From Authority to Individualism

Notes on Puritanism

            The philosophies of Puritanism, the Great Awakening and the Enlightenment provide much of the intellectual foundation for the establishment of the United States.

            Puritans was the name given in the 16th century to the more extreme Protestants within the Church of England who thought the English Reformation had not gone far enough in reforming the doctrines and structure of the church; they wanted to purify their national church by eliminating every shred of Catholic influence. In the 17th century many Puritans emigrated to the New World, where they sought to found a holy Commonwealth in New England. Puritanism remained the dominant cultural force in that area into the 19th century.

English Puritanism

            Associated exclusively with no single theology or definition of the church (although many were Calvinists), the English Puritans were known at first for their extremely critical attitude regarding the religious compromises made during the reign of Elizabeth I . Many of them were graduates of Cambridge University, and they became Anglican priests to make changes in their local churches. They encouraged direct personal religious experience, sincere moral conduct, and simple worship services. Worship was the area in which Puritans tried to change things most; their efforts in that direction were sustained by intense theological convictions and definite expectations about how seriously Christianity should be taken as the focus of human existence.

            After James I became king of England in 1603, Puritan leaders asked him to grant several reforms. At the Hampton Court Conference (1604), however, he rejected most of their proposals, which included abolition of bishops. Puritanism, best expressed by William Ames and later by Richard Baxter, gained much popular support early in the 17th century. The government and the church hierarchy, however, especially under Archbishop William Laud, became increasingly repressive, causing many Puritans to emigrate. Those who remained formed a powerful element within the parliamentarian party that defeated CHARLES I in the ENGLISH CIVIL WAR. After the war the Puritans remained dominant in England until 1660, but they quarreled among themselves (Presbyterian dominance gave way to Independent, or congregational, control under Oliver CROMWELL) and proved even more intolerant than the old hierarchy. The restoration of the monarchy (1660) also restored Anglicanism, and the Puritan clergy were expelled from the Church of England under the terms of the Act of Uniformity (1662; see CLARENDON CODE). Thereafter English Puritans were classified as NONCONFORMISTS.

American Puritanism

            Early in the 17th century some Puritan groups separated from the Church of England. Among these were the PILGRIMS, who in 1620 founded Plymouth Colony. Ten years later, under the auspices of the Massachusetts Bay Company , the first major Puritan migration to New England took place. The Puritans brought strong religious impulses to bear in all colonies north of Virginia, but New England was their stronghold, and the Congregationalist churches established there were able to perpetuate their viewpoint about a Christian society for more than 200 years.

            Richard Matherand John Cotton provided clerical leadership in the dominant Puritan colony planted on Massachusetts Bay. Thomas Hooker was an example of those who settled new areas farther west according to traditional Puritan standards. Even though he broke with the authorities of the Massachusetts colony over questions of religious freedom, Roger Williams was also a true Puritan in his zeal for personal godliness and doctrinal correctness. Most of these men held ideas in the mainstream of Calvinistic thought. In addition to believing in the absolute sovereignty of God, the total depravity of man, and the complete dependence of human beings on divine grace for salvation, they stressed the importance of personal religious experience. These Puritans insisted that they, as God's elect, had the duty to direct national affairs according to God's will as revealed in the Bible. This union of church and state to form a holy commonwealth gave Puritanism direct and exclusive control over most colonial activity until commercial and political changes forced them to relinquish it at the end of the 17th century.

            Because of its diffuse nature, when Puritanism began to decline in America is difficult to say. Some would hold that it lost its influence in New England by the early 18th century, but Jonathan Edwards and his able disciple Samuel Hopkins revived Puritan thought and kept it alive until 1800. Others would point to the gradual decline in power of CONGREGATIONALISM, but Presbyterians under the leadership of Jonathan Dickinson and Baptists led by the example of Isaac Backus (1724-1806) revitalized Puritan ideals in several denominational forms through the 18th century.

            During the whole colonial period Puritanism had direct impact on both religious thought and cultural patterns in America. In the 19th century its influence was indirect, but it can still be seen at work stressing the importance of education in religious leadership and demanding that religious motivations be tested by applying them to practical situations.

The Church formed the foundation of the Puritan social order. In God's plan of creation, all men were born with original sin; God predestined some people, the Elect, for salvation. Puritans had a strong sense of the sovereignty of God and the depravity of man. They strived hard to live in accordance with God's will. Men were innately unequal, and only the saints could run the Church and the elite, the government. Church membership was a prerequisite for participation in politics. Puritans came to America specifically to create a model "City upon a Hill," a puritan utopia in the wilderness. It was thus appropriate to guard, warn and reprove each other against moral lapses.

            The Puritans had a covenant, or contract, with God. If they kept the contract, God would grant them saving grace. Puritans believed it followed logically that civil government stems from a voluntary agreement by all Church followers. In the distribution of communal lands, Puritans allotted acreage to individuals based on family size, need and skills valued by the community. Everyone was legally required to attend Church services. Since the Scripture offered solutions to all problems of individual conduct, Church and secular government, and social organization, an educated citizenry was necessary to enable individuals to interpret the meaning of the Scripture for their lives. Adherence to the strict Puritan moral code was both a sign of salvation and a path to prosperity. Puritans believed strongly in the correctness of their views and stood ready to use the power of the state to enforce religious uniformity. Puritan parents had an obligation to repress their children's willfulness and teach them obedience to God and their parents.

Notes on the Great Awakening

            Puritan piety of the seventeenth century had eroded by the eighteenth century in the New World atmosphere of individualism, optimism and enterprise. Away from the persecutions in England, and removed by time and distance, Americans gave preference to the counting house over the meeting house. The Great Awakening was, in part, an emotional effort to reassert the earlier extreme piety over the rationalism and optimism of the Enlightenment. A heart open to the Divine Spirit was more important than a highly trained intellect. Revival preachers suggested that salvation was open to all who appealed to God, and they accused conservative clergymen of spiritual coldness.

            Most Americans had moved too far into modernity to share, even in times of religious revival, Jonathan Edwards' vision of the beauty and fitness of God's sovereignty and sinful man's helpless dependence on the miracle of Divine Grace. In America, with so many religious sects existing side by side, some people doubted whether any denomination had a monopoly over truth and grace. Most Congregationalist ministers in Massachusetts denounced the revivalists for permitting uneducated men to take it upon themselves to be preachers of the word of God and thus create confusion and errors and lead members away from their regular Church. The widely preached doctrine of salvation for all of equal opportunity to share in God's grace encouraged the notion of equal rights to share also in the good life on earth.

Notes on the Enlightenment

            The eighteenth-century Enlightenment produced a new climate of thought in which men believed that God had created man and his world and that God had endowed man with powers of observation and reason. Man could observe his world and, by applying reason, could extract the "natural laws" that governed the phenomena. Man was capable of perfecting human society by applying the rules of reason and removing man-made obstacles to a harmonious society. John Locke maintained that natural law ordained a government resting on the consent of the governed and respecting the inherent "natural rights" of all.

            God had created the world but had left the world to function according to the laws of nature. Man could perfect his world by finding the obstacles, removing them and allowing the "natural laws" to operate freely. Men of the Enlightenment viewed the universe as a great clock, created by God, but allowed to operate freely. Thus, the object of the Enlightenment was to liberate the "natural laws," that would then apply themselves equally and thus create a new order with harmony and balance. God the “Watchmaker” was no longer present. One could not communicate with Him. Reason became the new "faith," and man became the new "god." Any unnatural laws, such as the mercantile regulations, conflicted with "natural laws" and had to be removed to have a perfectly functioning economy.

You will make two charts or graphs (your choice) that compares and contrast the following:

I.                    English Puritanism and American Puritanism

II.                 The Great Awakening and Enlightenment

You may use any time of graph to illustrate your point like; Venn Diagrams, Circle Graphs, Pie Graphs or Event Maps.

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