1. New England Puritanism – its causes, character, and consequences
The religious movement known as Puritanism, a part of English Protestantism, was originally shaped by the English heritage of liberty combined with ideas of the leaders of the Reformation on the European continent. In addition, the members of the Puritan movement viewed America as the Land Promised to the Saints. The 16th and 17th Century English Puritan Reformers wanted more visible evidence of the pure and invisible Christian church. They believed that the Church of England made Christianity too simple by considering all persons baptized in the church to be part of it. Some Puritans went so far as to attack the external adornments of the Catholic Church as not needed in true Christian life. They believed that simple preaching and sacraments would result in pure Christian living. Their meetinghouses were wooden structures without a steeple. Men and women sat on backless benches on separate sides of the church.
Some members of the Church of England accepted the less extreme Puritan teachings, since most preferred a simplified Catholicism that emphasized God’s truths. However, once the Puritan movement began, it became more than a movement against symbolism. Its members wanted to purify the church and their own lives. Purified persons were those who kept the Ten Commandments and lived a moral and honorable life. The Puritans became a very literate and intelligent movement, with many believers studying the teachings of the early Christian fathers and of the great reformer, John Calvin. The Puritans continued their movement by insisting on an open and public declaration of the true faith. Some believed they could work within the Church of England. Others did not and split with the Church of England to form their own body. Many moved to Amsterdam to escape religious persecution.
One group founded Plymouth colony in New England. Other settlers went to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1628, with John Winthrop as their leader. This group believed that England and Europe were to suffer a heavy scourge and judgment from God. These “Separating Puritans” were congregationalists in church government. Puritanism was strongly Reformed and Calvinistic (Presbyterian), using government by elders as their model. The local groups in the Americas preferred to be local and independent. Each congregation was autonomous and elected its own elders or leaders. Church and state were partners in their “mixed democracy” from which women were excluded. The rulers were selected from a circle of men who carried out God’s laws as interpreted by the Bible and their own male ministers.
Early Puritan colonies had different ideas of the goals of their American experiment. Originally, they were all convinced that God led them to America to be tried and tested and to become a New Israel dwelling in a City on a Hill, meant to serve as a model for all the world to see. Freedom of religion was their secondary issue. The first was to live as a nation under God’s direction and promise. The Congregationalists among them believed that a church of visible saints required maximum control of a person’s life. This belief causes the Massachusetts Bay Puritans to add the test of saving faith to those already established (iconoclasm, morality, and profession of faith). They worked out a process by which an individual’s saving faith could be witnessed – a narrative recited before the church assembly, subject to cross examination. Only those men who passed this test became the “visible saints”.
The Congregationalist section of Puritanism became the main Christian denomination in New England as it progressed from the more unusual beliefs of the original Puritans in England and in the American colonies, i.e. the City on the Hill model and the fourth test of individual salvation. Some Puritan traditions, as continued through Congregationalism, were important in the formation of America. Harvard and Yale were founded by Congregationalists. Famous New England families (Dams, Beecher, Bushnell, Abbott, and James) have shared Congregationalist ideas and values with America. Typical Puritan-American principles were included in the Mayflower Compact and in John Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity”. Its ideas are in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and writings of several presidents.
By the end of the 17th Century, Congregationalism was an American denomination promoting distinctly American ideas. America was land promised to the saints. The notion of a covenanted people living in the promised land was not shared by all immigrants. The great vision became limited, but Congregational beliefs still were attractive to many Americans. Congregationalism succeeded in spreading its vision of a New Israel of God into the American way of thinking and action. This is the origin of the concept of America as the nation with the soul of a church, a nation with a chosen, and a divine mission in the world.
2. Principal intellectual movements in the Anglo-American colonies in the eighteenth century: the great Awakening and the Enlightenment.
The Great Awakening
The “Great Awakening” is usually defined as a concurrence of spontaneous Christian revivals that took place in colonial America during the first half of the Eighteenth Century. Reich sees the cause as based in the increase of religious denominations and decline of formal church membership. The American colonists became increasingly isolated geographically and did not like the rigid admission requirements of the existing churches. Ministers sought to fill their spiritual and emotional needs to bring the colonists back to church with their bodies and their money. Clergymen began to preach emotional sermons about personal reform, public penance, and performance of good deeds.
Some preachers were and remain famous. The brilliant Congregationalist preacher, Jonathan Edwards, in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, described the fate of unrepentant sinners very graphically, intending to frighten his congregation members into repentance and joining the kingdom of heaven. He preached solid Reformation doctrines of the Gospel as St. Augustine, Luther, and Calvin presented it. His people had to learn that they were justified by God’s grace alone and that their destiny was decided by God alone. This realization appropriately terrorized his church members. Their transformations were evidenced by weeping, emotional collapse, trance, and renewed attention to the disciplines of the spiritual life. Theodore J. Frelinghuysen confronted the Dutch Reformed in New Jersey with the seriousness of their spiritual responsibilities. William Tennent and his sons preached to the Presbyterians in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, using methods and ideas that were to become fundamental to American revivalism. Tennent also said that reaching comes from the soul of a converted speaker. The people must go wherever such preaching may be found. The converted preacher was free to move about and preach as led by the call of God. This new form of religious function became the itinerant preacher.
Reich believes that the official beginning of the Great Awakening was when George Whitefield, a circuit riding American evangelist, came from America and reached his way up and down the Atlantic Coast from 1739 to 1941. His large audiences wanted to know, “What must I do to be saved?” Whitefield made seven trips to America and preached more than 18,000 sermons. Francis Asbury, a Methodist traveling evangelist, preaching human perfectibility and possible salvation for all, spread Methodist teachings rapidly as he traveled 270,000 miles, preached 16,000 times, and enrolled 200,000 members in the Methodist Church.
The Great Awakening influenced colonial society and increased religious freedom and denominations. Colleges were founded to train ministers. Since the preachers emphasized that all people were equal before God, reform movements began to improve orphanages and insisted on more humane treatment of Native Americans and African American slaves.
While the American colonies were being founded, European and English scientists were establishing modern ideas of physics, astronomy, chemistry, and mathematics. Newton’s opinion of God, basic to ideas of the Enlightenment, was that a benevolent God created the universe and laid down the unchangeable laws that governed it. Therefore, people could use their own moral and ethical reasoning to live in conformity with natural laws, ultimately reaching perfection. The American Revolution and landscape was a perfect laboratory for the American followers of the Enlightenment. Benjamin Franklin, with his logical wisdom and air of self-made price, was the example of this new humanity. George Washington became its hero.
Since America had no feudalism and there was plenty of land to go around, the colonies were an ideal laboratory for the ideas of the Enlightenment. Noted American scientists included Thomas Hariot, astronomer and mathematician and a member of the first Roanoke colony; Dr. Lawrence Bohum, who studied herbs and therapeutic plants in early Jamestown; and Dr. John Winthrop, Jr., who imported a telescope and discovered Jupiter’s Fifth Moon. Benjamin Franklin, combining research with inventions, invented the lightning rod, bifocal glasses, and the Franklin stove. His research on electricity was translated into French, German, and Italian. The Library Company of Philadelphia, which he organized, had the largest collection of scientific books in the colonies.
Medical treatment in general began to improve, as more Americans went to Europe to study medicine. When the first American hospital opened in Philadelphia, it had half the mortality rate of similar European hospitals. Art was slower to develop in the Americas. There were noted portrait painters. Craftsmen were in great demand. Huguenot silversmiths made Philadelphia another center of colonial silver making. Furniture makers created unique furniture that did not copy European styles. While the colonists did not achieve the desired “golden age” of the Enlightenment, they had freedom to express themselves and pursue occupations not otherwise available to them in Europe.
¹All of the material in this paper is intermixed and from the following two sources:
Reich, Jerome R. Colonial America – 5th Ed. New Jersey, Prentice Hall , 2001.
(References pages 209-222).
Wentz, Richard E. The Shaping of Religious Traditions in the United States. Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress, 1990. (Reference pages 63-75 [Puritans]; ps. 165-183 [Great Awakening].)