The Puritans were a widespread and diverse group of people who took a stand for religious purity in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries in Europe. Their rise was directly related to the increased knowledge that came to the common people in the Age of Enlightenment. As people learned to read and write, and as the Bible became more accessible to commoners, many began to read the Bible for themselves (a habit that was strongly discouraged in the established church). Some Puritans were connected with Anabaptist groups in continental Europe, but the majority were connected with the Church of England. The word Puritan was first coined in the 1560s as a derisive term for those who advocated more purity in worship and doctrine.
The English Puritans, who are the most familiar to Americans, believed that the English Reformation had not gone far enough and that the Church of England was still tolerating too many practices that were associated with the Church of Rome (such as hierarchical leadership, clerical vestments, and the various rituals of the church). Many Puritans advocated separation from all other Christian groups, but most were “non-separating” and desired to bring cleansing and change to the church from within. Holding a high view of Scripture, and deeming it as the only true law of God, Puritans believed that each individual, as well as each congregation, was directly responsible to God, rather than answering through a mediator such as a priest, bishop, etc. The Congregational Church in America is a descendant of the early Puritan settlers, and any group that advocates congregational rule and individual piety has been impacted in some way by Puritan teaching. Even today, theologians from many church backgrounds appreciate reading the works of the old Puritan divines, even if they differ in some points of doctrine.
Throughout their history, the Puritans were viewed and treated in a variety of ways by both civil and ecclesiastical authorities. Often, they were grudgingly tolerated, and at other times they were severely persecuted. Charles I of England made efforts to purge all Puritan influences from England, which resulted in the Great Migration to Europe and the American Colonies. The Pilgrims who formed the Massachusetts Bay Colony were separatist Puritans who had been forced out of England and Holland. Non-separatist Puritans who remained in England responded to this persecution with the English Civil War (1641-51), which led to the execution of Charles I, the exile of his son, Charles II, and the rise of Oliver Cromwell.
Both America and Great Britain owe a great debt to the Puritans for the foundations they laid that gave us the framework for our freedoms today. Philosophies such as the “divine right” of kings gave way to individual liberties and the recognition of the rights of the common man. The “Yankee work ethic” came about because of the belief that a man’s work is done first for God’s approval. The belief in public education comes from the Puritans, who founded the first school in America (Roxbury, 1635), as well as the first college (Harvard, 1639), so that people would be able to read the Bible for themselves. The moral foundations of the early United States came from the emphasis on godly behavior by Puritan leaders. Even Alexis de Tocqueville, after studying America in the 1830s, declared that Puritanism was the primary foundation that gave rise to our democratic republic.
Some well-known Puritans are John Bunyan (The Pilgrim’s Progress), John Winthrop (“City upon a Hill” sermon), Cotton Mather, and John Foxe (Foxe’s Book of Martyrs).