A few notions…

Puritanism is a radical version of Protestantism, which is rooted in the movement called the Reformation (16th century). American Puritanism and English Puritanism are fairly different. American Puritanism became the ultimate, most coherent of Protestantism because it grew in a virgin soil. It is an experiment in America with European roots. The most famous characters are Luther and Calvin, who both had a great influence first in Europe and then in America.

The most radical movement was led by the Separatists. For them, the Church was hopelessly corrupted. Only the elect, “God’s invisible saints”, could be Church members. They believed in personal religious rebirth and to the regenerating experience. This puritan version is prompted by the notion of sin: people are sinful, especially women. It is the basic corrupt notion of human nature. For Puritanism, it is impossible to reach perfection: “in Adam’s fault we sinned all”.

Puritanism is not only a matter of theology but also a matter of social organization: God also rules the collective life of the people. Man is linked up to God with a covenant. By respecting this covenant, man could get rid of his depravity (covenant of Grace). These notions were puritan before America. Puritans were looking for a place to experiment this system. In 1620, the Pilgrim Fathers landed in America: they were separatists and belonged to a cult (kind of sect). What they did is to sign a covenant: the “MayFlower Compact”, which is not only religious but also civic and politic. Between 1630 and 1640, 20 000 English puritans settled down in the Massachusetts colony. Many people were University trained, especially in theology. The power of the Church was so profound that some people talked about “Theocracy” (Government of God).

The puritans moved to America because they were persecuted in Europe. Theocracy was so strict that there were a growing discontent in the colonies: settlers started to criticize and question the system.

Roger Williams was for the separation of the State and the Church. In 1635, Williams was banned. He created his own colony called “Providence”, who became the heaven of religious tolerance (later known as Rhode-Island). Anne Hutchinson arrived in America in 1634. She organized private meeting, commented on sermons and stressed the importance of “inner light” (private experience of Grace towards genuine regeneration) stating that the Church was too formal. She had followers called Antinomians (against the laws). In 1638, she was trialed and she had to find refuge in Providence.

How long did Puritanism last in America ?

Until the late 16th century but Puritanism went on and on in American mentality. It had many factors for its decay, the most important were:

  1. the religious competition
  2. people’s belief in freedom and tolerance
  3. 1692 knew a witch hysteria in Salem. Thousands of witches were burnt in Europe in the Middle-Ages in Germany and in England (some in France). The immigrants who came in America brought with them this fear of witchcraft. In 1692, some 20 people were sentenced to death for witchcraft.

All these reasons embodied and materialized the decay of Puritanism. It can be interpreted as a desperate effort to resist change (die-hard Puritanism) and to block the emergence of a more open and tolerant society. This is the first failure in the American system.

Link between Puritanism and Expansionism ?

Puritan settlement were located on the East Coast and all the rest of the territory was part of the “terra incognita”. This was a dilemma for the puritans: the big question of that time could be resumed by ‘should I stay or should I go?”, showing the hesitation of the settlers to expand. Indeed, the wilderness was devilish and dangerous. It was a no-man’s land inhabited by nothing but Indians and animals. But the puritans had a mission: converting the Indians and trespassing their border. This turn-over was made possible thanks to William Bradford and the propagation of the Gospel. The puritans believed they were entitled to settle this land.

Civilization had a religious definition: “the Lord’s Gardens”. Bringing civilization to wilderness was like converting the Indians and settling God’s Gardens in the Wilderness. The main goal was enlarging the Kingdom of Christ. Hence, expansion had a religious basis and 3 levels:

  1. hesitation
  2. temptation to go beyond the settlement
  3. desire to form a civilization

But most puritans refrained this idea because they were frightened. American civilization is based on FEAR.


175 years after the arrival of the first English-speaking settlers in North America until the Declaration of Independence laid the foundation of a new model of nation. The distinctive characteristic ideals and contradictions of colonial America shaped the civilization of the United States until very recently.

I. Puritans’ Promised Land.

Those who migrated to New England for religious reasons after the Pilgrim Fathers believed that they had been called to take part in an event of both historical and spiritual importance. They thought that God had kept America secret and hidden until the day when it would provide mankind with one last chance for regeneration.

The Puritans insisted on individual effort and morality as the only way of achieving both economic success and personal salvation. They also insisted on saving money and sizing opportunities in what they considered as a hostile environment. Therefore, by providing a refuge from the corruption of Old England, America was to become a New World of opportunities, the last Promised Land for the new people of God who saw their voyage across the Atlantic as a new biblical exodus. Politically speaking, the Puritans also brought with them the foundations of new institutions: mixture of democracy and authoritarian theocracy. Their community was to be organized by contract between responsible individuals but under God’s eyes.

As soon as they saw the American coast, the Pilgrim fathers of 1620, while still on board their ship, the Mayflower- signed the first political agreement. The Mayflower Contract was approved by all the three men but excluding women and servants. The contract secured the colonies’ legal existence beyond the Royal Charter by insisting on the individual free decision to enter a contract with each other and with God. The contract also gathered very different groups of migrants. Thus, the colonists had organized a form of freedom both collective and individual from the American forms of government. Similarly, in 1629, before migrating to America, 20 Puritans, members of the Massachusetts Bay Company, signed an agreement by which they intended to protect themselves against any outside control.

John Winthrop, first governor of the new colony based in Boston, also insisted on the providential nature of the colonial experience: "we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us because we profess ourselves to be a people in relation with God". Winthrop decided that only church members would become citizens. Freedom, as expressed in the covenant, was restricted by a religious ideal, a theocracy that imposed the responsible and holy authority of a religious elite. In that context, political differences were unthinkable.

In 1635, when the minister of the town of Salem, Roger Williams, claimed the right to every man to follow his own conscience, he was banished by the General Court and forced to leave the country. He took refuge among the Indians, from who he bought land. He later obtained a Royal Charter for a colony he called "Rhode Island", granting freedom of consciousness to all. In the 1690’s, in Salem, after two young girls became ill, 400 people were arrested, 20 executed and 5 died in prison for disturbing public order conscience on suspected allegations of witchcraft. In protestant churches, it resulted in two opposite trends:

  • Independence, responsibility and contractual freedom
  • Intolerance and authoritarianism

II. New experience

A. Expansion and opportunities

In the New World, a relative material abundance and the spreading of wealth enabled a majority of white citizens to live in relative comfort in a land of plenty. American society was a fluid structure in which origins counted for less than individual achievement, except in the South for there was no privilege class and upward mobility was possible. America was a land of opportunities. Education was available to a greater number of people than in England.

Instead of Oxford and Cambridge, which opened to Anglicans only, several institutions were created in the early days of the settlement to answer the need of the population for further education:

  • 1636: Harvard College in Boston
  • College of William and Mary in Virginia founded by the Anglicans
  • Brown College outside Providence, by the Baptists
  • Princeton in New Jersey, by the Presbyterians

The new institution which started as training colleges for ministers evolved into centers of political reflection in which the 18th century’s ideas of national freedom and universal happiness soon influenced the cultural elite of the colonies. Several Founding Fathers of American democracy like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams attended these institutions. But the American colonists were often self-made and self-educated men such as Benjamin Franklin, the son of a Boston soap maker, who became a scientist, an inventor and a also a prominent statesman.

B. Tolerance

The American experiment very often started as a movement of emancipation from European religious establishment but the persecuted soon became persecutors. In 1639, Thomas Hooker was forced to move from the Boston colony to the Connecticut by the moral rulers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Tolerance spread progressively, simply because religious persecutions proved to be impractical. New settlement needed man power. They couldn’t avoid turning away immigrants for religious reasons. Trading companies soon found it easier to welcome all the "able-bodied", whatever their beliefs or origins. Therefore, away from the English model of Church State, the colonies started to elaborate the theory of the separation between the Religious Church and the Secular State. Yet, the religious factor remained an essential feature of a society, as demonstrated in the American motto: "in God we trust".

III. Democracy

Because of the new conditions created by the colonial experiment, both in the economic and social themes but also in the organization of the independent churches, a relatively high percentage of white adults male had access to political participation.

Most colonists were free holders and not tenants. Individual liberty and belief in equality were wildly accepted. At the same time, the colonists shared a colon frustration because they were forced to accept British legislation and taxation without being represented in Parliament.

Local organization was encouraged. Each of the 13 colonies was supervised by governors appointed by the King. The colonies’ charters made it possible for them to make laws if they did not contradict acts of Parliament. Because of the diversity of their charters and population, the colonies were strongly attached to their local independence from each other. However, they experimented the benefits of union on several occasions. Twice between 1640 and 1680, the King and the British board of trade invited the Northern colonies to form the United Colonies of New England, in order to put their forces together against the dangers of Native and Dutch invasions. Later, in July 1754, when Britain was at war against France both in Europe and in Canada, the colonies took the opportunity to draft a plan of union and presented it at the Albany Congress assembled by the British. But the colonies’ representatives finally refused to delegate their political power to a central body of government as B. Franklin had hoped it.

This early attempt at federalism ended in failure and the British government dismissed the Congress soon after the war. But the idea of a common central government became increasingly popular as criticism of British centralism took a more and more violent form. The settlers’ original dream of reforming old institutions and establishing a new civilization was both unique and dual. On the one hand, the Puritans, inspired by a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, wished to set up an authoritarian and Christian commonwealth. On the other hand, the Founding Fathers, inspired by the philosophy of the Enlightenment, dreamt of creating a perfect political and social model of utopia. In both cases, America wanted to become, in Shakespeare’s own words, "a brave new world in the face of the world".

Sommaire de la série From the Reformation to the birth of the American nation (1534-1776)

  1. The Reformation in the British Isles
  2. English Expansionism
  3. The Glorious Revolution of 1688
  4. The American colonies : Religion and Politics
  5. Birth of a Nation