Puritans in America: Beliefs, Religion & History

Learn about the Puritans, a religious group that settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1600s. Explore the world and religious views of these important immigrants to the American colonies.
Origins of the Puritan Faith
The Puritan religious faith originated in England during the early 1600s. The Puritans believed that the Anglican Church, the state’s religious institution of England, needed to be purified of the influence of the Catholic religious faith.
Throughout the early 1600s, the Puritans attempted to reform the Anglican Church with very limited success. The Stuart monarchs, who ruled England, were disinterested in reforming the Church or in limiting Catholic religious influences. By 1629, many Puritans had become discouraged and they began to look for a new home in the colonies where they could practice their religious beliefs far from the influence of Catholicism and the Stuart kings.
Several wealthy Puritans formed the Massachusetts Bay Company and pooled their resources to move a group of the Puritan faithful to the New World.
Moving to America
By March 1630, 17 ships funded by the Massachusetts Bay Company left London to establish a new colony led by a one-time lawyer named John Winthrop. The Puritans, under Winthrop, agreed that they would establish a city on a hill, an example of good behavior and religious purity for the whole world and especially for the Stuart monarchs in England.
Between 1630 and 1643, nearly 9,000 Puritans migrated to the colony. The Puritan migration was much more rapid than any other group migration in the colonies at the time. Once they arrived in New England, the Puritans established towns and farms. Most Puritans settled in towns near their extended families and created churches and schools.
Puritans raised many different crops instead of relying on one cash crop, as was common in many other colonies. Differentiated crops allowed the Puritans to eat a variety of foods and helped to contribute to their high life expectancy.
Puritan Religious Life
The Puritans believed that God had formed a unique covenant, or agreement, with them. They believed that God expected them to live according to the Scriptures, to reform the Anglican Church, and to set a good example that would cause those who had remained in England to change their sinful ways. Most early migrants to the Massachusetts Bay Colony were full-fledged members of the Puritan faith.
Church attendance in Puritan communities was mandatory. However, not all church attendees were considered to be full members of the church. In order to become a full member of the church, Puritans had to prove they had a conversion experience and that they were part of the predestined elect, a group who was guaranteed admission to Heaven. For the Puritans, religious and political life were completely intertwined. Each Puritan town had town meetings to determine how the town would be run, and only male church members were allowed to vote on issues affecting the town.
Dissent in Puritan Religious Life
One of the major problems faced by the Puritans was dealing with dissent within the faith. Within one year of the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a Puritan minister named Roger Williams began causing problems in the colony. Williams believed that the Puritan colonists would be damned in God’s eyes as long as they had any association with the Anglican Church and preached that each individual had the right to practice their own system of belief. He also called the charter of the colony into question because the Puritans had not actually purchased their lands from the Native Americans. Finally, in the winter of 1636, colonial officials banished Williams and a group of his followers from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. They eventually formed their own colony in Rhode Island.
By 1634, another Puritan dissenter named Anne Hutchinson appeared. Hutchinson was the daughter of a Puritan minister who migrated with her family to Boston. She was openly critical of the religious views of the ministers of her town and shared her opinions at large meetings held in her home. Hutchinson attracted many followers with her message of God’s word. Eventually, the ministers of Hutchinson’s church brought her to trial on the charge of heresy. Although historians believe that Hutchinson defended herself persuasively at the trial, her ministers banished her and her family to Rhode Island. At the time of her banishment, Hutchinson was heavily pregnant and the arduous journey caused her to lose her baby.
Other Problems in the Colony
After Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson and their followers left the colony for Rhode Island, other Puritan dissenters followed. Puritans who wanted to distance themselves from Winthrop and the other Puritan leaders settled into new territories in Connecticut and New Hampshire. As the Puritans expanded physically and the original settlers grew older, they found that their children and grandchildren were reluctant to undergo the required conversion process to be full members.
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