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Gallery of famous 17th-century Puritan theologians: Thomas Gouge, William Bridge, Thomas Manton, John Flavel, Richard Sibbes, Stephen Charnock, William Bates, John Owen, John Howe, Richard Baxter.

The Puritans were a significant grouping of English Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries, including, but not limited to, English Calvinists. Puritanism in this sense was founded by some Marian exiles from the clergy shortly after the accession of Elizabeth I of England in 1558, as an activist movement within the Church of England. The designation "Puritan" is often incorrectly used, notably based on the assumption that hedonism and puritanism are antonyms. Historically, the word was used pejoratively to characterize the Protestant group as extremists similar to the Cathari of France, and according to Thomas Fuller in his Church History dated back to 1564, Archbishop Matthew Parker of that time used it and "precisian" with the sense of modern " stickler".

Puritans were blocked from changing the established church from within, and severely restricted in England by laws controlling the practice of religion, but their views were taken by the emigration of congregations to the Netherlands and later New England, and by evangelical clergy to Ireland and later into Wales, and were spread into lay society by preaching and parts of the educational system, particularly certain colleges of the University of Cambridge. They took on distinctive views on clerical dress and in opposition to the episcopal system, particularly after the 1619 conclusions of the Synod of Dort were resisted by the English bishops. They largely adopted Sabbatarian views in the 17th century, and were influenced by millennialism.

In alliance with the growing commercial world, the parliamentary opposition to the royal prerogative, and in the late 1630s with the Scottish Presbyterians with whom they had much in common, the Puritans became a major political force in England and came to power as a result of the First English Civil War (1642–46). After the English Restoration of 1660 and the 1662 Uniformity Act, almost all Puritan clergy left the Church of England, some becoming nonconformist ministers, and the nature of the movement in England changed radically, though it retained its character for much longer in New England.

Puritans by definition 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 Catholic Church. They formed into and identified with various religious groups advocating greater "purity" of worship and doctrine, as well as personal and group piety. Puritans adopted a Reformed theology and in that sense were Calvinists (as many of their earlier opponents were, too), but also took note of radical views critical of Zwingli in Zurich and Calvin in Geneva. In church polity, some advocated for separation from all other Christians, in favour of autonomous gathered churches. These separatist and independent strands of Puritanism became prominent in the 1640s, when the supporters of a presbyterian polity in the Westminster Assembly were unable to forge a new English national church.


The term "Puritan" in the sense of this article was coined in the 1560s, when it appeared as a term of abuse for those who found the Elizabethan Religious Settlement of 1559 inadequate.

The godly

The word "Puritan" is applied unevenly to a number of Protestant churches (and religious groups within the Anglican Church) from the later 16th century onwards: and Puritans did not originally use the term for themselves. The practitioners knew themselves as members of particular churches or movements, and not by a single term. "Precisemen" and "Precisians" were other early derogatory terms for Puritans, who preferred to call themselves "the godly."

The term "Puritan" cannot strictly be used to describe any new religious group after the 17th century.

Puritans and separatists

Puritans who felt that the Reformation of the Church of England was not to their satisfaction but who remained within the Church of England advocating further reforms are known as non-separating Puritans. This group 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. Puritan in the wide sense includes both groups.

John Winthrop and the other main leaders of emigration to New England in 1629 were non-separating Puritans. John Robinson and William Brewster, however, the Pilgrim leaders, were separatists. There is no current consensus among historians whether separatists can properly be counted as Puritans.

Especially after the English Restoration of 1660, separating Puritans were called Dissenters. The 1662 Uniformity Act caused almost all Puritan clergy to leave the Church of England. Some became nonconformist ministers. The movement in England changed radically at this time, though this change was not as immediate for Puritans in New England.

Puritans and killjoys

In modern usage, the word puritan is often used to describe someone who is strict in matters of sexual morality, disapproves of recreation, and wishes to impose these beliefs on others. Hedonism and puritanism are antonyms. This popular image is most 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 theocracy. Peter Gay writes of the Puritans' standard reputation for "dour prudery" as a "misreading that went unquestioned in the nineteenth century", commenting how unpuritanical they were in favour of married sexuality, and in opposition to the Catholic view of virginity, citing Edward Taylor and John Cotton.

Summary history

Puritan History
Narrative History
History of the Puritans under Elizabeth I
History of the Puritans under James I
History of the Puritans under Charles I
History of the Puritans from 1649
History of the Puritans in North America
Definitions of Puritanism
Puritan choir
Vestments controversy
Martin Marprelate
Millenary Petition
Arminianism in the Church of England
Providence Island Company
Puritan Sabbatarianism
Scrooby congregation
Trial of Archbishop Laud

Puritanism has a historical importance over a period of a century (followed by 50 years of development in New England). It changed character and emphasis almost decade by decade over that time.

Elizabethan Puritanism

Elizabethan Puritanism contended with the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, with little to show for it. The Lambeth Articles of 1595, a high-water mark for Calvinism within the Church of England, failed to receive royal approval.

Jacobean Puritanism

The accession of James I brought the Millenary Petition, a Puritan manifesto of 1603 for reform of the English church, but James wanted a new religious settlement along different lines. He called the Hampton Court Conference in 1604, and heard the views of four prominent Puritan leaders including Chaderton there, but largely sided with his bishops. Well informed by his education and Scottish upbringing on theological matters, he dealt shortly with the peevish legacy of Elizabethan Puritanism, and tried to pursue an eirenic religious policy in which he was arbiter. Many of his episcopal appointments were Calvinists, notably James Montague who was an influential courtier. Puritans still opposed much of the Catholic summation in the Church of England, notably the Book of Common Prayer, but also the use of non-secular vestments (cap and gown) during services, the sign of the Cross in baptism, and kneeling to receive Holy Communion. Although the Puritan movement was subjected to repression by some of the bishops under both Elizabeth and James, other bishops were more tolerant, and in many places, individual ministers were able to omit disliked portions of the Book of Common Prayer.

The Puritan movement of Jacobean times became distinctive by adaptation and compromise, with the emergence of "semi-separatism", "moderate puritanism", the writings of William Bradshaw who adopted the term "Puritan" as self-identification, and the beginnings of congregationalism. Most Puritans of this period were non-separating and remained within the Church of England, and Separatists who left the Church of England altogether were numerically much fewer.

Fragmentation and political failure

The Westminster Assembly in a Victorian history painting by John Rogers Herbert.

The Puritan movement in England was riven over decades by emigration and inconsistent interpretations of Scripture, and some political differences that then surfaced.

The Westminster Assembly (an assembly of clergy of the Church of England) was called in 1643. Doctrinally, the Assembly was able to agree to the Westminster Confession of Faith, a consistent Reformed theological position. The Directory of Public Worship was made official in 1645, and the larger framework now called the Westminster Standards was adopted by the Church of Scotland. In England, up to 1660, the Standards were contested by Independents.

The Westminster Divines were, on the other hand, divided over questions of church polity, and split into factions supporting a reformed episcopacy, presbyterianism, congregationalism, and Erastianism. Although the membership of the Assembly was heavily weighted towards the presbyterians, Oliver Cromwell was a Congregationalist separatist who imposed his views. The Church of England of the Interregnum was run on presbyterian lines, but never became a national presbyterian church such as existed in Scotland, and England was not the theocratic state which leading Puritans had called for as "godly rule".

Great Ejection and Dissenters

At the time of the English Restoration (1660), the Savoy Conference was called to determine a new religious settlement for England and Wales. With only minor changes, the Church of England was restored to its pre-Civil War constitution under the Act of Uniformity 1662, and the Puritans found themselves sidelined. A traditional estimate of the historian Calamy is that around 2,400 Puritan clergy left the Church, in the " Great Ejection" of 1662. At this point, the term Dissenter came to include "Puritan", but more accurately describes those (clergy or lay) who "dissented" from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

Dividing themselves from all Christians in the Church of England, the Dissenters established their own separatist congregations in the 1660s and 1670s; an estimated 1,800 of the ejected clergy continued in some fashion as ministers of religion (according to Richard Baxter). The government initially attempted to suppress these schismatic organizations by the Clarendon Code. There followed a period in which schemes of "comprehension" were proposed, under which presbyterians could be brought back into the Church of England; nothing resulted from them. The Whigs, opposing the court religious policies, argued that the Dissenters should be allowed to worship separately from the established Church, and this position ultimately prevailed when the Toleration Act was passed in the wake of the Glorious Revolution (1689). This permitted the licensing of Dissenting ministers and the building of chapels. The term Nonconformist generally replaced the term "Dissenter" from the middle of the eighteenth century.


John Calvin
  Calvinism portal

The idea of personal Biblical interpretation, while central to Puritan beliefs, was shared with most Protestants in general. Puritans sought both individual and corporate conformity to the teaching of the Bible, with moral purity pursued both down to the smallest detail as well as ecclesiastical purity to the highest level. They believed that man existed for the glory of God; that his first concern in life was to do God's will and so to receive future happiness.


Various strands of Calvinist thought of the 17th century were taken up by different parts of the Puritan movement, and in particular Amyraldism was adopted by some influential figures ( John Davenant, Samuel Ward, and to some extent Richard Baxter). In the same way, there is no theory of church polity that is uniquely Puritan, and views differed beyond opposition to Erastianism (state control), though even that had its small group of supporters in the Westminster Assembly. Some approved of the existing church hierarchy with bishops, but others sought to reform the Episcopal churches on the Presbyterian model. Some separatist Puritans were Presbyterian, but most were early Congregationalists. The separating Congregationalists believed the Divine Right of Kings was heresy; but on the other hand there were many royalist Presbyterians, in terms of allegiance in the political struggle.

Migration also brought out differences. It brought together Puritan communities with their own regional customs and beliefs. As soon as there were New World Puritans, their views on church governance diverged from those remaining in the British Isles, who faced different issues.


Puritans believed in demonic forces, as did almost all Christians of this period. Puritan pastors undertook exorcisms for demonic possession in some high-profile cases, and believed in some allegations of witchcraft. The exorcist John Darrell was supported by Arthur Hildersham in the case of Thomas Darling; Samuel Harsnett, a sceptic on witchcraft and possession, attacked Darrell. But Harsnett was in the minority, and many clergy, not only Puritans, took the opposite viewpoint. The possession case of Richard Dugdale was taken up by the ejected nonconformist Thomas Jollie, and other local ministers, in 1689.

The context of the Salem witch trials of 1692-1693 shows the intricacy of trying to place "Puritan" beliefs as distinctive. The publication of Saducismus Triumphatus, an anti-sceptical tract that has been implicated in the moral panic at Salem, involved Joseph Glanvill (a latitudinarian), Henry More (a Cambridge Platonist) as editor, and Anthony Horneck, an evangelical German Anglican, as translator of a pamphlet about a Swedish witch hunt; and none of these was a Puritan. Glanvill and More had been vehemently opposed in the 1670s by the sceptic John Webster, an Independent and sometime chaplain to the Parliamentary forces.


Puritan millennialism has been placed in the broader context of European Reformed views on the millennium and interpretation of Biblical prophecy, for which representative figures of the period were Johannes Piscator, Thomas Brightman, Joseph Mede, Johannes Heinrich Alsted, and John Amos Comenius. Both Brightman and Mede were Puritan by conviction, and so are identified by their biographers, though neither clashed with the church authorities. David Brady describes a "lull before the storm" in which, in the early 17th century, "reasonably restrained and systematic" Protestant exegesis of the Book of Revelation was seen with Brightman, Mede and Hugh Broughton; after which "apocalyptic literature became too easily debased" as it became more populist, less scholarly. Within the church, William Lamont argues, the Elizabethan millennial views of John Foxe became sidelined, with Puritans adopting instead the "centrifugal" views of Brightman, while the Laudians replaced the "centripetal" attitude of Foxe to the 'Christian Emperor' by the national and episcopal Church closer to home, with its royal head, as leading the Protestant world iure divino (by divine right). Viggo Norskov Olsen writes that Mede "broke fully away from the Augustinian-Foxian tradition, and is the link between Brightman and the premillennialism of the seventeenth century".

The dam then broke in 1641 when the traditional retrospective reverence for Thomas Cranmer and other martyred bishops in the Acts and Monuments was displaced by forward-looking attitudes to prophecy, among radical Puritans.

Cultural consequences

Some strong religious views common to Puritans had direct impacts on culture. Education for the masses was so they could read the Bible for themselves.

The opposition to acting as public performance, typefied by William Prynne's Histriomastix, was not a concern with drama as a form. John Milton wrote Samson Agonistes as verse drama, and indeed had at an early stage contemplated writing Paradise Lost in that form. N. H. Keeble writes:

...when Milton essayed drama, it was with explicit Pauline authority and neither intended for the stage nor in the manner of the contemporary theatre.

But the sexualisation of Restoration theatre was attacked as strongly as ever, by Thomas Gouge, as Keeble points out. Puritans eliminated the use of musical instruments in their religious services, for theological and practical reasons. Church organs were commonly damaged or destroyed in the Civil War period, for example an axe being taken to the organ of Worcester Cathedral in 1642.

Family life

The Snake in the Grass or Satan Transform'd to an Angel of Light, title page engraved by Richard Gaywood, ca. 1660

Puritans placed family at the centre of their societies as an organization to facilitate their devotion to God. Based on Biblical portrayals of Adam and Eve, Puritans believed that marriage represented one of the most fundamental human relationships rooted in procreation, love, and, most importantly, salvation. According to Puritans, husbands were the spiritual head of the household while women were to demonstrate religious piety and obedience under male authority. Furthermore, marriage represented not only the relationship between husband and wife but also the relationship between spouses and God. Puritan husbands commanded authority through family direction and prayer; the female relationship to her husband and to God was marked by submissiveness and humility.

Puritans believed wives to be spiritual equals to their husbands. Puritan author Thomas Gataker describes Puritan marriage as such:

...together for a time as copartners in grace here, [that] they may reigne together forever as coheires in glory hereafter.

The paradox created by female inferiority in the public sphere and the spiritual equality of men and women in marriage, then, gave way to the informal authority of women concerning matters of the home and childrearing. With the consent of their husbands, Puritan wives made important decisions concerning the labor of their children, property, and the management of inns and taverns owned by their husbands.

For Puritans, motherhood represented the most significant aspect of the female identity. Pious Puritan mothers labored for their children's righteousness and salvation, connecting women directly to matters of religion and morality. In her poem titled "In Reference to her Children," poet Anne Bradstreet reflects on her role as a mother:

I had eight birds hatched in one nest; Four cocks there were, and hens the rest. I nursed them up with pain and care, Nor cost nor labor I did spare,

Bradstreet alludes to the temporality of motherhood by comparing her children to a flock of birds on the precipice of leaving home. While Puritans praised the obedience of young children, they also believed that by separating children from their mothers at adolescence, children could better sustain a superior relationship with God.

According to Puritans, children entered the world with the stain of original sin. A child could only be redeemed through religious education and obedience. Girls carried the additional burden of Eve's corruption and were catechized separately from boys at adolescence. Boys' education prepared them for vocations and leadership roles while girls were educated for domestic and religious purposes. The pinnacle of achievement for children in Puritan society, however, occurred with the conversion process.

Puritans thrust paternal caretaking responsibilities upon masters in relation to their servants. The term servant was not used to describe African-Americans, specifically, but rather, referred to any paid laborer at the time. Puritans viewed the relationship between master and servant similarly to that of parent and child. Just as parents were expected to uphold Puritan religious values in the home, masters assumed the parental responsibility of housing and educating young servants. Older servants also dwelled with masters and were cared for in the event of illness or injury. African-American and Indian servants were likely excluded from such benefits.

New England Puritans

Particularly in the years after 1630, Puritans left for New England (see Migration to New England (1620–1640)), supporting the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and other settlements. The large-scale Puritan emigration to New England then ceased, by 1641, with around 21,000 having moved across the Atlantic. This English-speaking population in America did not all consist of original colonists, since many returned to England shortly after arriving on the continent, but produced more than 16 million descendants. This so-called "Great Migration" is not so named because of sheer numbers, which were much less than the number of English citizens who emigrated to Virginia and the Caribbean during this time. The rapid growth of the New England colonies (~700,000 by 1790) was almost entirely due to the high birth rate and lower death rate per year.

Puritan hegemony lasted at least for its first century. That century can be broken down into three parts: (1) The generation of John Cotton and Richard Mather, 1630-1661 from the founding to the Restoration: years of virtual independence and nearly autonomous development; (2) The generation of Increase Mather, 1662-1689 from the Restoration and the Halfway Covenant to the Glorious Revolution: years of struggle with the British crown; (3) The generation of Cotton Mather, 1689-1728 from the overthrow of Edmund Andros (of which Cotton Mather was a part) and the new charter, mediated by Increase Mather, to the death of Cotton Mather.

Cotton Mather, influential New England Puritan minister, portrait by Peter Pelham.


New England differed from its mother country, where nothing in English statute required schoolmasters or the literacy of children. With the possible exception of Scotland, the Puritan model of education in New England was unique. John Winthrop in 1630 had claimed that the society they would form in New England would be "as a city upon a hill;" and the colony leaders would educate all. These were men of letters, had attended Oxford or Cambridge, and communicated with intellectuals all over Europe; and in 1636 they founded the school that shortly became Harvard College.

Besides the Bible, children needed to read in order to "understand...the capital laws of this country," as the Massachusetts code declared, order being of the utmost importance, and 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"). 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.

Forms of schooling ranged from dame schools to "Latin" schools for boys already literate in English and ready to master preparatory grammar for Latin, Hebrew, and Greek. Reading schools would often be the single source of education for girls, whereas boys would 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). Most evidence suggests that girls could not attend the less ambitious town schools, the lower-tier writing-reading schools mandated for townships of over fifty families.

Restrictions and pleasures

Window, Old Ship Church, Puritan meetinghouse, Hingham, Massachusetts

The Plymouth Colony Puritans of New England disapproved of Christmas celebrations, as did some other Protestant churches of the time. Celebration was outlawed in Boston from 1659. The ban was revoked in 1681 by the English-appointed governor Sir Edmund Andros, who also revoked a Puritan ban on festivities on Saturday nights. Nevertheless, it was not until the mid-19th century that celebrating Christmas became fashionable in the Boston region. Likewise the colonies banned many secular entertainments, such as games of chance, maypoles, and drama, on moral grounds.

They were not, however, opposed to drinking alcohol in moderation. Early New England laws banning the sale of alcohol to Native Americans were criticized because it was "not fit to deprive Indians of any lawfull comfort aloweth to all men by the use of wine." Laws banned the practice of individuals toasting each other, with the explanation that it led to wasting God's gift of beer and wine, as well as being carnal. Bounds were not set on enjoying 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. Puritans publicly punished drunkenness and sexual relations outside marriage.

Opposition to Quakerism

The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were the most active of the New England persecutors of Quakers, and the persecuting spirit was shared by the Plymouth Colony and the colonies along the Connecticut river. In 1660, one of the most notable victims of the religious intolerance was English Quaker Mary Dyer who was hanged in Boston, Massachusetts for repeatedly defying a Puritan law banning Quakers from the colony. She was one of the four executed Quakers known as the Boston martyrs. In 1661 King Charles II explicitly forbade Massachusetts from executing anyone for professing Quakerism. In 1684 England revoked the Massachusetts charter, sent over a royal governor to enforce English laws in 1686, and in 1689 passed a broad Toleration act.

The Puritan spirit in the United States

Late 19th century view, the Puritan stereotype in a sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

Alexis de Tocqueville suggested in Democracy in America that Puritanism was the very thing that provided a firm foundation for American democracy. As Sheldon Wolin puts it, "Tocqueville was aware of the harshness and bigotry of the early colonists"; but on the other hand he saw them as "archaic survivals, not only in their piety and discipline but in their democratic practices". 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.


The literature on Puritans, particularly biographical literature on individual Puritan ministers, became large already in the 17th century, and indeed the interests of Puritans in the narratives of early life and conversions made the recording of the internal lives important to them. The historical literature on Puritans is, however quite problematic and subject to controversies of interpretation. The early writings are those of the defeated, excluded and victims. The great interest of authors of the 19th century in Puritan figures was routinely accused in the 20th century of consisting of anachronism and the reading back of contemporary concerns.

A debate continues on the definition of Puritanism. Patrick Collinson has an extreme view that "Puritanism had no content beyond what was attributed to it by its opponents." The analysis of "mainstream Puritanism" in terms of the evolution from it of separatist and antinomian groups that did not flourish, and others that continue to this day such as Baptists and Quakers, can suffer in this way, as well as risking an incoherent view of where the burden of belief lay for the "godly". The national context (England and Wales, plus the kingdoms of Scotland and Ireland) frames the definition of Puritans, but was not a self-identification for those Protestants who saw the progress of the Thirty Years' War from 1620 as directly bearing on their denomination, and as a continuation of the religious wars of the previous century, carried on by the English Civil Wars. Christopher Hill, who has contributed Marxist analyses of Puritan concerns that are more respected than accepted, writes of the 1630s, old church lands, and the accusations that Laud was a crypto-Catholic:

To the heightened Puritan imagination it seemed that, all over Europe, the lamps were going out: the Counter-Reformation was winning back property for the church as well as souls: and Charles I and his government, if not allied to the forces of the Counter-Reformation, at least appeared to have set themselves identical economic and political objectives.

Puritans were politically important in England, but it is debated whether the movement was in any way a party with policies and leaders before the early 1640s; and while Puritanism in New England was important culturally for a group of colonial pioneers in America, there have been many studies trying to pin down exactly what the identifiable cultural component was. Fundamentally, historians remain dissatisfied with the grouping as "Puritan" as a working concept for historical explanation. The conception of a Protestant work ethic, identified more closely with Calvinist or Puritan principles, has been criticised at its root, mainly as a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy aligning economic success with a narrow religious scheme.

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