American Puritanism

Saturday, March 14, 2009

In 1517, the German monk Martin Luther raised the banner of theological rebellion against the authority of the Catholic Church in what has become universally known as the Protestant Reformation. In Switzerland, a French protestant named John Calvin reconstituted the organization of the Church. The Church had always been a hierarchy, with the bishop of dioceses at the top and the Pope in Rome as the bishop of the bishops; the priests below and the lay people underneath. Calvin refashioned this hierarchy, with priests now renamed as elders or presbyters ruling the churches jointly with lay leaders. Calvin also refined and expanded Luther’s theological protests, so that a uniquely Calvinist protestant theology eventually emerged.

King Henry VIII of England brought his kingdom into the Protestant column in the 1530’s guided strictly by a political desire to get the Pope’s meddling fingers out of his realm. Henry lived and died with the notion that he could deny the sovereignty of the Pope in England while retaining traditional Catholic theology and the structure of bishops, priests and people; only with himself rather than the Pope at the top of the hierarchy. Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth, who became Queen of England in 1558, settled matters down in pretty much the shape her father had expected.

Elizabeth made life exceptionally nasty for anyone who clung to the old Catholic ways. Any kind of affection for Catholicism was treated by Elizabeth in England as treason. But life could be as nasty for those English protestants who felt that Elizabeth had left entirely too many of the old Catholic ways in place. They considered Calvin as the model and solution for English Christianity. Elizabeth regarded them as been fully as much apart as the Catholics. These were the people who became known first as Precicians, because they wanted to be too precise about Church reformation. Then eventually as Puritans.

In this articles we will try to understand Puritan thinking, how they came to America looking for freedom of religion, and how they had a lasting impact in the American mind.

  • The Essence of Puritan Thinking and the Exodus to the Americas: Leaving 17th century England was a little like trying to leave the old Soviet Union. Unless you had a very plausible reason, the attempt was interpreted as an expression of dissatisfaction. They organized themselves as a commercial enterprise, the Massachusetts Bay Company, and they were all going to make their fortunes in America. Within ten years, the Massachusetts Bay Company welcomed several thousand Puritan refugees and set up a string of thriving towns stretching Westward from the principal settlement Boston.