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The Puritan Movement: Influences on American History

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Defining the "Puritan"


The term puritan can be characterized in many ways. Some believe the Puritans were the main instigators of a religious foundation in American history; yet others believe they were "not particularly responsible for the Calvinist strain in the United States, or for any attributes in particular of the 'American character'" (Bercovitch 219). The Puritan movement has been evaluated by scholars for centuries; it is a movement that stands out in history as either setting the pace for religious stability or originating a narrow-minded and strict way of life. Keith J Hardman, author of "The Puritan Tradition in Revolutionary, Federalist, and Whig Political THeory: A Rhetoric of Origins" argues that "for several centuries the term 'Puritan' was synonymous with democracy, enlightenment, rebellion against tyranny, freedom, and much else that was laudable. In the last century an entire reversal has occured, making the term to mean repressive, hypocritical, censorious, prudish, and worse" (1). However one looks at it, there is a general understanding that the term puritan can be defined as "those Christians--starting with St. Paul and continuing to the present day--who favor a plain form of worship and a strict adherence to rigid moral codes" (Vaughan and Bremer 1). For one who may not know much about the Puritan movement, one can assume that it merely restructured the branch of religion; however, the Puritans achieved much more than accredited for.

I. Defining the Puritan

a. Definition

b. Bercovitch's ideas

II. Background and Beliefs

a. Church of England

b. Settlement

c. Beliefs and customs

III. Puritan Influence on America

a. Bercovitch's view

IV. Influence on Modern Society

a. Religion as foundation

V. John Winthrop

a. analysis of "Christian Charity"

VI.  City Upon a Hill

a.  Ronald Reagan's speech

b.  Conclusion





Background and Beliefs


The Puritans initially refused to conform in the Reformation of the Church of England because they felt that it was not any different from the Catholic church and that it was corrupt.  They felt as though the many statues that the Church of England had of the saints was idolatry, that they were praying to many gods instead of the one true God.  The Puritans also felt like the Church's doctrine was incorrect and was not according to what God wanted.  They wanted England to be one religioin preferably Christian, and thus broke away from it's Protestant ways and traveled to the New World (Gatta 37).  One of the ways the term puritan can be defined is by justifying that they upheld the idea that God was the one true law, and that it was absolutely vital to remain pure in body and in thought. The Puritans refused to obey the notion that the church held all of the authority and that one must pay homage to the church in order to secure a "seat" in heaven. The Puritans settled in to colonies in New England and began their practices of religion. The population of the Puritans rose by almost 90,000 from 1640 to 1700, therefore establishing a rather large settlement (Vaughan and Bremer 20). When thinking of the Puritans, many may think of a small group of settlers who nestled into the East Coast of America; yet this was a massive group of people who revolutionized the way in which America functions. The central view of this group of people is that God is above everything, he should be considered first before initiating all actions in one's life. The idea that one must "do good deeds" in the church and in the community in order to achieve the right of heaven was what the Puritans believed, and they disaffiliated with the Church of England because of the refusal to conform to modern and anarchic ways. By establishing a church in America, the Puritans practiced their beliefs and created a strict and focused way of life. The Puritans favored a simple lifestyle over any other and had one sole purpose, to worship God. They believed in the rejection of the worldliness around them; the rejection of a life in which men prevail over men and God is not always considered first. The rejection of the conformity during the Reformation is what brings the Puritans to be the forefathers of the foundation of religion in America. Sacvan Bercovitch views Puritans as "inveterate believers in words. They were extreme Protestants in many ways, but especially in their insistence on the principle of sola scriptura. Their obsession with scripture may be traced throughout that astonishing verbal outpouring, published and unpublished, which distinguishes seventeenth-century Massachusetts from other colonies" (221). The Puritans believed that in order to be chosen for the next eternal life, one must constantly be doing good deeds in this life; therefore, they struggled to perform virtuous tasks throughout their lifetime. Although some of the views of the Puritans may be considered a little austere, such as the idea that if one is blessed with a wealthy lifestyle, then they are obviously blessed by God, they still continue to effect the ideas of many religions today. The Puritans did more than just practice their beliefs; they replaced the traditional customs of the church with the customs of the word, i.e. the holy text (Bercovitch 221).



Below is a link to the trailer of the fictional film The Scarlet Letter. 

This film is based off of the colony of the Puritans and presents an idea of how the Puritans functioned in their own society. 



Puritan Influence on America


There are many aspects in which the Puritans have left their footprints on American history. Bercovitch explains that the Puritans were "the revolutionary-idealist emigrants par excellence. In religious terms, they were radical dissenters: nonconformists by profession, and by temperament militant individualists. In secular and civic terms, they represented the forces of modernization that were to shape the American culture" (220). This band of people were revolutionists by nature; they established a new colony in a new world, achieving a pioneer's life. They were radical dissenters in terms that they rejected the doctrines of the Church of England and fled to create their own practices; and they represented the modernization of a new world. Scholars argue that the Puritans did nothing more than create a community in which they themselves could be the authoritators, the rulers, and not have to obey any commands of a King or Queen. Yet, the Puritans created a foundation of religion that people turn to in centuries after their reign. This groundwork of religion has influenced many other aspects in American life.




Influence on Modern Society


In today's society of America, the practice of church has become essential, and nearly 76 percent of Americans attend church weekly (abcnews.go.com). One turns to this serenity of hope and faith in a higher power in all aspects of one's life. Bercovitch states, "The Puritans provided the scriptural basis for what we have come to call the myth of America. In this sense their influence appears most clearly in the extraodinary persistence of a rhetoric grounded in the Bible, and in the way that Americans keep returning to that rhetoric, especially in times of crisis, as a source of cohesion and continuity" (219). In this statement, Bercovitch is suggesting that we as a society always turn to religion and the belief of God or many gods, during a time of grief and turmoil. One clear example is the affects that November 11, 2001 had on the American public. After the tragic terrorist attacks, Americans banded together in worship. President George W. Bush addressed the nation in a speech on November 20, 2001 about the attacks. He states, "We have seen the unfurling of flags, the lighting of candles, the giving of blood, the saying of prayers -- in English, Hebrew, and Arabic (footnotetv.com). His statement suggests that Americans religiously return to personal beliefs in "times of crisis", which is proven by the affects of the American people after 9/11. President Bush also states that, "All of America was touched on the evening of the tragedy to see Republicans and Democrats joined together on the steps of this Capitol, singing "God Bless America." And you did more than sing, you acted..." Americans turned in relief to the words of "God Bless America", hoping for comfort and reassurance that the nation would be okay. It is an idea that many Americans pray and worship to a higher power in times of turmoil for comfort, yes; but also for a need of reassurance in one's own fait. By initiating and practicing a belief in God, one is being reassured that although the world around oneself may seem to be tumbling, one's own soul is at ease by believing that it holds a spot in heaven. The Puritans were faithful believers of this idea; by praying and establishing a faith in God one is guaranteed a "seat" in heaven. President Bush ends his speech with a religious rhetoric, stating, "In all that lies before us, may God grant us wisdom, and may He watch over the United States of America. Thank you." This is a powerful ending statement. Bush ends his address with reference to God granting America wisdom. By saying this, it helps put American's minds at ease. The impact of religion on a society in turmoil is undoubtedly the result of our forefathers and has become a ritual in society after a traumatic attack, either on oneself, family, or nation.


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 John Winthrop


An important source in identifying with the influence of the Puritan movement is John Winthrop's Christian Charity. In this essay, Winthrop identifies the basis for what it means to be Puritan and Christian. He writes, "the former propounds one man to another, as the same flesh and image of God, this as a brother in Christ also, and in the communion of the same spirit and so teaches us to put a difference between Christians and others. Do good to all especially to the household of faith" (15). In this, Winthrop states that it is vital for a man to put inference on Christians over nonbelievers, and that Christians should then rise above the levels of judgment and "do good to all" in the act of faith.  Winthrop sets the groundrules for the settlement of the Puritans in this essay, and establishes four categories in which every Christian should share: the persons, the work, the end, and the means (16).  With "the persons", he states, "we are a Company professing ourselves fellow members of Christ, in which respects--only though we were absent from each other many miles and had our employments as far distant--yet we ought to account ourselves knit together by this bond of love and live in the exercise of it, if we would have comfort of our being in Christ" (16).  Winthrop suggests that every Christian should have a strong bond with one another and treat one another equally.  He argues that one is not Christian if one does not hold this strong bond of love.  With "the work", he argues, "it is by a mutual consent, through a special overruling providence and more than an ordinary approbation of the churches of Christ, to seek out a place of cohabitation and consortship under a due form of government" (16).  He states that it is important for believers to coexist in a world created by God; doing so as the Puritans occupied and formed a colony mutually.  With "the end", he argues, "that our selves and posterity may be the better preserved from the common corruptions of this evil world, to serve the Lord and work out our salvation under the power and purity of His holy ordinances" (16).  By stating this, Winthrop is suggesting that one must worship and pray to God until "the end" to ensure a path to heaven and to motivate one another of this divine love for God.  By suppressing oneself from the evils of the world, one must be consumed in the worshipping of Christ.  Finally, with "the means", Winthrop states, "Whatsoever we did or ought to have done when we lived in England, the same must we do and more also where we go.  That which the most in their churches maintain as a truth in profession only, we must love brotherly without dissimulation.  We must love one another with a pure heart fervently.  We must bear one another's burdens" (17).  Winthrop uses this powerful statement to demand that Christians must love one another the way in which there is love for God.  Like the ways that the Puritans practiced this, by establishing a love for one another and doing good deeds for one another, they are living a pure life in God's eyes.  Winthrop claims that failing to do these four things, God will surely "break out in wrath against us to be revenged of such a perjured people and make us know the price of the breach of such a covenant" (17).  By failing to lead a pure and sacred life, God will scold those who are impure; and the Puritans established this early on, declaring that whomever leads an adulterated life will be sent forth into exile.  John Winthrop establishes the idea of a "city upon a hill" in this essay and states that, "The eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world" (18).  The term "city upon a hill" has stuck in the development of America and will remain a shining symbol for years to come, and the eyes are still upon us. 



City Upon a Hill


The term "city upon a hill" has remained an American symbol since Winthrop's first expressions of it.  Many Presidents, leaders, priests, and people have used this term, but probably the most understood example is of Ronald Reagan's Farewell Address to the Nation in 1989.  Reagan refers to a shining city upon a hill and states, "But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it and see it still" (reaganlibrary.com).  From the time of the Puritans who first imagined a city upon a hill, driven to prove that America and the American life remains sacred, traditional, and pure in God's eyes, they pursued a life in which set the foundation for American life today.  Reagan speaks of this city upon a hill as a place perfect in harmony; a place in which God has blessed, and the practice of worship and prayer is vital.  Much of the Puritan influence remains in all aspects of the American development.  Most significantly was the practice of religion, but the Puritans accomplished more than merely demanding worship and prayer.  In conclusion, Bercovitch quotes Ronald Reagan in his televised election debate by saying, "this land was placed here by some divine plan.  It was placed here to be found by a special kind of people, a new breed of humans called an American...[destined] to begin the world again...[and to] build a land here that will be for all mankind a shining city upon a hill" (qtd. in Bercovitch 224).  The Puritans defined what it meant to be American; in doing so, they created a legend built of strong morals, religion, tradition, and love for one another. 



Works Cited:

Bercovitch, Sacvan.  "The Biblical Basis of the American Myth." The Bible in American Culture.  Eds. Edwin S Gaustad and Walter Harrelson.  Philadelphiaa: Fortress Press, 1983. 


Bush's Post 9/11 Speech.  20 Sept. 2001.  5 Dec. 2007 <http://www.footnotetv.com/res92001.html>


Farewell Address to the Nation.  11 Jan. 1989.  5 Dec. 2007 <http://www.reaganlibrary.com/reagan/speeches/farewell.asp>.


Gatta, John.  Making Nature Sacred: Literature, Religion, and Environment in America from the Puritans to the Present.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.


Lockridge, Kenneth A.  "The History of a Puritan Church 1637-1736."  Puritan New England: Essays on Religion, Society, and Culture.  Eds. Alden T Vaughan and Francis J Bremer.  New York: St. Martin's Press, 1977.


Sussman, Dalia.  "Who Goes to Church? Older Southern Women Do; Many Catholic Men Don't."  ABCNews.com.  4 Dec. 2007      <http://www.abcnews.go.com/sections/us/DailyNews/church_poll020301.html>.


Winthrop, John.  "A Model of Christian Charity (1630)."  The American Studies Anthrology.  Ed. Richard P Horwitz.  Oxford: SR Books, 2001.




Comments (1)

Anonymous said

at 4:25 pm on Dec 14, 2007

Ok, except Bercovitch is very critical of the notion that America is "nature's nation" endowed by God with a "special mission." He disagree with Winthrop and with Reagan and would likely criticize GW Bush's post-9/11 rhetoric, as well. Why? Go see Bercovitch to find out.

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