History of Ideas: Background to Puritan and Pilgrim Protestantism in North America

For some 1,300 years, from roughly 300 to 1600 CE, the Catholic Church, headquartered for most of this time in the city of Rome, was the most powerful institution in the Western world. It was the ultimate spiritual and temporal authority in Europe.

In the sixteenth century, after years of turmoil in the Church, a reform movement arose. The movement was called Protestantism, from the Latin protestari, meaning “to assert publicly, or witness.” There followed a period of a couple hundred years that has come to be known as the Protestant Reformation, during which many Europeans switched their allegiance away from the Catholic Church and toward the new Protestant churches. The Protestant Reformation had dramatic effects on later events, including the founding of the colonies that became the United States.

In 1517, Martin Luther (1483-1546) initiated the Protestant Reformation when he nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the cathedral at the University of Wittenberg, in Germany, where he taught theology. Luther opposed the sale of indulgences, which were held to provide remission from punishment for sins confessed to a member of the clergy. Luther’s opposition to the sale of indulgences was related to a more fundamental break that he had made with the Church. Both Catholics and the later Protestants believed that all people had inherited sin passed down from the first humans, Adam and Eve, who had disobeyed God. This was called the doctrine of Original Sin. The Catholic Church held that via the purchase of indulgences and the performance of certain actions, called sacraments, which were administered by clergy, one could cleanse one’s self of this Original Sin and even of later sins that one committed. Luther came to believe, instead, the following:

  • That salvation could occur only through the Covenant of Grace (mercy extended to people despite their essential unworthiness)
  • That people received justification in the eyes of God through faith alone (not via our works, or actions, such as the purchase of indulgences or the taking of sacraments such as penitence)

And these beliefs were the basis of his Ninety-Five Theses, which challenged the sale of indulgences and the authority of the Pope.

Around the same time as Luther, the French theologian John Calvin (1509–64) taught the primacy of revelation through the scripture and the doctrines of Election and Predestination. Calvin believed

  • that there exists a direct relation between the individual and God, without an intermediary (a priest or any member of the clergy—a bishop, archbishop, or Pope). Belief in direct relationships with God without an intermediary led Protestants like Luther and Calvin to translate the scriptures into vernacular (common) languages so that ordinary people could read them.
  • in predestination, that God exists outside time and already knows what course a person will take, for good or ill; those who would be saved were called the Elect, and salvation was known as election. As Calvin writes in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Chapter 21:When we attribute prescience to God, we mean that all things always were, and ever continue, under his eye; that to his knowledge there is no past or future, but all things are present, and indeed so present, that it is not merely the idea of them that is before him (as those objects are which we retain in our memory), but that he truly sees and contemplates them as actually under his immediate inspection. This prescience extends to the whole circuit of the world, and to all creatures. By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death.” The notion that people play no role in their election but that God alone makes the decision as to who will and will not be saved is known as the doctrine of Absolute Sovereignty.

Like the Catholics before them, Luther and Calvin believed in Original Sin, that because of Adam’s sin, we all inherit sinfulness. The Catholics and the Protestants differed, however, in how they thought we could expiate, or rid ourselves, of this sinfulness. Catholicism stressed works (actions taken, like taking the sacraments), while Protestantism stressed God’s grace, extended to people despite their essential unworthiness. Calvin recognized only two sacraments—baptism and communion, and he denied transubstantiation (the literal transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ), a key Catholic belief. Denial of the efficacy of sacraments such as confirmation and penance and last rights, indulgences, and works generally was part of Protestant Covenant Theology, propounded by Calvin, which held that God originally made a Covenant of Works with Adam, whereby he would receive eternal life in return for obedience, the so-called Old Covenant, which was replaced by the New Covenant, or Covenant of Grace, whereby one would be saved by belief in Christ, who died to redeem people from their sins.

Rejection of the Church and its authority led to Protestant belief in the right of individual congregations to govern themselves, a precursor to American ideas about local authority and democratic government. The strong belief in local governance held by many U.S. citizens today has one of its roots in this rejection of the distant authority of Rome.

Those who held beliefs like the ones outlined above were called Protestants because they had the temerity to proclaim their beliefs publicly, including their opposition to the Catholic Church and its power. It is from this public airing of opposition that we get our term to protest.

These ideas led to a struggle for power throughout Europe—the Protestant Reformation.

The Protestant Reformation included a break by the country of England from the authority of Rome in 1534. At that time, King Henry VIII of England declared himself supreme head of the church and dissolved the monasteries. The church he established is known as the Protestant Church of England, or Anglican Church.

For years after Henry VIII, there was contention among various factions—some who wished to return to Catholicism (Catholics were called by their enemies Papists), some who wished to reform the Anglican Church to purify it even more (called by their enemies and later by themselves Puritans), and some who believed that one could not reform the Anglican Church but needed to separate from it entirely (called Separatists). In the early 1600s, some English Separatists fled to Holland to escape persecution. Then, in 1620, they sailed for the New World and established a colony at Plymouth, called the Plimoth Plantation. This was a kind of pilgrimage, and these Separatists were called by their leader, William Bradford, Pilgrims, and the name stuck. As Bradford wrote in his history Of Plimoth Plantation,

“So they lefte [that] goodly & pleasante citie, which had been ther resting place, nere 12 years; but they knew they were pilgrimes, & looked not much on these things; but lift up their eyes to ye heavens, their dearest cuntrie, and quieted their spirits.”

Ten years later, in 1627, Puritans under John Endicott sailed for the New World and established the colony of Salem. In 1630, John Winthrop sailed for the New World carrying a royal charter for the Massachusetts colony, and Endicott’s Salem became the Massachusetts Bay Colony (with which Plimoth, or Plymouth, Plantation later merged). Unlike the Pilgrims, who wanted to separate from the Church of England entirely, the Puritans were reformers who wished to remain within the Anglican Church but to practice a “more pure” version of the religion. The Puritans believed in local governance of their churches, in which congregations elected their own ministers, so their churches were called Congregationalist churches.

One of the ways that you could know that a person was among the elect was that he or she lived a simple, frugal, hard-working, devout life and received various blessings as a result. Thus was born the Protestant Work Ethic—one showed through one’s actions, one’s hard work, that one was a member of the Elect. Of course, such an ethic was essential to a people carving out new lives “in the wilderness” of the New World.

Some important dates:

1492 – Columbus lands on island of Hispaniola
1493 – Papal Bull “Inter Caetera” (“Among other Works”) expounds the “Doctrine of Discovery,” saying that Christians can claim non-Christian lands as their own
1494 – Treaty of Tordesillas divides the New World up between Portugal and Spain
1498 – Explorer John Cabot sails along Massachusetts coast
1606 – King James I grants charter to Plymouth Company
1620 – Colony at Plymouth established after Mayflower Voyage
1628 – Colony at Salem established by John Endicott
1629 – Massachusetts Bay Company chartered
1630 – Massachusetts Bay Colony established at Boston; it would be led, off and on, by John Winthrop
1632 – Boston is made capital of Massachusetts Bay Colony
1634 – Four Year War with Pequots begins, nearly wipes out tribe; remnant of tribe sold into slavery
1636 – Harvard College established at Cambridge
1637 – Mystic Massacre (700 men, women, children burned to death in retaliation for killing by native Americans of a criminal who had been exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony who had attempted to swindle them)
1638 – Slave Ship Desire arrives at Salem from Nicaraguan Coast
1641 – Province of New Hampshire merged into Massachusetts Bay Colony
1648 – Margaret Jones, herbal practitioner, hanged as a Witch at Boston
1659 – William Leddra hanged at Boston for practicing Quaker religion
1675 – King Philip’s War (Wampanoags) endangers colony for 3 Years
1680 – Province of New Hampshire separated from Mass Bay Colony
1692 – Salem witch hysteria occurs
1823 – Supreme Court in Johnson v. McIntosh rules unanimously that the principle of discovery gave Europeans an absolute right to the New World

Approximate Population of BOSTON

1650 – 3,000       1680 – 4,500        1690 – 7,000

How does all of this relate to the world today?

We study history because it has consequences for today. To understand the world we live in, we need to understand how it got to be that way.

  1. Today, Christianity is the most widely practiced religion in the world, with 33 percent of the world population identifying as Christian. Christianity today, as then, is divided into many denominations, most of which identify as either Catholic or Protestant. Numbers in the United States reflect the Puritan and Pilgrim heritage, with 70.6 percent of Americans identifying as Christians, 46.5 percent Protestant and 20.8 percent Roman Catholic.[1]
  2. The Puritan and Pilgrim insistence on local governance, as opposed to governance by a distant authority (the Pope) influenced strongly the development of Democratic ideals in the later United States. Some colonists came to believe that people had a right to govern themselves and not to be governed by distant Great Britain, and many insisted that their governance be local. The ongoing conflict between proponents of federal and state’s rights, a recurring theme in U.S. politics throughout the history of the country, is another consequence of this seed planted by the Puritans and the Pilgrims.
  3. The Protestant Work Ethic made the later United States the most productive country in the world. Even today, U.S. workers are far more productive than are most of their counterparts elsewhere, producing, on average, $63,885 of wealth per worker per year.[2]
  4. The insistence by Puritans and Pilgrims on the basic sinfulness of people, due to Original Sin, led them to be quite harsh in their punishments. This continues to the present day. As of 2013, 2.8 percent of the adult U.S. population was under correctional supervision (on probation or parole, in jail or in prison).[3] That’s almost three people out of every hundred and is the second highest rate of punishment in the world after that of the island nation of Seychelles.
  5. The founders of the United States were rebels who insisted upon individual liberty and who rebelled against the authority of the English government. This rebelliousness had its precedents in the rebellion of Puritans against the authority of the Catholic Church and of the Pilgrims against the authority of both the Catholic and Anglican Churches. While the Puritans and Pilgrims came here to have the freedom to practice their religion, they were not particularly tolerant, on the whole, toward other religious beliefs, though there were notable exceptions. Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, broke with the Massachusetts Bay Colony over, among other issues, his insistence on the right of individual religious liberty.
  6. The Puritans saw nature as something to be subdued—as something to have dominion over. They viewed themselves as a small band of God’s people alone in a dangerous and encroaching wilderness. Their tasks were to survive it and to tame it. The vast natural resources of the New World made them very successful, but from them Europeans learned an ethic of exploitation that continues unabated.
  7. The Puritans viewed sex and sexuality as sinful, and they held modesty to be a great virtue. We inherited this Puritanical worldview.
  8. In “A Model of Christian Charity,” John Winthrop called upon the Puritans establishing the Massachusetts Bay Colony to share their “superfluities” with one another, to treat one another as brothers, and so to be a model to the world, a “city on a hill.” So, there was arguably among at least some Puritans an ethic of social welfare. It would be a long, long time, however, before basic protections for workers and the elderly became law in this country.

There are other legacies as well: the Congregationalist Churches of New England, the public Jeremiad, the revivalist style of preaching (from the Great Awakening), and, sadly, both enslavement of African-Americans and genocide against the native American peoples. Massachusetts inaugurated the genocide against native Americans in the United States with the 1637 Mystic Massacre. The first slaves arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. However, in 1641, Massachusetts became the first colony on the North American continent to enact slavery into law in a bill called, ironically, “The Body of Liberties.”

[1] “The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life – Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths”. Pewforum.org. 2012-07-19. Retrieved 2012-12-29.

[2] “U.S. Workers World’s Most Productive.” CBS Money Watch. Sept. 3, 2007. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/us-workers-worlds-most-productive/. Accessed 9.2.15.

[3] Glaze, Lauren E., and Danielle Kaeble. “Correctional Populations in the United States, 2013.” Washington: U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). Dec., 2014.

Copyright 2017. Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved. This piece may be copied and freely distributed by teachers provided this copyright notice is retained.

For other pieces by Bob Shepherd dealing with the topic of religion, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/religion/

For other pieces by Bob Shepherd dealing with the topics of teaching literature and writing, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/teaching-literature-and-writing/

For other pieces by Bob Shepherd dealing with topics in philosophy, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/philosophy/


About Bob Shepherd

interests: curriculum design, educational technology, learning, linguistics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, philosophy (Continental philosophy, Existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics), classical and jazz guitar, poetry, the short story, archaeology and cultural anthropology, history of religion, prehistory, veganism, sustainability, Anglo-Saxon literature and language, systems for emergent quality control, heuristics for innovation
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4 Responses to History of Ideas: Background to Puritan and Pilgrim Protestantism in North America

  1. I can’t agree that the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) was “the most powerful institution in the Western World” for 1600 years as the church itself didn’t begin to form until at least AD 300 and then it took many centuries for the RCC to accrete political power. Although the RCC likes to claim connection all the way back to Jesus what they claim and historical reality are two different things.

    Now to continue to read the rest-LOL!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “We inherited this Puritanical worldview.”

    Not me! I inherited the Roman Catholic worldview. . .

    . . . much of which I rejected by the time I became a teenager.

    Liked by 1 person

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