The roots of Puritanism are to be found in the beginnings of the English Reformation. The name “Puritans” (they were sometimes called “precisionists”) was a term of contempt assigned to the movement by its enemies. Although the epithet first emerged in the 1560s, the movement began in the 1530s, when King Henry VIII repudiated papal authority and transformed the Church of Rome into a state Church of England. To Puritans, the Church of England retained too much of the liturgy and ritual of Roman Catholicism.
Well into the 16th century, many priests were barely literate and often very poor. Employment by more than one parish was common, so they moved often, preventing them from forming deep roots in their communities. Priests were immune to certain penalties of the civil law, further feeding anticlerical hostility and contributing to their isolation from the spiritual needs of the people.
In the early decades of the 17th century, some groups of worshipers began to separate themselves from the main body of their local parish church where preaching was inadequate and to engage an energetic “lecturer,” typically a young man with a fresh Cambridge degree, who was a lively speaker and steeped in reform theology. Some congregations went further, declared themselves separated from the national church, and remade themselves into communities of “visible saints,” withdrawn from the English City of Man into a self-proclaimed City of God.
One such faction was a group of separatist believers in the Yorkshire village of Scrooby, who, fearing for their safety, moved to Holland in 1608 and then, in 1620, to the place they called Plymouth in New England. We know them now as the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock. A decade later, a larger, better-financed group, mostly from East Anglia, migrated to Massachusetts Bay. There, they set up gathered churches on much the same model as the transplanted church at Plymouth (with deacons, preaching elders, and, though not right away, a communion restricted to full church members, or “saints”).
The main difference between the Pilgrims and the Puritans is that the Puritans did not consider themselves separatists. They called themselves “nonseparating congregationalists,” by which they meant that they had not repudiated the Church of England as a false church. But in practice they acted–from the point of view of Episcopalians and even Presbyterians at home–exactly as the separatists were acting.
By the 1640s, their enterprise at Massachusetts Bay had grown to about 10,000 people. They soon outgrew the bounds of the original settlement and spread into what would become Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Maine, and eventually beyond the limits of New England.
The Puritan migration was overwhelmingly a migration of families (unlike other migrations to early America, which were composed largely of young unattached men). The literacy rate was high, and the intensity of devotional life, as recorded in the many surviving diaries, sermon notes, poems, and letters, was seldom to be matched in American life.
The Puritans’ ecclesiastical order was as intolerant as the one they had fled. Yet, as a loosely confederated collection of gathered churches, Puritanism contained within itself the seed of its own fragmentation. Following hard upon the arrival in New England, dissident groups within the Puritan sect began to proliferate–Quakers, Antinomians, Baptists–fierce believers who carried the essential Puritan idea of the aloneness of each believer with an inscrutable God so far that even the ministry became an obstruction to faith.
Puritanism gave Americans a sense of history as a progressive drama under the direction of God, in which they played a role akin to, if not prophetically aligned with, that of the Old Testament Jews as a new chosen people.
Perhaps most important, as Max Weber profoundly understood, was the strength of Puritanism as a way of coping with the contradictory requirements of Christian ethics in a world on the verge of modernity. It supplied an ethics that somehow balanced charity and self-discipline. It counseled moderation within a psychology that saw worldly prosperity as a sign of divine favor. Such ethics were particularly urgent in a New World where opportunity was rich, but the source of moral authority obscure.