Religion affected nearly every aspect of Puritan culture. Religious upheaval drove their emigration out of England and was the basis of their colonization of the northeastern United States. Puritans interpreted the Bible as the literal, flawless word of God, making religion the basis of their legal system, societal makeup and personal customs.
The Puritans were a loosely connected sect of Protestant Calvinists who believed that the English Reformation didn't go far enough in breaking away from the Catholic Church in 16th-century England. By the early 1600s, their protests and refusal to assimilate into the Church of England's mainstream led to persecution under the rule of King James I. Breakaway sects eventually fled the country to, among other places, America's New England in search of a religious refuge that Puritan leader John Winthrop referred to as "a city upon a hill."
Puritans believed that an all-powerful God chose the destiny of each person's soul at birth and put them into one of two categories: the elect and the dissenters. They believed that no human actions could change a person's predetermined fate and that the elect would know who they were through a personal revelation from God. Only the elect — or living saints — could serve as church members, which had everything to do with a person's status and standing in Puritan life. The concept of predestination was the genesis of their strict, pious lifestyle, work habits and dedication to worship. Although their actions could not alter their fates, they believed that living a religiously disciplined life would prove that they were among the elect.
A strict and literal interpretation of the Bible was the basis for the laws governing every Puritan colony. Modesty, humility and spiritual devotion were enshrined in the Puritan penal code. Church attendance was mandatory by law and prison or severe whippings could be handed out for sleeping through church. The first two capital offenses listed under the General Laws and Liberties of New Hampshire of 1680 were "idollitry" and "blasphemy," the worshiping of a false god or cursing God. Both were punishable by death. Although death was the punishment for a litany of religious and sexual offenses, including homosexuality, a child rebelling against or cursing his or her parents, bearing false witness, bestiality and witchcraft, Puritan law also provided protection for defendants, assuring the right to trial and bail that would become the basis of American law. Puritans did not allow members of other religions to live in their colonies, especially targeting Quakers for persecution and expulsion.
In an era when illiteracy was rampant, Puritans were some of the best-educated people in the colonies. They believed that educating their children was part of their religious obligation to God, and that hell would await them if they did not. Before mid-century, Massachusetts Puritans ruled that every village of 50 families or more must employ a teacher to educate their children in reading and writing. For villages of 100 families, a grammar school was required to be built and maintained. In 1636, the Puritans founded Harvard College as a school to train ministers, who were exclusively male. However, women were often literate and acted as the primary educators of children in the home and school.
- National Humanities Center: Puritanism and Predestination
- U.S. History: Massachusetts Bay — City Upon a Hill
- USHistory.com: The Puritans
- U.S.A. History: Puritan Laws and Character
- David Herring: The Puritans and Education
- All About History: The History of Harvard
- National Humanities Center: Religion, Women and the Family in Early America
- The Online Library of Liberty: General Laws and Liberties of New Hampshire - Donald S. Lutz, Colonial Origins of the American Constitution: A Documentary History
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