if they had intimate relations it was not considered a fatal flaw.

The Puritan political system, which was rooted in their Congregational religious organization, also grew in the North and spread across the Midwest. In the New York village where I grew up, our population was under 5,000, yet we were fully incorporated political entity with our own mayor, police and fire departments, school system, public works department, and so on. Where I now live, in Virginia, we are governed by counties for the most part, which arises from the fact that colonial Virginia was dominated by the Anglican Church, which was organized in parishes, which in turn became counties. In other words, New England local governments down to the town level, made famous by the “town meeting,” is a part of our political heritage that survives in substantial portions of the nation. Just as the Puritans is rejected the idea of higher religious authorities such as bishops and cardinals and all the —as they put it—remnants of popery, they resisted the powers of higher authorities, unless of course they were their own ordained ministers. The Puritans, after all, were on the Whig side in the war against King Charles I. (During the subsequent period of Puritan rule under Cromwell, many Puritan colonists returned to England.)

It is no surprise, then, that much of the revolutionary fervor which erupted in the colonies in the 1760s and 1770's had its roots around Boston. The British army was sent to Boston in the 1760s for the purpose of rooting out the seeds of the incipient rebellion. The “Intolerable Acts” passed in reaction to the Boston tea party were directed exclusively against the Massachusetts Bay colonists. Indeed, John Adams and other revolutionary leaders were descendants of those early Puritans and carried much of their spirit with them.

For these and many other reasons the Puritan legacy is still with us—their blood runs in our veins, much deeper and stronger than many of us might wish to admit. On the other hand, there is much about their legacy that is positive—ideas of political and individual freedom, liberty, hard work, perseverance, dedication, stewardship: All those features of the American character are owed in great measure to the Puritans.

Characteristics of Puritanism:  Myth And Reality

Myth:  A Puritan is someone who is desperately afraid that somebody, somewhere might be having a good time.
Fact:  Puritans were not somber, morose people.  They wore colored clothes, played games, held celebrations, feasts, partook of “strong waters”—had a strong aesthetic sense as shown in their architecture. They were literate and encouraged education. Harvard is founded in 1636.

The Puritans were not opposed to pleasure, but saw its regulation as part of a well-ordered society.  They were moral athletes who strove to standards higher than any one had a right to expect.  They drove themselves to great achievements—there was no rest short of the grave. Puritanism was very similar to Judaism—they saw themselves as spiritual heirs of Abraham who had entered into a Covenant of Grace. They believed they were God’s chosen people who were creating a “New Jerusalem.”  One historian said that "Never was a people so sure it was on the right track." Puritans were not high-minded theorists but rather pragmatic people who were concerned with the way things worked in the real world.  They fought among themselves over power, not how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.  The were indeed frequently narrow-minded, but that can often be a source of strength when focused on common goals. Puritanism was a very comforting religion despite harshness because it placed God in charge and eliminated worldly vanities. 

The Puritans were bookish and literate:  They created the first college, the first bookstore, and the first newspaper in America.  A connection exists between the American public school tradition and the Puritans. The need for higher education as a way to further society also goes back to the Puritans..

Marriage was for joy and encouraged—to escape “burning” in hell. They believed that men and women were created different for each other’s pleasure; divorce laws were relatively mild, and separation could be based on sexual incompatibility. See Anne Bradstreet’s poems. There was much premarital sex—about 10 percent of brides were pregnant at the time of marriage, though much of that occurred after a couple had become committed to marriage.  (Anglicans in the South were much stricter.) Because Puritans expected very little from life, few of them were disillusioned.  The world was filled with evil—it was not a playhouse but a workhouse.

American individualism can be traced to the Puritans.  Faith was their rock, but human intellect was highly valued:  “Ignorance is the mother of heresy,” they said. The Puritans could be self-righteous and intolerant, although such tendencies have been exaggerated.  Nevertheless, Puritans were hated by others.  Their view of the world was very harsh—they saw the world as filled with depravity.  Yet Puritans, Anglicans, Catholics, and Separatists were not that far apart; they shared many fundamental beliefs. The sermon tradition of Puritanism still lives (as seen in TV preachers today.)  Puritan sermons were lengthy exercises in logic—more like legal documents than literary events.  See Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.

All government in the Puritan colonies was based on the shaky assumption that the Bible is clear and unambiguous, which is not true. (Is faith alone enough for salvation, or must one exhibit one's faith through good works? Laws were strict:  Crimes included blasphemy, perjury (death), cursing of parents, idolatry, adultery, fornication.  Laws followed commandments and Deuteronomy; they also wrote laws as existed back home.

Whatever the drawbacks, the church was the central unifying force in Massachusetts, which led to the famous town meeting.  First held in churches, then separately, the town meeting is the “most remarkable if not the most influential institution to emerge in early America.” The concept of local government spread across the northern states as descendants of the Puritans migrated westward.

Puritanism had its dissenters:  Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams both ran afoul of Puritan authorities and were banished from the colony.  Fear of dissension also led to the Salem witch craze, a terrible event but one that had far more gruesome parallels in Europe.


  • Two different kinds of people emerged. The Massachusetts Bay bay colonists were people of proven ability at home who came in family units. The Virginia colony was populated in the beginning by single men who were able to survive in wilderness.
  • Massachusetts aristocrats created a working democracy.
  • Virginia planters replaced defunct London leaders and formed their own local aristocracy.
  • The Massachusetts Puritans brought their charter with them, which gave them much firmer local control earlier.  Congregationalism as a religion gave people local control over their churches, and in the political arena that concept was translated into the New England town meeting.
  • The House of Burgesses and the Assembly formed the basic political structure of Virginia. 
  • Virginia became in many ways a model/miniature England—much closer than New England to the mother country, but still different.  Maybe more conservative, much more self-conscious.  Differences between Virginia and New England are precursors of North-South differences of the antebellum period.
  • Carl Degler:  The Virginia Assembly was the first democratic (republican) body in North America, but it began almost by accident in 1619.  Charles I terminated the  assemblies in 1624, but later authorized their return.
  • An important precedent was established by the colonists, including the idea of prohibition on taxes “other than by authority of the grand assembly.”  Englishmen had always guarded their right to tax locally.
  • Early, dogmatic insistence on self-government was important in American political development.  Representative government was born in the 17th century (Virginia assembly and New England town meeting).
  • Most New England immigrants arrived as members of a nuclear family in which the father exerted strong authority.  They therefore found it easier to cope with the wilderness and to preserve English ways.  It was even possible to reproduce an English family structure in New England because the sex ratio was about even.
  • New England families differed from the English pattern in only one important aspect—people lived longer in New England.  This meant that parents could expect to see their children grow up, marry, and have their own children.  New England may have “invented” grandparents, who gave an additional measure of stability to society.
  • Life expectancy was apparently much longer in New England than in the Chesapeake colonies because climatic and economic conditions were more favorable there.
Books about the Puritans

puritan hatEdmund Morgan and Perry Miller are two of our most distinguished historians of the colonial era. Understanding our Puritan heritage is necessary for comprehending the American soul and spirit. Many aspects of our “value system” have their roots in Puritan New England, including our “Protestant work ethic,” which Max Weber called “the spirit of capitalism.”

Anne Bradstreet was America's first poet of note, and her work demonstrates the deep affection Puritans felt within their families. Her poems also convey a deep sense of the strength and courage Puritan women gained from their faith in a world that was often harsh and unforgiving, as she recounts in the poem, “Upon the Burning of our House July 10 1666.”

John Winthrop defined the goals of the Puritan colony of Massachusetts Bay during the voyage from England. His vision was large and hopeful, and although the ideals he laid down were probably unachievable by mere mortals, they nevertheless reflect the intentions of a determined people bent on proving that a New Jerusalem could be created in America.

  • Perry Miller. The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century
  • Edmund S. Morgan. Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea
  • Edmund S. Morgan. The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop (Library of American Biography)
  • Francis J. Bremer. The Puritan Experiment: New England Society from Bradford to Edwards (Library of New England)
  • Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750
  • Anne Bradstreet. The Works of Anne Bradstreet (John Harvard Library) eds. Jeannine Hensley and Adrienne Rich
Colonial Home | Updated February 7, 2018