New England Puritan beliefs and their influence

  • Mortality was a constant part of the Puritan’s lives; they felt death was always very close and this belief affected all the phases of each of their individual lives–not just belief but ideas of family, of career, of the worth of any human action or enterprise.
  • They believed in predestination or that God had chosen his elect before they were born. Election had no connection to the need obey God. Obedience was the result of gratitude or affection for God. Puritans were not bothered that few might be elected; they rejoiced that any were elected at all.
  • Puritans believe in original depravity or that they were sinners by birth.
  • They felt no worldly ritual or prayer will ensure salvation; no human action or gesture of faith obliges the Almighty to respond. The idea that human works were required for salvation undercut God’s omnipotence.
  • They felt religious authority came from the Bible and read it very literally. They saw the Bible as an authority and model for their own lives. Puritan writers use biblical metaphors to explain the Puritan condition.
  • Puritans viewed the Bible as God’s covenant with them; they saw themselves as a Chosen People and identified strongly with the tribes of Israel in the Book of Exodus. In reading both Testaments, they concluded that God, though sometimes arbitrary in His power, is neither malicious nor capricious.
  • Doers of evil suffer and are destroyed; true believers and doers of good may suffer as well, as worldly misfortune is both a test of faith and a signifier of God’s will.
  • Puritan covenant theology taught that although no human being can ever know for certain whether or not he or she is among the saved, the only hope for knowing lay in rigorous individual study of Scripture; relentless moral self-examination; and active, wholehearted membership in their congregations.

Bruce Michelson and Marjorie Pryse suggest the following continuing cultural effects of New England Puritan beliefs:

  • With no central religious authority, and an expectation that each member of the community should encounter Scripture and theological prose firsthand, New England Puritanism would be strongly influenced by a drive toward solidarity and consensus and by a championing of individual thought. These conflicting values would become clear in the collision between the Colony’s elders and Anne Hutchinson, less than ten years after the founding of Boston.
  • An emphasis on individual responsibility, on a direct and personal relationship with God, and on the acquisition of knowledge in anticipation (or hope) of the coming of Divine Grace could be a powerful force for the education of women, and eventually for their political and social equality.
  • A belief that salvation required, and would be signified by, achievement of absolute integrity among faith, worldly conduct, private life, and the spoken and written word would eventually figure centrally in the rise of abolitionist sentiment: race slavery becomes not an economic expediency or a social problem to be overlooked and eventually remedied but a mortal sin, threatening the moral condition of the society and every individual within it. The long-term effects of this kind of thinking are enormous. Nearly two centuries later, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was constructed around a similar proposition.
  • A belief in a special destiny and a conviction that what was unfolding in New England was the last and best hope of the Christian world. Cataclysmic changes in London in the middle of the seventeenth century and the erosion of solidarity in the colony after the Restoration and with the passage of years would bring those convictions into crisis at century’s end.
  • A special emphasis on reading correctly-not only holy texts but commentaries and the events of ordinary life. The New England Puritans were an intellectual people who believed firmly in portents, symbols, and the significance of all that happened in private and public life.
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