Reading: Jim Cullen, “Dream of the Good Life (I): The Puritan Enterprise,” in The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2003), 11-34.
In the context of America, Puritanism refers to a joint religious and social movement, to an attempt on the part of thousands of reform-minded English Christians to establish Christian communities in New England in the early-to-mid 1600s. In the “Great Migration” of the 1630s, tens of thousands of Puritans crossed the Atlantic Ocean and undertook the difficult and often dangerous task of colonizing the “New England” region, substantially north of Virginia, an earlier British settlement. (Click for a map of early British settlements in North America.) While the Pilgrims (who founded Plymouth in 1620) had already given up on the established Church of England, the Puritans at least theoretically wanted to purify the church by stripping it down to its New Testament essentials. For all intents and purposes, though, when the Puritans forsook England for America, they were creating their own autonomous churches, which they hoped would be the center of their new towns. In leaving their homeland, then, they sought freedom, but it was a limited freedom, because they envisioned tight-knit and homogeneous communities.
In some cases, at least, they succeeded in creating such communities, even as they experienced their fair share of conflict. (Click here for a map of the New England colonies.) The seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony featured an Indian and a plea to “come over and help us.”
By the mid-1600s, Puritans did actually make efforts to convert Indians to Christianity, but they also brutally fought Indians (such as the Pequots) who refused to surrender valuable land. They hung several Quakers, who seemed a civil and religious threat, and even as their vision of a Christian commonwealth fell victim to imperial demands for toleration in the 1690s, they executed nearly twenty alleged witches on the basis of highly problematic evidence.
Puritan New England has alternately been conceived as a cradle of American democracy and a cauldron of American intolerance. Jim Cullen documents these ambiguities regarding Puritan New England, but he also finds something admirable in the “Puritan Enterprise,” — namely their “faith in reform” (15), which he sees as a fundamental component of the American Dream.
They sought to reform not only the church, but also society in general. Cullen doesn’t go into much detail about how they structured their society, but it’s worth noting that local congregations and town meetings lay at the heart of their social and political organization. Massachusetts Bay Colony was not a theocracy — the ministers did not rule. But the religious system did overlap with the political system. Each town taxed its residents to support the local church, which everyone was expected to attend. Up to the 1690s, in order to have the right to vote in colony-level elections, Massachusetts men (only men could vote) had to be full members of their local congregation, which is to say that they had to experience a spiritual conversion and satisfy their peers that they were good Christians. (Because of their “new birth” experiences and their history of upright behavior, the full church members were called “visible saints.”) Although Cullen doesn’t mention it, most towns had more inclusive policies for their town meetings, where all independent men could generally participate, regardless of their status in the church. (On this point, see Michael Zuckerman’s work on New England towns.)
Although some New England towns managed to sustain cohesive, Christian communities for a generation or so, as time went on, a variety of pressures damaged the enterprise. The growing white population of New England led to dispersion and also provoked intense and disruptive conflicts with the Indian inhabitants of the region. By the end of the century, too, the empire intervened and imposed toleration and severed the connection between church membership and voting. Puritanism was by no means dead, but during the 1700s it began to evolve in different directions, as David Hall suggests in his essay from the Companion to American Thought.
Questions for Discussion
- What core theological beliefs did Puritans share?
- Why did Puritan beliefs tend to cause them anxiety? What strategies did they develop for dealing with that anxiety?
- How did Puritans tend to define the good life?
- What problems undermined the Puritan experiment?
- What enduring influences might Puritanism have had on American culture?