A Puritan of 16th and 17th century England was an associate of any number of religious groups advocating for more "purity" of worship and doctrine, as well as personal and group piety. Puritans felt that the English Reformation had not gone far enough, and that the Church of England was tolerant of practices which they associated with the Church of Rome. The word "Puritan" was originally an alternate term for "Cathar" and was a pejorative used to characterize them as extremists similar to the Cathari of France. The Puritans sometimes cooperated with presbyterians, who put forth a number of proposals for "further reformation" in order to keep the Church of England more closely in line with the Reformed Churches on the Continent.
The single theological momentum most consistently defined by the term "Puritan" was Reformed or Calvinist and led to the founding of the Presbyterian, Baptist, and Independent or Congregationalist churches; In the United States, the church and religious culture of the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony formed the basis of post-colonial American Congregationalism, specifically the Congregational Church proper. The term Puritan was used by the group itself mainly in the 16th century, though it seems to have been used often and, in its earliest recorded instances, as a term of abuse. By the middle of the 17th century, the group had become so divided that "Puritan" was most often used by opponents and detractors of the group, rather than by the practitioners themselves. As Patrick Collinson has noted, well before the founding of the New England settlement, “Puritanism had no content beyond what was attributed to it by its opponents.” The practitioners knew themselves as members of particular churches or movements, and not by the simple term.
Puritans who felt that the Reformation of the Church of England had not gone far enough but who remained within the Church of England advocating further reforms are known as non-separating Puritans. (The Non-Separating Puritans differed among themselves about how much further reformation was necessary.) Those who felt that the Church of England was so corrupt that true Christians should separate from it altogether are known as separating Puritans or simply as Separatists. Especially after the Restoration (1660), non-separating Puritans were called Nonconformists (for their failure to conform to the Book of Common Prayer) while separating Puritans were called Dissenters.
The term "puritan" is not normally used to describe any religious group after the 17th century, although several groups might be called "puritan" because their origins lay in the Puritan movement. For example, in the late seventeenth century, those Dissenters who had separated from the Church of England organized themselves into separate denominations (Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists), particularly after the Act of Toleration of 1689 made it legal to worship outside the Church of England. The non-separating Puritans who remained within the Church of England had by the early eighteenth century come to be known as the Low Church wing of the Church of England.
The term "puritan" might be used by analogy (usually unfavorably) to describe any group that shares a commitment to the Puritans' strong commitment to the purity of worship, of doctrine, or of personal or group morality.
The words of the Bible were the origin of many Puritan cultural ideals, especially regarding the roles of men and women in the community. While both sexes carried the stain of original sin, for a girl, original sin suggested more than the roster of Puritan character flaws. Eve’s corruption, in Puritan eyes, extended to all women, and justified marginalizing them within churches' hierarchical structures. An example is the different ways that men and women were made to express their conversion experiences. For full membership, the Puritan church insisted not only that its congregants lead godly lives and exhibit a clear understanding of the main tenets of their Christian faith, but they also must demonstrate that they had experienced true evidence of the workings of God’s grace in their souls. Only those who gave a convincing account of such a conversion could be admitted to full church membership. Women were not permitted to speak in church after 1636 (although they were allowed to engage in religious discussions outside of it, in various women-only meetings), and thus could not narrate their conversions.
On the individual level, the Puritans emphasized that each person should be continually reformed by the grace of God to fight against indwelling sin and do what is right before God. A humble and obedient life would arise for every Christian. Puritan culture emphasized the need for self-examination and the strict accounting for one’s feelings as well as one’s deeds. This was the center of evangelical experience, which women in turn placed at the heart of their work to sustain family life.
The Puritans tended to admire the early church fathers and quoted them liberally in their works. In addition to arming the Puritans to fight against later developments of the Roman Catholic tradition, these studies also led to the rediscovery of some ancient scruples. Chrysostom, a favorite of the Puritans, spoke eloquently against drama and other worldly endeavors, and the Puritans adopted his view when decrying what they saw as the decadent culture of England, famous at that time for its plays and bawdy London entertainments. The Pilgrims (the separatist, congregationalist Puritans who went to North America) are likewise famous for banning from their New England colonies many secular entertainments, such as games of chance, maypoles, and drama, all of which were perceived as kinds of immorality.
At the level of the church body, the Puritans believed that the worship in the church ought to be strictly regulated by what is commanded in the Bible (known as the regulative principle of worship). The Puritans condemned as idolatry many worship practices regardless of the practices' antiquity or widespread adoption among Christians, which their opponents defended with tradition. Like some of Reformed churches on the European continent, Puritan reforms were typified by a minimum of ritual and decoration and by an unambiguous emphasis on preaching. Like the early church fathers, they eliminated the use of musical instruments in their worship services, for various theological and practical reasons. Outside of church, however, Puritans were quite fond of music and encouraged it in certain ways.
Another important distinction was the Puritan approach to church-state relations. They opposed the Anglican idea of the supremacy of the monarch in the church (Erastianism), and, following Calvin, they argued that the only head of the Church in heaven or earth is Christ (not the Pope or the monarch). However, they believed that secular governors are accountable to God (not through the church, but alongside it) to protect and reward virtue, including "true religion", and to punish wrongdoers — a policy that is best described as non-interference rather than separation of church and state. The separating Congregationalists, a segment of the Puritan movement more radical than the Anglican Puritans, believed the Divine Right of Kings was heresy, a belief that became more pronounced during the reign of Charles I of England.
Other notable beliefs include:
In addition to promoting lay education, it was important to the Puritans to have knowledgeable, educated pastors, who could read the Bible in its original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, as well as ancient and modern church tradition and scholarly works, which were most commonly written in Latin, and so most of their divines undertook rigorous studies at the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge before seeking ordination. Diversions for the educated included discussing the Bible and its practical applications as well as reading the classics such as Cicero, Virgil, and Ovid. They also encouraged the composition of poetry that was of a religious nature, though they eschewed religious-erotic poetry except for the Song of Solomon, which they considered magnificent poetry, without error, regulative for their sexual pleasure, and, especially, as an allegory of Christ and the Church.
In modern usage, the word puritan is often used to describe someone who has strict views on sexual morality, disapproves of recreation, and wishes to impose these beliefs on others. None of these qualities were unique to Puritanism or universally characteristic of the Puritans themselves, whose moral views and ascetic tendencies were no more unusual than those of many other Protestant reformers of their time, and who were relatively tolerant of other denominations, at least in England. The popular image is slightly more accurate as a description of Puritans in colonial America, who were among the most radical Puritans and whose social experiment took the form of a Calvinist theocracy. Puritans believed satan was of the netherworld.
The essence of social order lay in the authority of husband over wife, parents over children, and masters over servants in the family. Puritan marriage choices were influenced by young people’s inclination, by parents, and by the social rank of the persons involved. Upon finding a suitable match, husband and wife in America followed the steps needed to legitimize their marriage, including: 1) a contract, comparable to today’s practice of engagement; 2) the announcement of this contract; 3) execution of the contract at a church; 4) a celebration of the event at the home of the groom and 5) sexual intercourse. Problems with consummation could terminate a marriage: if a groom proved impotent, the contract between him and his bride dissolved, an act enforced by the courts. The courts could also enforce the duty of a husband to support his wife, as English Common Law provided that when a woman married, she gave all her property to her husband and became a feme covert, losing her separate civil identity in his. In so doing, she legally accepted her role as managing her husband’s household, fulfilling her duty of “keep[ing] at home, educating her children, keeping and improving what is got by the industry of man.”
Although without property in New England, a wife in some ways had real authority in the family, although hers derived from different sources from her husband’s, and she exercised it in different ways. Because the laws of God explicitly informed the earliest laws of the Massachusetts civil code, a husband could not legally command his wife anything contrary to God’s word. Indeed, God’s word often prescribed important roles of authority for women; the Complete Body of Divinity stated that “…as to Servants, the Metaphorical and Synecdochial usage of the words Father and Mother, heretofore observed, implys it; for tho’ the Husband be the Head of the Wife, yet she is an Head of the Family.” Adhering to this ideology, Samuel Sewall, a magistrate, advised his son’s servant that “he could not obey his Master without obedience to his Mistress; and vice versa.” For the Puritans, ideas of proper order both sharply defined and confined a woman’s authority.
In Puritan New England, the family was the fundamental unit of society, the place where Puritans rehearsed and perfected religious, ethical, and social values and expectations of the community at large. The English Puritan William Gouge wrote: “…a familie is a little Church, and a little common-wealth, at least a lively representation thereof, whereby triall may be made of such as are fit for any place of authoritie, or of subjection in Church or commonwealth. Or rather it is as a schoole wherein the first principles and grounds of government and subjection are learned: whereby men are fitted to greater matters in Church or common-wealth.”
The relationships within the nuclear family, along with interactions between the family and the larger community, distinguished Puritans from other early settlers. Authority and obedience characterized the relationship between Puritan parents and their children. Proper love meant proper discipline; in a society essentially without police, the family was the basic unit of supervision. Disciplining disobedient children mostly derived from a spiritual concern: a breakdown in family rule indicated a disregard of God’s order. “Fathers and mothers have ‘disordered and disobedient children,’” said the Puritan Richard Greenham, “because they have been disobedient children to the Lord and disordered to their parents when they were young.” Thus disobedient parents meant disobedient children. Because the duty of early childcare fell almost exclusively on women, a woman’s salvation necessarily depended upon the observable goodness of her child.
Puritans connected the discipline of a child to later readiness for conversion. Accordingly, parents attempted to check their affectionate feelings toward a disobedient child, at least after the child was about two years old, in order to break his or her will. This suspicious regard of “fondness” and heavy emphasis on obedience placed complex pressures on the Puritan mother. While Puritans expected mothers to care for their young children tenderly, a mother who doted could be accused of failing to keep God present. Furthermore, Puritan belief prescribed that a father’s more distant governance check the mother’s tenderness once a male child reached the age of 6 or 7 so that he could bring the child to God’s authority.
The home gave women the freedom to exercise religious and moral authority, performing duties not open to them in public (after the banishment of Anne Hutchinson, most congregations did not permit women to speak in church). The Puritan family structure at once encouraged some measure of female authority while supporting family patriarchy.
By the 1670s, all New England colonies (excepting Rhode Island) had passed legislation that mandated literacy for children. In 1647, Massachusetts passed a law that required towns to hire a schoolmaster to teach writing. Different forms of schooling emerged, ranging from the “dame” or “reading” school, a form of instruction conducted by women in their private homes for small children, to “Latin” schools for boys already literate in English and ready to master grammar through Latin, Hebrew, and Greek. Reading schools would often be the single source of education for girls, whereas boys would leave their reading mistresses to go to the town grammar schools. Indeed, gender largely determined educational practices. Women introduced all children to reading, and men taught boys in higher pursuits. Since girls could play no role in the ministry, and since grammar schools were designed to “instruct youth so far as they may be fited for the university,” Latin grammar schools did not accept girls (nor did Harvard). Evidence mostly suggests that girls could not attend even the less ambitious town schools, the lower-tier writing-reading schools mandated for townships of over fifty families.
The motive to educate was largely religious. In order for Puritans to become holy, they needed to read the Scriptures. As the articles of faith of 1549 had proclaimed, “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation”. Although reading the Bible did not guarantee conversion, it laid its groundwork, and a good Puritan’s duty was to search out scriptural truth for oneself.
Social motives for mandating reading instruction grew out of a concern that children not taught to read would grow “barbarous”; the 1648 amendment to the Massachusetts law and the 1650 Connecticut code, both used the word “barbarisme”. Further, children needed to read in order to “understand…the capital laws of this country,” as the Massachusetts law declared. Order was of the utmost importance for the Puritan community, a group trying to make a home in a new wilderness and create a perfected society from scratch.
The emphasis on education in Puritan New England differed significantly from other regions of colonial America. The founding fathers established New England in pursuit of a model of Christian living, fueling strong motivations for literary instruction. But New England also differed from its mother country, as nothing in English statute required schoolmasters or the literacy of children. Indeed, with the possible exception of Scotland, the Puritan model of education did not exist anywhere else in the world.
There is little doubt that the American Great Awakening provided religious fervor to the American Revolution. Starting in the Massachusetts colony, the Puritan teachings that America was to be God's noble errand into the wilderness, a beacon of morality, provided a strong national mythology nearly until the end of the 20th Century.
Some have suggested that it is a "Puritan spirit" in the United States' political culture that creates a tendency to oppose things such as alcohol and open sexuality. However, the Puritans were not opposed to drinking alcohol in moderation or to enjoying their sexuality within the bounds of marriage as a gift from God. In fact, spouses (albeit, in practice, mainly females) were disciplined if they did not perform their sexual marital duties, in accordance with 1 Corinthians 7 and other biblical passages. Because of these beliefs, the Puritans publicly punished drunkenness and sexual relations outside of marriage.
Puritan Laws in fact regarded alcohol as a gift of god and demonstrated the subtle difference between a government's punishment responsibility to punish sin vs. removing temptation. Early on the New England laws banning the sale of Alcohol to Indians were appealed because it was “not fit to deprive Indians of any lawfull comfort aloweth to all men by the use of wine.” One reason Laws banning the practice of individuals toasting each other was that it led to wasting Gods gift of beer and wine.
Alexis de Tocqueville suggested in Democracy in America that the Pilgrims' Puritanism was the very thing that provided a firm foundation for American democracy, and in his view, these Puritans were hard-working, egalitarian, and studious. The theme of a religious basis of economic discipline is echoed in sociologist Max Weber's work, but both de Tocqueville and Weber argued that this discipline was not a force of economic determinism, but one factor among many that should be considered when evaluating the relative economic success of the Puritans. In Hellfire Nation, James A. Morone suggests that some opposing tendencies within Puritanism—its desire to create a just society and its moral fervor in bringing about that just society, which sometimes created paranoia and intolerance for other views—are at the root of America's current political landscape.