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Puritanism and Predestination

Christine Leigh Heyrman
Department of History, University of Delaware
©National Humanities Center


The Puritans were a varied group of religious reformers who emerged within the Church of England during the middle of the sixteenth century. They shared a common Calvinist theology and common criticisms of the Anglican Church and English society and government. Their numbers and influence grew steadily, culminating in the English Civil War of the 1640s and the rule of Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s. With the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660, Puritanism went into eclipse in England, largely because the movement was identified with the upheaval and radicalism of the Civil War and Cromwell’s tyrannical government, a virtual military dictatorship.

But it persisted for much longer as a vital force in those parts of British North America colonized by two groups of Puritans who gradually cut their ties to the Church of England and formed separate denominations. One group, the Congregationalists, settled Plymouth in the 1620s and then Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut, and Rhode Island in the 1630s. Another group, the Presbyterians, who quickly came to dominate the religious life of Scotland and later migrated in large numbers to northern Ireland, also settled many communities in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania during the late seventeenth century and throughout the eighteenth century.

Increase Mather,
“The Wicked mans Portion,” 1675.

“That excesse in wickedness doth bring untimely Death.”
Puritans in both Britain and British North America sought to cleanse the culture of what they regarded as corrupt, sinful practices. They believed that the civil government should strictly enforce public morality by prohibiting vices like drunkenness, gambling, ostentatious dress, swearing, and Sabbath-breaking. They also wished to purge churches of every vestige of Roman Catholic ritual and practice—the ruling hierarchies of bishops and cardinals, the elaborate ceremonies in which the clergy wore ornate vestments and repeated prayers from a prescribed liturgy. Accordingly, New England’s Congregational churches were self-governing bodies, answerable to no higher authority; mid-Atlantic Presbyterian churches enjoyed somewhat less autonomy because a hierarchy of “presbyteries” and “synods” made up of leading laymen and clergymen set policy for individual congregations. But both Congregationalist and Presbyterian worship services were simple, even austere, and dominated by long, learned sermons in which their clergy expounded passages from the Bible. Perhaps most important, membership in both churches was limited to the “visibly godly,” meaning those men and women who lead sober and upright lives. New England Congregationalists adopted even stricter standards for admission to their churches—the requirement that each person applying for membership testify publicly to his or her experience of “conversion.” (Many Presbyterians also regarded conversion as central to being a Christian, but they did not restrict their membership to those who could profess such an experience.)


Guiding Student Discussion

Puritan catechism in The New-England Primer, 1646

“I was conceived in Sin &
Born in iniquity.”
Explaining most of the above to your students will be easy enough, except, of course, this matter of conversion. At the very mention of that term, a sea of blank faces will shimmer before your unhappy eyes. Nonetheless, gamely pursue the subject with them. Pull out all the stops to convey what conversion meant—because it is key to understanding the spirituality of the Puritans (as well as all later evangelicals). What’s more, explaining this religious experience is a surefire way to get students thinking and talking. No matter how confused they seem at first, most will “get it” and even “get into it” if you give them a chance.

You might tell them about the Puritan belief in predestination, which provides the wider context for understanding conversion. This doctrine was first elaborated by John Calvin and then adopted by Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and a variety of other religious groups. Calvin held that human beings were innately sinful—utterly depraved by inheriting the original sin of Adam and Eve, the biblical parents of the human race.

Elizabeth Clarke Freake and Baby Mary,
Boston, ca. 1670 (artist unknown).

“a profound sense of inner
assurance that they possessed
God’s ‘saving grace’”

But Calvin also taught that God, in his infinite mercy, would spare a small number of “elect” individuals from the fate of eternal hellfire that all mankind, owing to their corrupt natures, justly deserved. That elect group of “saints” would be blessed, at some point in their lives, by a profound sense of inner assurance that they possessed God’s “saving grace.” This dawning of hope was the experience of conversion, which might come upon individuals suddenly or gradually, in their earliest youth or even in the moments before death. It is important to emphasize to students that, in the Calvinist scheme, God decided who would be saved or damned before the beginning of history—and that this decision would not be affected by how human beings behaved during their lives. The God of Calvin (and the Puritans) did not give “extra credit"—nor, indeed, any credit—for the good works that men and women performed during their lives.

Once you have gotten this far, some students will be wondering (aloud, with any luck) why any sane person would accept the doctrine of predestination. The gist of their objections will be, to echo some of my own students, that predestination “is, like, TOTALLY unfair.” Some may observe that the Puritans’ God was a distinctly undemocratic sort of deity, an unfeeling tyrant rather than a loving parent. Many more may notice that the Puritans’ God offered no incentive for upright moral behavior: this deity had decided who will be saved or damned before the beginning of human history, and no good actions on the part of men and women could change that divine decree and alter their preordained fates. (The brighter kids may also point out that Calvinist theology denied human beings any free will.) That being the case, lots of students will ask you why the Puritans didn’t sink into despair—or decide to wallow in the world’s pleasures, to enjoy the moment, since they could do nothing to affect their eternity in the afterlife.

Title page (detail) of the 1560 “Geneva Bible,”
which reflected Calvinist doctrine and was probably
the Bible taken by the Puritans to the New World.
Scriptural verses surrounding the image:

“Great are the troubles of the righteous;
but the Lord delivereth them out of all.”

—Psalms, 34:19

“FEARE YE NOT, STAND STIL, AND BEHOLDE
the salvation of the Lord,
which he will shewe to you this day.
THE LORD SHALL FIGHT FOR YOU; THEREFORE
holde you your peace.”

—Exodus 14:13–14
Once students have aired these opinions (and it’s important to let that conversation run its course, perhaps even writing their objections on the blackboard), your most important job is to REFOCUS the class discussion. You can do that by emphasizing one simple fact—namely, that many men and women, in both Europe and America (the Puritans among them), wholeheartedly embraced the belief in predestination. Indeed, they often referred to predestination as “a comfortable doctrine,” meaning that it afforded them great solace and security. What’s crucial here, in other words, is that you encourage students to shift from talking about why Puritanism doesn’t appeal to them and into speculating about the HISTORICAL QUESTION of WHY, indeed, it DID appeal to so many early modern Europeans and British colonials. What you’re striving for here is to encourage your students to develop EMPATHY with people in the distant past—to get them to IMAGINE the sort of historical circumstances, the kind of social existence, that might have made predestination a compelling (and reassuring) belief for large numbers of men and women.

To prod them into thinking along these lines, you might talk a bit about the sweeping changes (and uncertainties) overtaking the lives of most western Europeans in the early modern period (ca., 1400–1800). It was during this era that the beginnings of modern capitalism—both the growth of trade and the commercialization of agriculture—were yielding handsome profits for merchants and large landowners, but creating inflation and unemployment that produced unprecedented misery for many more people. The rich were getting richer, and the poor much poorer: growing numbers of unemployed people became vagrants, beggars, and petty criminals. To add to the sense of disruption and disarray, the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century had ruptured the unity of late medieval Christendom, spawning bloody religious wars that led to lasting tensions between Catholics and Protestants. Finally, Europeans had “discovered” and begun colonizing what was to them an entirely new and strange world in the Americas. All of these momentous changes were profoundly unsettling to ordinary men and women, heightening their need for social order, intellectual and moral certainty, and spiritual consolation.

The Bay Psalm Book, printed in Boston, 1640: the first book printed in the British colonies.For many, the doctrine of predestination answered these pressing inner needs. Its power to comfort and reassure troubled souls arose from its wider message that, beyond preordaining the eternal fates of men and women, God had a plan for all of human history—that every event in the lives of individuals and nations somehow tended toward an ultimate triumph of good over evil, order over disorder, Christ over Satan. In other words, Calvin (and his many followers among groups like the Puritans) saw human history as an unfolding cosmic drama in which every person had a predestined role to play. True, men and women had no free will, but they had the assurance that their existence—indeed, their every action—was MEANINGFUL and that their strivings and sufferings in the present would ultimately produce a future of perfect peace and security—a kind of heaven on earth.

That confidence made people like the Puritans anything but passive or despairing. On the contrary, they were an extraordinarily energetic, activist lot, constantly striving to reshape both society and government to accord with what they believed to be the will of God as set forth in the Bible. Gravestone of Phebe Gorham, d. 1775,
Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Epitaph:

Henceforth my Soul in sweetest Union join
The two supports of human happiness,
Which some erroneous think can never meet,
True Taste of Life, and constant thought of Death
They strove, too, to lead godly and disciplined lives—but not because they hoped that such righteous behavior would earn them salvation. Instead they believed that their very ability to master their evil inclinations provided some evidence that they ranked among the elect of saints. In other words, the Puritans did not regard leading a godly, moral life as the CAUSE of a person’s salvation, but rather as an encouraging sign of the EFFECT of being chosen by God to enjoy eternal bliss in heaven. It was impossible, of course, to be entirely confident of one’s eternal fate, but that edge of uncertainty only made believers redouble their efforts to purify their own lives and society as a whole. And nothing was more important to early modern men and women than gaining greater reassurance of salvation.


Historians Debate

John Eliot, ca. date (unknown artist).
Eliot, a Puritan minister in 17th-century Massachusetts, was known as the
“Apostle of the Indians.”
Few subjects in early modern history have received more attention from scholars than Puritanism, and historians of early America have focused the most intense scrutiny on the Congregationalists of colonial New England. The most profound modern interpreter of that Puritan culture is Perry Miller, whose work first appeared in the middle decades of the twentieth century and whose influence endures to the present with such works as The New England Mind (1929/1953) and Errand into the Wilderness (1956). Miller was the first scholar to appreciate the importance of Puritanism as a complex set of ideas, a magisterial theology that set forth a rich, compelling depiction of the relationship between God and humankind. In Miller’s view, Puritanism was also a dynamic, protean, intellectual force, constantly adapting to keep pace with the rapidly shifting social conditions and cultural climate over the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.


Thomas Smith, Self-Portrait, ca. 1680.
Smith, a mariner, painter, and (sources
indicate) a Puritan, included this
inscription on the white sheet
under the skull:

Why why should I the World be minding
therein a World of Evils Finding.
Then Farwell World: Farwell thy Jarres
thy Joies thy Toies thy Wiles thy Warrs
Truth Sounds Retreat: I am not sorye.
The Eternall Drawes to him my heart
By Faith (which can thy Force Subvert)
To Crowne me (after Grace) with Glory.
Many of the historians who followed Miller in the 1960s and 1970s concluded that the vitality and integrity of Puritanism as a cultural force was sapped and finally spent by broader social and intellectual challenges. In their view, the growth of commercial capitalism in New England and the spread of “enlightened” learning had yielded, by the opening decades of the eighteenth century, a far more secular, competitive, litigious, and materialistic society—one in which “Puritan” piety was rapidly being eroded by “Yankee” worldliness. (The best treatment of this thesis is Richard Bushman, From Puritan to Yankee [1967].) But more recently, in the 1980s and 1990s, other scholars have argued that Puritanism’s influence held sway even among the cosmopolitan merchants of bustling New England seaports well into the eighteenth century and that all inhabitants of the region as a whole long remained steeped in Puritan values and spirituality. Indeed, they contend that the Puritan emphasis on social hierarchy and communal obligation, as well as its ascetic piety and intolerance of competing faiths, actually contained the force of capitalist expansion within New England and limited the extent to which the participation in a market economy and the quest for profit could reshape social relations and values. (To sample this revisionist scholarship, see Stephen Innes, Creating the Commonwealth [1996].)


Puritan church with pulpit, pews, and,
significantly, no altar. Old Ship Meeting House, Hingham, Mass., built in 1681.
While scholars continue to debate the strength of Puritanism among eighteenth-century New Englanders, broader agreement has emerged about the region’s religious culture during the seventeenth century. The then “new” social historians of the 1970s were inclined toward the suspicion that the Puritan doctrine being handed down from the pulpit may have mattered little to many ordinary New England lay people. But subsequent research has now left little doubt that Puritan theology compelled the loyalties of early New Englanders of all classes and that even the humblest farmers and fisherfolk were often well versed in the basic doctrines pertaining to predestination and conversion. What they heard from their preachers, they both understood and generally accepted as the essence of true Christian faith.


Even so, both ordinary New Englanders—and their “betters,” including college-educated clergymen—also lived in what one historian has aptly called “worlds of wonder.” These “wonders” include the belief in witches, the power of Satan to assume visible form, and a variety of other preternatural phenomena that are still routinely chronicled today in supermarket tabloids—the foretelling power of dreams and portents, strange prodigies, “monstrous” births, and miraculous deliverances. To appreciate just how rich and bizarre this range of beliefs was, check out the chapter on “wonders” in David Hall, World of Wonders, Days of Judgment (New York, 1989). It’s a great way to enliven a dull hour—and a quick way to get some sense of the complexity of beliefs about the supernatural among early New Englanders of every rank and education.

But these remarks don’t even begin to do full justice to the lively scholarship on New England Puritanism that has evolved over the last half of the twentieth century. If you want to know more about other topics, please read under Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: Religion, Women, and the Family in Early America or Religion and the American Revolution.

Christine Leigh Heyrman was a Fellow at the National Humanities Center in 1986–87. She holds a Ph.D. from Yale University in American Studies and is currently Professor of History in the Department of History at the University of Delaware. Dr. Heyrman is the author of Commerce and Culture: The Maritime Communities of Colonial New England, 1690–1740 [1984], Southern Cross: The Beginning of the Bible Belt [1997], which won the Bancroft Prize in 1998, and Nation of Nations: A Narrative History of the Republic, with James West Davidson, William Gienapp, Mark Lytle, and Michael Stoff [3rd ed., 1997].

Address comments or questions to Professor Heyrman through TeacherServe “Comments and Questions.”

Illustration credits

Links to online resources

To cite this essay:
Heyrman, Christine Leigh. “Puritanism and Predestination.” Divining America, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center. DATE YOU ACCESSED ESSAY. <http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/eighteen/ekeyinfo/puritan.htm>

 

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