What did Puritan society look like in New England?

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England, the English Parliament put forth measures designed to reform the theological doctrines and rituals of the Church of England. This church was founded during the reign of Henry VIII in 1534 after separating papal authority from England to annul his marriage to his first wife and marry Elizabeth’s mother. From then on, the Puritan movement flourished both in prosperity and persecution.

However, even after Elizabeth’s death and ascension of her cousin, James I, Puritan leaders requested he grant numerous reforms including the abolition of bishops, most of which the king rejected. Fed up with mounting subjugation from the English government and church hierarchy, many Puritans immigrated to the New World.

Under the backing of the Massachusetts Bay Company, the first major Puritan migration to New England occurred and with them, strong religious convictions to shape all colonies north of Virginia with New England as its center. A key difference between pilgrims and puritans to note is that the pilgrims were commonly known as “Separatists” who believed that the only way to live according to the Bible involved leaving the Church of England completely while Puritans believed they could reform the church from within and live out the congregational way in their local churches without abandoning the Church of England which is how they earned their occasional nickname – “non-separating” Puritans. Both groups shared much in common pertaining to forms of worship and self-organization referred to as “the congregational way.”

The Puritans, with more money to bring with them than the Pilgrims, saw a desirable investment opportunity by owning land in the New World while also believing that due to the distance from England, they could create the ideal English church. John Winthrop, a Puritan leader, commented regarding founding a church “that will be a light to the nations,” according to Vicki Oman, associate director of group participation and learning at the historic Plimouth Plantation. The first great migration of Puritans took place in 1630, placing God and church at the center of their lives. The ministers of these church wielded considerable influence in their communities and the colonies.

Political Life

The people of a society were bound by a social covenant according to the Puritans. Examples of such an agreement are the Mayflower Compact in Plymouth and New Haven’s Fundamental Agreement. Eligible voters chose qualified men to govern and submit to the covenant and to God as well as promote the common good. On a national scale, the Puritans believed in a national covenant with God, that they were chosen by God to help redeem the world through their complete obedience to his will. If they honored the covenant, they were rewarded; if not, they would fail. In Puritan colonies, the Congregational church operated as a state religion. All residents in Massachusetts and Connecticut were required to pay taxes to support the Congregational churches. Church attendance was mandatory. There was greater separation between church and state in Puritan commonwealths than anywhere in Europe at the time. Secular matters were conducted only by civil authorities and those who held religious offices were barred from holding positions in civil government.

Family Life

For Puritans, marriage was the foundation of the family and hence, society. While in England, people were wed by ministers in church mandated by the Book of Common Prayer, Puritans viewed marriage as having no biblical justification for church weddings or the exchange of wedding rings. Instead, marriages were conducted as a private, contractual occasion oversaw by a civil magistrate in his home or a member of the bride’s family.

Scholars debate on the nature of Puritan child-rearing with some historians arguing that is was repressive based on the equally debated views on John Robinson, the Pilgrims’ first pastor. Others argue that child-rearing aimed to grow godly affection and reason in children with corporal punishment utilized as a last resort.


England at the time possessed a literacy rate less than 30 percent. Therefore, Puritan leaders in colonial New England strongly encouraged that children be educated for religious and civil reasons. In 1642, Massachusetts mandated that men, the heads of their households, teach their wives, children, and servants fundamental reading and writing skills so they could read the Bible and comprehend colonial laws. Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke’s ‘blank slate’ in children were shared by the Puritans. In 1647, governments entailed all towns with fifty or more households to hire a teacher and towns of a hundred or more households to hire a grammar school instructor to prepare boys for college. Thanks to these efforts, the Puritans were “[o]ne of the most literate groups in the early modern world,” according to historian Bruce C. Daniels, with approximately 60 percent literacy rate in New England.

Recreation and Leisure

According to satirist and journalist H.L. Mencken, Puritanism is “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” While Puritans did not celebrate traditional or personal holidays like Christmas, Easter, birthdays, or anniversaries, they did celebrate military victories, harvests, ordinations, weddings, and births. The tavern was also a significant place for people to gather on a regular basis. A Puritan clergyman, Increase Mather wrote that dancing was “a natural expression of joy; so that there is no more sin in it, than in laughter,” but discouraged mixed dancing between men and women and was illegal in taverns.

Sports and games were also a favorite pastime so long as gambling was not in the picture. The Puritans were opposed to blood sports that included cockfighting, cudgel-fighting, and bear-baiting as these were viewed as cruel and harmful to God’s creatures. Hunting and fishing were considered productive and therefore, accepted. Sports that promoted civic virtue in the views of the Puritans involved marksmanship, running, and wrestling. Football was frowned upon for their injuries and “creating bitter rivalries.”

Decline in Influence

The Half-Way Covenant which was the form of partial church membership, in addition to the rise of dissenting Anglicans, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Quakers in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Puritan and Congregational churches were on the decline. While a specific year or set of years when the Puritan era ended is not recorded or agreed upon universally, 1740 seems the most likely year for the end of the Puritan era. At this time, Puritan tradition branched off into conservatives, pietists, and rationalists. Puritan decline was also making way for the Great Awakening of the 1740s marked by widespread religious fervor and call for toleration in the colonies and the Enlightenment of the 1750s marked by many scientific discoveries and inventions and the power of human reason. There is no doubt the Puritan foundation of New England colonies provided the blueprint for breaking away from Great Britain in the Revolutionary War more than a century later. 

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