How Puritanism Began

Most of us learn in school that the English settlers of Massachusetts came here to escape religious persecution in their homeland. This made them slightly different from the first settlers of some other English colonies, whose motivation was often more economic than religious, but we shouldn’t exaggerate that difference. People came to other colonies, at various times, in search of religious freedom—Anglicans to Virginia, Catholics to Maryland, Quakers to Pennsylvania, for example—and in every colony, once the initial challenge of survival was overcome, the economic opportunities that opened to the survivors exerted a powerful attraction. Even in Massachusetts.

Nevertheless, the differences among colonies were real, and to understand what the colony of Massachusetts Bay was like, and why it was like that, we have to look at Puritanism, the religious movement that inspired the founders of the colony and the many English families who left their homeland to settle in it.

The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century transformed England from a Catholic to a Protestant country. But although the great majority of the people were Protestants by 1600, they weren’t all the same kind of Protestants. Members of the established state Church of England, called Anglicans, were Protestant in rejecting the authority of the Pope, but in other respects—including the way their church was organized and governed, and the religious doctrines they adhered to—they were not greatly different from Catholics.
John Calvin, 1509–1564
At least, so it seemed to a large (and, in 1600, growing) number of people in England who had embraced a more radically Protestant faith based on the teachings of the 16th-century Franco-Swiss reformer John Calvin. Called nonconformists because of their refusal to fall in line with Anglican practice, they rejected not only the authority but also the “Romish” structure of the Church of England. In their belief, Christianity should instead return to the simplicity, as they conceived it, of its earliest days. No more elaborate rituals, no more opulent vestments, no more sumptuously adorned churches—these, they felt, were distractions from the serious Christian’s responsibility to forge a strong personal bond with God. They agreed with the Anglicans that services should be conducted, and the Bible printed, in English—the only language that nearly everyone in the kingdom could understand. But they wanted worship services to be based strictly on precedents that could be found in the Bible. For instance, they felt that a service should include no music other than the Psalms, for which King David had provided a Biblical example.

Like all Christians, Catholics and Anglicans also believed that everyone had the right—in fact the duty—to study the Bible and understand its teachings, but in the view of these churches the only way to ensure correct understanding was to accept interpretations arrived at by competent authorities and handed down to the faithful by church and monarch. The Catholic Church, in fact, felt that hearing those correct interpretations preached at Mass was sufficient for the average person, and frowned on efforts to translate the Bible into vernacular languages. Translated into Latin, it was accessible to the learned, and that, from the Catholic point of view, was both safe and sufficient.
A scene from the Thirty Years' War in Germany
Obviously neither the Church of Rome nor the Church of England accepted the notion that any interpretation was as good as another. But the same was also true of the nonconformists. Individual study and interpretation, they believed, could and must lead each Christian to the correct conclusions and to no others. Like all Christians of their time, everywhere in Europe, they believed that there was but a single Truth. Admittedly, all the Christian churches and sects disagreed about exactly what this was, but everyone believed that getting it wrong, even in minor details, posed a grave danger to the soul. As the history books tell us, much blood was shed in defense of the right to proclaim the real Truth, and to suppress all conflicting versions. This German print, made in 1643 during the 30 Years’ War, suggests that what resulted was often horrifying by the standards of any religious tradition.

The largest group of English nonconformists considered it their duty to reform the Church of England along early Christian lines— by no means an easy undertaking. That church had an elaborate structure of governance similar in form to the structure of the Catholic Church. A pyramid-shaped hierarchy descended from the King and the Archbishop of Canterbury at the top (where they jointly replaced the Pope) down through numerous tiers to the village parson. Nonconformists, in contrast, believed that spiritual correctness and uniformity, while necessary, should be guaranteed not by dictates handed down through a many-layered hierarchy, but by the guidance of an “able ministry”—clergy who lived among their congregations and led them by preaching and example. Uniformity of belief could be ensured through general meetings of clergymen called synods, where they could deliberate on and settle doctrinal issues that arose.

Different as these conceptions of an ideal church structure were, the would-be reformers hoped that all of England’s Anglican Protestants, or at least the great majority of them, could eventually be made to see things their way—not only ministers and congregations, but a sufficient number of deans, canons, archdeacons, bishops and archbishops so that, in the fullness of time, not just the pomp and ceremony, but the powerful hierarchy with all its layers would dwindle back to the true simplicity of early Christianity.

Because they spoke openly of their ambition to purify the Church of England by purging it of everything material and spiritual that they considered Popish, devout Anglicans, who found this ambition repugnant, gave them the derisive name Puritans. As has often happened in history, the targets of derision eventually came to accept the name and take pride in it (though it’s been said that, even when the first settlers were leaving for Massachusetts Bay, most of them were still taking it as an insult).

A small group of nonconformists, perhaps more realistic than the Puritans, took the position that the Church of England was beyond hope of conversion, and that they could realize their ideal only by cutting all ties with that church and creating one of their own. This was by no means an easy path to take. Everyone in England was legally obliged to belong to and support the established church, which had legal means of enforcing its commands, including archdeacons’ courts that tried and punished those who resisted the church’s authority. King James I, who took offense at the opposition of the Separatists (as this group was called), even threatened to “harry them out of the land.”
The Pilgrims landing at Plymouth, 1620
In response to this hostility, some Separatists did leave England in 1607 and emigrate to Holland, a country where their faith was shared and accepted. Finding it difficult to make their way in a foreign land, however, many returned after several years and obtained a charter to settle in America. Missing their intended destination, they ended up in Cape Cod Bay and founded the Plymouth colony. (Like most pictures of their landing, this one is based on a sentimental imagination of what it must have been like.)

Those Separatists—the Pilgrims, as they've come to be called—are important to the history of Massachusetts Bay, not only because they were here first and welcomed the Puritans, whose faith they shared, but also because the Massachusetts Bay Puritans adopted their model of church governance.

The model was this: the congregation of each individual church or meetinghouse had the authority to govern it in all matters except doctrine. It was the congregation’s responsibility to build a church or meetinghouse, invite a minister whose views met the test of orthodoxy (as defined by the appropriate synods), and, after a period of probation, decide whether to settle him—that is, make a long-term agreement to provide material support and accept his spiritual guidance as long as he lived among them and preached in their church—or else to keep looking. The name of this governance model was, of course, congregationalism, which became the practice of the Puritan settlers in Massachusetts as well as the Separatists who preceded them. In later decades it provided the name by which their church distinguished itself from other Christian communities. Although Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay remained politically separate until almost the end of the 17th century, there was from the time of the Puritans’ arrival no real difference between their churches in either doctrine or organization.