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The Legacy of Puritanism

Emory Elliott
University Professor of University of California,
Distinguished Professor of English and
Director, Center for Ideas and Society
©National Humanities Center


The purpose of this essay is to trace the effects of seventeenth-century New England Puritanism upon the development of the United States of America. Many scholars have argued that various elements of Puritanism persisted in the culture and society of the United States long after the New England Puritanism discussed in the following pages was recognizable. However, many of the verbal formulations that the early Congregational and Presbyterian clergy devised as ways to imagine themselves as a special people on a sacred errand into the wilderness of a New World have been sustained in the social, political, economic, and religious thinking of Americans even to the present. Two leading literary and cultural scholars of New England Puritanism and its legacy, Harvard Professors Perry Miller in the 1940s and 50s and, more recently, Sacvan Bercovitch, the studied the rhetorical strategies of the New England Puritans and demonstrated the remarkable extent to which the leaders and clergy created a rich American Christian mythology to describe their Providential role as the new Chosen People in world history. Passed down through generations to our own time, many assumptions regarding God’s promises to his chosen American People have persisted through the American Revolution, the Civil War, and all periods of crisis down to our own time. Still visible in much religious and political rhetoric in United States are versions of the grand narrative of the Reverend Cotton Mather’s prose epic, Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), where he proclaims: “I WRITE the Wonders of the CHRISTIAN RELIGION, flying from the Deprivation of Europe, to the American Strand.” This vision of a Christian American utopia was first expressed by John Winthrop in his writings in the 1630s and remains alive in many religious and political forms in the United States today. [For more on the Puritans, see: Puritanism and Predestination.]

Seventeenth-Century Puritan New England

John WinthropIn 1620, when William Bradford and his small colony of one-hundred and three Protestant separatists, later known as the Pilgrims arrived in New England to found Plymouth Plantation [see American Beginnings: 1492–1690], they were seeking refuge from persecution in Europe. After severe hardships during their first few years, the community of survivors became so successful that beginning in 1630 John Winthrop led thirty thousand more to establish the Massachusetts Bay Colony in what became Boston. With Winthrop as Governor, the Puritans, as they were called by their enemies, established a government and churches and initially negotiated with the local tribes for land; later they would decide that God had intended for the land to be freely taken by the English. Winthrop thought of himself as creating a Christian utopia where they could practice their religion in peace with each congregation having its own elected minister and its own covenant with God. Because Winthrop and most of his fellow Puritans had previously experienced a religious conversion experience, they were able to become church members, vote, and own property. Their form of government had elected leaders such as Winthrop himself who made decisions with the advice of magistrates and the clergy. Some scholars have called this form of government a theocracy.

To understand the Puritans and the nature of their society, it is necessary to grasp some of the theological principles of Calvinism. As a prominent theologian, John Calvin adhered to a dualistic, either/or logic, and believed that every person was born sinful and depraved since they have inherit Original Sin from Adam and Eve. He reasoned that since God has infinite power and knowledge He knows everything that has ever occurred in the universe and everything that will occur. Thus, since God knows what every human on earth has done and will do, He already knows who is predestined to receive His grace, have a conversion experience, and spend eternity in heaven. No person can change what is predestined so free will plays no role in the process of salvation. The clergy advised their church members that they should pray, study the Bible, and hope to receive grace, but they also must accept that if an individual is not predestined to be saved, there is nothing that he or she can do to save themselves. When a person receives grace, he or she is quiet aware of the powerful experience, and a congregation is made up of those joyful converted souls whom they call saints. Many may have lived very virtuous lives, but if they do not experience grace and conversion, they will not be saved. While a large percentage of the first arrivals were saints, many of their children were not.

To be sure that the church leaders were not fooled into admitting hypocrites who give false testimony of their conversion, the clergy required applicants for membership to give a detailed personal narrative of their conversion experience before the congregation and answer questions. The clergy had list of specific elements of narratives of conversion experience that they expected to hear, and when the candidate’s narrative did not adhere to the models, they were denied membership. Because many who did not experience grace became discouraged, the clergy tried to find ways to encourage good behavior even as they knew that only the few were predestined for salvation. This problem of controlling the disgruntled and unconverted produced many problems for the colony.

Although most of those who migrated to America in 1630 shared a common Calvinist theology and the experience of having been persecuted in England for their faith, there was by no means unanimity regarding how they would practice their religion. Each congregation was autonomous and followed the rules of its own written covenant, and each minister had his own ideas on how to apply the various doctrines of Calvinism. As the colony grew, increasing numbers did not embrace Calvinism at all or even Christianity. Different dissenting groups and sects arose including Quakers, Anabaptists, Millenarians, Baptists, Familists, Enthusiasts, and Antinomians. The Congregationalists sought to purge these other groups from the colony, and they agreed with Rev. Thomas Shepard that “the spreading of the contagion of corrupt opinions” could destroy the colony. Such problems with religious diversity only increased with time.

The most serious and destructive case of dissent arose from within the original group of settlers and involved a very prominent family. Having immigrated to Boston in 1634 to follow their minister John Cotton, Anne and William Hutchinson quickly became prominent figures in the community. William was elected deputy to the Massachusetts Court, and Anne continued her community service as a nurse midwife and spiritual adviser to women. As people grew weary of not receiving grace and others faked conversion experiences, all the clergy could do was to encourage people to pray, study the scriptures, and await grace and conversion. The Hutchinsons had followed Cotton from England because of his brilliant preaching and his firm commitment to the doctrine of the Covenant of Grace which held God’s grace was the only way salvation. But this doctrine was frustrating for many who felt that living a virtues life of good deeds should count for something toward receiving grace and salvation. In order to soften the strict doctrine of predestination, some ministers began to preach what the Hutchinsons recognized as a Doctrine of Works—a heresy in Calvin’s theology. When the Reverend John Wilson, who was the pastor of the congregation in which Cotton was the teacher, seemed to go too far in the direction of suggesting that good works might lead to salvation, the Hutchinsons were disturbed. Wilson was one of several ministers who began preaching what they called the “Doctrine of the Preparation of the Heart.” They said that God would not be so cruel as to give people no hope of helping themselves to prepare for grace and that good works and gracious behavior laid the path for the coming of grace. Disturbed by what she heard as heresy, Anne began to hold weekly meetings in her home to discuss theology. She believed that Wilson and other “preparationists” were rejecting the Doctrine of Predestination and verged on heresy. She and her husband gathered others who sought to oust Reverend John Wilson, but the clergy closed ranks and declared Hutchinson to be the heretic. Unlike her husband, she refused to recant her opinion and was subjected to a sensational trial that included suggestions that she was in love with John Cotton. Cotton was forced to condemn her, and she was excommunicated. When she and her family were banished in 1638, they moved to Rhode Island for five years and then to New York where all of her family but one was killed in an Indian raid.

While the Hutchinson case is the most famous of many theological and political upheavals that occurred in the first decades of the colonies, Roger Williams was also disturbed by the preparation doctrine, and he disputed the use being made of Biblical typology to construct such notions as the Puritans being the new Chosen People and Boston being the new Zion. In addition, he challenged the role of the clergy in political and judicial issues as he believed in the separation of church and state, and he deeply opposed the taking of land from the Native peoples without compensation. His debates with John Cotton led Williams to leave Massachusetts and establish a colony in Rhode Island. Yet another leading clergyman, Thomas Hooker, became involved in a major dispute with John Winthrop over political franchise. While Winthrop held that only those who had been converted could be church members, vote, and participate in the government, Hooker held that any adult male property holder should be able to vote and hold office regardless of church membership. Hooker lost this argument and moved his congregation to Connecticut. The peaceful utopia that Winthrop envisioned never became a reality as such internal conflicts and divisions kept the community in turmoil much of the time. In spite of these internal problems, however, visitors to New England in the 1650s described the flourishing agricultural communities of pious, hardworking families where the church and the state appeared to cooperate in governance. Some Puritan scholars, such as Bercovitch’s in his The American Jeremiad and Bernard Bailyn in The New England Merchants in the Seventeenth Century, have observed how the economic success achieved by the colony by the 1650s generated a pre-capitalist mentality in New England. The first recognition of such links was proposed by the German sociologist and economist Max Weber who argued in his book, The Protestant Ethic and the Rise of Capitalism (1930), that the Calvinist emphasis on hard work and good deeds as the signs of a model citizen laid the foundation for the emergence of capitalism in the late eighteen century.

In 1649, the Puritan dissenters in England overthrew the monarchy and executed Charles I, and Oliver Cromwell governed the Protectorate in the 1650s. After Cromwell’s death, the Puritan government weakened, Charles II returned from France and restored the monarchy. Immigration to New England accelerated after the Puritans lost power in England, but tensions arose again when the newcomers could not meet the strict standards for conversion and church membership and were denied land and voting rights that were reserved for the converted. Such privileges were also withheld from those adult children and grandchildren of the original settlers who had not experienced a conversion experience. While the clergy tried to sustain the original Calvinist doctrines and principles, bitter divisions occurred and many of the older church members began to demand that their offspring be granted church membership so that they, rather than outsiders, would benefit from the wealth of the colony. A rancorous synod (church council) was held in 1662 and the Half-Way Covenant doctrine was devised to allow for grandchildren of the founders to be baptized even if their parents were not converted. The 1660s marked a significant transition from the corporate assurance and religious fervor and a decline of confidence in the churches and communities that ensued.

Throughout the 1670s and 1680s, the New England clergy took many of their texts from the Book of Jeremiah in which the prophet chastises the Hebrews for their loss of religious zeal and of God’s favor. Twentieth-century scholars, such as Perry Miller, have called these sermons “Jeremiads.” This genre follows a standard formula: recollection of the community’s original joy and fervor; castigation of the people for recent and current sins and backsliding; pleas for the congregation to repent and pray for forgiveness; and assurances that God will forgive his Chosen and restore harmony. Because the Puritans believed that the Bible and Nature should be closely studied for signs of God’s intentions, they were acutely alarmed by a series of terrible events that occurred in these years: earthquakes, plagues, violent storms, explosions and fires in the town and aboard ships, and crimes such as murders and suicides, all providing evidence of God’s anger. A few sermon titles from those decades indicate the themes and tone: Righteousness Rained from Heaven; Days of Humiliation, Times of Affliction; The Day of Trouble is Near; and Nehemiah on the Wall in Troublesome Times. The most devastating event in these decades was the King Phillip’s War of 1674–1676 that resulted from decades of the English taking Indian lands. This war with the Wampanoag people, whose leader, Metacomet, was known as Philip to the English, resulted in the loss of ten percent of the soldiers on each side as well as the loss of many civilians, making it one of the bloodiest wars ever in North America.

In spite of their reassurances at the end of their jeremiads, the clergy and the older church members began to lament the continuing decline of fervor within the congregations. As increasing numbers of those emigrating from England were not joining the churches, Boston and many other communities were becoming more secular and the people more materialistic. Perhaps the hardest blow to long-standing church members, however, was the decision in 1684 by the London Court of Chancery to revoke the Massachusetts Bay Charter which put all land being held by the colonists under the control of the Charles II. In 1686, James II appointed Edmund Andros to be the first royal governor of Massachusetts, and he brought with him Anglican clergy and many members of the Church of England. For the first time in their lives, Congregationalists heard the singing of Anglican hymns in one of their own churches where Andros insisted on holding Anglican services. The loss of the Charter and the arrival of Andros really brought Puritan control of the region to an end. In 1689 when news arrived that William of Orange had assumed the throne of England, the Puritan leaders arrested Andros and sent him to England where he was quickly released. For a short period it seemed that the leadership was again in the hands of the Puritans, but it would not be long before another royal governor, William Phipps, would arrive. But there was one more episode in the decline and downfall of the Puritan way—the witchcraft delusion, trials, and executions in the summer of 1692.

Throughout the history of the colony, there had regularly been accusations of witchcraft, but these cases were usually handled quietly and effectively. The clergy would conduct an investigation and then usually send the accused to be examined by another minister in a distant parish. During these intervals, the accusers often reconsidered their accusations that most often stemmed from personal or financial conflicts. With a small number of exceptions, charges were usually dropped. In the case of Salem, other forces were at work, and scholars have had many different theories about what enflamed these events: conflicts among neighbors and families; economic and political disputes; anxiety among the young people; gender conflicts; and possibly a growing class division with the clergy and leading figures on one side and the poor and disgruntled on the other. Certainly, the many problems of the previous two decades produced a charged atmosphere that generated extraordinary fear and paranoia. In May, Governor Phipps appointed a Court to conduct hearings, but he did nothing to stop the madness. After four months, he suspended the court but not before atrocities had been committed. In an unprecedented move, the magistrates had excluded the clergy, who had always handed witchcraft charges, from participating in the investigation. The first execution occurred in June and by the end of September twenty had been hung, one pressed to death, and at least four others died in prison. In the three years that followed, families of the victims sued officials and won their cases, and nearly all soon recognized what a catastrophe had occurred. Several public officials made public apologies. By 1695, there was little left of the Puritan society that had been the City on the Hill, the Beacon to the World of the world to emulate.

The Impact of the Enlightenment on New England

With New England firmly under English control and a new cosmopolitan world view from Europe was pervading cities like Boston, the communities that the Puritan founders created were transformed. By the 1730s, what remained of American Puritanism was split into three Protestant sects. In the first years of the eighteenth century, most Congregational churches in New England began to liberalize and to de-emphasize the strict Calvinist doctrines; as they tried to open up the churches to more new members, these liberal clergy were call the “Old Lights’. Those who continued to practice a version of Calvinism practiced by Winthrops and the Mathers were labeled “Old Calvinists”. In the 1730s and 1740s, the American Jonathan Edwards and the English minister George Whitefield led the first religious revivals during what came to be called the Great Awakening. Their uses of the imagery, myths, and verbal structures of the Puritan sermon kept the jeremiad alive. Thousands in the middle and southern colonies learned the rhetoric of sin and salvation, of personal calling and communal errand. The ministers who joined this new evangelical version of Calvinism were called “New Lights”. In spite of these developments, the legacy of American Puritanism would continue to feed a sense of colonial pride, ambition, and competitiveness that New England had achieved in the seventeenth century. Such features would be eventually identified by others as the spirit of what foreigners called “Yankees”.

In the two years leading up to the American Revolution, [see Religion and the American Revolution] in spite of British abuses such as the Stamp Act, Boston Massacre, and the Boston Tea Party, the Protestant clergy played a key role in arousing a population in which many were uncertain about going a war with England. When Parliament passed the Port bill, several clergymen held a traditional Puritan fast day and preached jeremiads invoking biblical images of the British as a tool of “Satan” who has unleashed King George, “the great Whore of Babylon,” to ride her “great red dragon” upon America. Of this event, Thomas Jefferson declared: “This day of fasting and humiliation was like a shock of electricity throughout the colonies, placing every man erect.” John Adams asked Abigail to urge their local ministers to preach similar jeremiads. After the war, Tories like Peter Oliver and Thomas Hutchinson attributed the success of the Revolution to the “black regiment” of the clergy. In the 1770s and 1780s, the vision of the sacred destiny depicted in the Puritan idiom became part of the political tracts and speeches during and after the war and even in the writing of Thomas Paine. During the Civil War in the nineteenth century, clergy on both sides employed the jeremiad again to inspire support for their cause. In fact, in every war in which the United States has been involved, sermons and speeches about America’s manifest destiny and sacred errand and heritage have been central to the discourses of the war.

For over two-hundred years, in State of the Union addresses and Fourth of July orations, American Presidents have preached similar jeremiads. They follow familiar jeremiad formula: we must beware of enemies who plot to destroy us; we must acknowledge the gap between our ideals and current realities; and we must reject corruption, greed, and selfishness, and other sins; and finally, we must work together to restore our superiority among the world’s nations. With God on our side, we shall continue the American Dream and fulfill our sacred Manifest Destiny. Sacvan Bercovitch also argues, as did Max Weber in the nineteenth-century, that the emphasis within Puritan society upon working hard in one’s earthly calling while seeking spiritual salvation functions well with the spirit of capitalism. From early on, the Puritans had difficulty keeping God’s grace and business profits separated. Those who appeared to be genuinely pious seemed to be the same people who grew wealthy. One of Samuel Willard’s sermons entitled ‘Heavenly Merchandize; or the Purchasing of TRUTH Recommended and the Selling of it Diswaded’ was aimed to appeal to the religious pragmatism of his parishioners, members of what was known as the merchants’ church. While the Puritans never read Weber or Bercovitch and would have difficulty understanding their arguments, their behavior reflected an unconscious recognition of the ways that the spiritual calling and the material calling, as they called them, could yield earthy and heavenly rewards at the same time.

In the twentieth and twenty–first centuries, the jeremiad has persisted because of its continued effectiveness in creating mythic imagery that inspires ideal and motivates action. In his “I Have a Dream Speech,” Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. depicted the United States as a great country with strong religious traditions that had gone astray. He called for a return to the original ideals of social equality expressed in the Declaration of Independence, and he urged a reassertion of the American Dream of freedom and equality for all men and women. Many American writers of the last hundred years adopted the jeremiad pattern to compose such works as The Great Gatsby and to examine the failures of the nation, symbolized in that novel by the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal in baseball. A list of American novels and plays from Melville to Morrison that follow the jeremiad form would be very long. Since the fall of the World Trade Center, a host of non-fiction books have appeared that critique the failures in American society that led to the disaster and seek answers for restoring the country to an earlier stability and security. Many books on the environment also follow the formula of failure, blame, reform, and projections of a future that fulfill the original goals and ideals.

So powerful and enduring are these Puritan influences in American culture that they have become part of American identity. Many people in other countries identify American as puritans, and in spite of the high percentage of the population of the United States that has come from abroad, many of them embrace the some of the puritan values such as long hours of hard work, few vacation and days off, pride in not missing work, and they pass these values onto their children. As the Puritan Founders understood, the meaning of America is a promise always remaining to be fulfilled, and whether it was the promise of religious freedom or of economic opportunity, it was a dream that made the dangers of the Atlantic and an unknown wilderness worth risking. While works of American literature may often lament the failure of the American dream and portions of the population may at times become disillusioned with its false promises, parents, especially of recent immigrants, continue to teach their children to have faith in the possibilities, to work hard, and to remain optimistic about the future because the dream may be fulfilled for them. As long as such belief persists, the puritan rituals of national repentance, reawakening, and renewal will continue.

Guiding Student Discussion

There are many challenges in presenting this material that is so essential to understanding the United States society and culture but is so distant and strange for most students today.

  1. Most difficult is the doctrine of predestination which most find downright absurd. It is no comfort that Calvin assures them that a small number of people will go to heaven even though most will not. They ask how could a just God damn to hell a person who has lived a good life, prayed for grace, and harmed no one? Calvin’s either/or rigid logic made it very difficult for the individuals and the clergy and civil leaders. The frustration for the young especially led to depression and suicides. Perhaps it would help to have student discuss similar kinds of situations that cause such distress and self-loathing today.

    Also, many people who understood that nothing they did could lead to salvation often took this fatalist view as a reason to do anything they wished, making them difficult to control for parents and those who governed. That is why the doctrine of preparation of grace was appealing to many clergy and leaders.
  2. For those who find the whole notion of predestination unfair and foolish, you might ask them to think about other ways in which predestination continue to affect our lives. The principles of Darwin, Freud, and Marx come close to stating that we humans are fated by our birth as poor, or by our genes, or our psychological characteristics that may be the results of things that happened before we were born. How are these theories different from Calvin’s?
  3. The controversial question of the relation Puritanism between and the rise of capitalism is one that has generated much debate among scholars. There are those who argue such as Andrew Delbanco who have argued that the Puritans were looking to escape from the rise of modernism and wished to return to the world of the early Christians. They would have been horrified at the notion that they helped to create the modern world. And then there are those like Bercovitch and Edmund Morgan, among others, who have argued that Calvinism encouraged living a virtuous and productive life in the hope of grace and salvation.
  4. The First Great Awakening should stir much discussion as it established the fundamentalist and evangelical features of American Christianity that continue to play such important roles in our society, culture, and politics.
  5. The Puritan idea of Americans as the second Chosen People of God has played an important and lasting role in the views of Americans about their own country and the views of those abroad about the way in which the United States has employed the idea of the City on the Hill. These issues should generate much discussion about patriotism, American wars and imperialism.
  6. I find it is useful to get student to think about the ways that contemporary literature and film often use the jeremiad rhetorical form and some Calvin’s either/or logical as structures of their works. In order to motivate those who seem indifferent, often the hero character uses the jeremiad to shame the others into taking responsibility. Also, the stark division of good and evil with little regard for a possible middle grown is also very Calvinistic.

Emory Elliott is University Professor of University of California, Distinguished Professor of English and Director of the Center for Ideas and Society. He was a National Humanities Center Fellow in 1979–80. His recent publications include The Cambridge Introduction to Early American Literature (2002) and The Literature of Puritan New England, in The Cambridge History of American Literature series, Vol. I. (1996). For Aesthetics in a Multicultural Age (2002), he was co-editor and authored the Preface and Introduction.

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

Illustration credits

To cite this essay:
Elliott, Emory. “The Legacy of Puritanism.” Divining America, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center. DATE YOU ACCESSED ESSAY. <>


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