Puritans religious beliefs

8 PURITAN RELIGIOUS BELIEFS: HISTORY OF A FANATIC

My father, a Puritan in truth, exhibited an unwavering faith and virtue that rendered him as solid as the New England soil. He was a man of profound integrity, his life a testament to the doctrine of hard work, the grace of simplicity, and the quiet dignity of service to God and community.

—Benjamin Franklin

In the shadows of religious history, the Puritans loom large, their beliefs casting an indelible imprint upon the formation of American societal ethos.

Yet, understanding the intricacies of their theology often proves a labyrinthine task.

This piece seeks to unravel the core tenets of Puritan beliefs, exploring their perspectives on predestination, humanity's innate corruption, individual interpretation of the Bible, and their vision for a godly society.

THE DOCTRINE OF PREDESTINATION

Hell
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In the year 1536, a revolutionary doctrine emerged in the religious realm, unsettling the established beliefs of mankind.

This doctrine was none other than Predestination, introduced by the fervent theologian, John Calvin.

Anchored in the bedrock of Christianity, it heralded the idea that the entire spectrum of human events, right from salvation to damnation, had already been decreed by an omnipotent God.

Election, within this divine theater, is but God's act of choosing some for salvation.

Yet, this act is no mere lottery, nor is it influenced by earthly virtues or deeds.

The subjects of this selection are not the noble or the righteous—they are simply those who, by some inscrutable divine logic, have been deemed fit to receive God's grace.

A notable instance is of the Puritan leader, William Bradford, who led the Mayflower pilgrims to the New World in 1620.

Bradford, a staunch believer in the doctrine of predestination, was convinced that his survival in the harsh new land was a testament to his being among God's elect.

The Divine Dice of Salvation and Damnation

As for the rest, the non-elect, they face an irrevocable damnation, not as a consequence of their sins, but as a result of the divine's inscrutable will.

It's a grim picture, but Calvin and his followers saw it as a natural extension of God's supreme authority.

Jonathan Edwards, the eminent Puritan minister and preacher of the Great Awakening in the mid-1700s, underscored this in his famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."

Edwards depicted God as holding the damned over the pit of hell, a stark reminder of man's utter dependence on divine mercy.

The Supremacy of the Divine

This doctrine ultimately brings into sharp focus the absolute sovereignty of God, the transcendental puppeteer in control of every mortal's fate.

The very essence of predestination upends human pride and self-reliance, serving as a humbling reminder of mankind's utter reliance on divine benevolence.

Benjamin Franklin, although not a strict Puritan, yet influenced by his Puritan upbringing, would later write in his famous almanac, "God helps them that help themselves," implying a need for action, yet subtly acknowledging the ultimate dependence on divine aid.

THE NOTION OF TOTAL DEPRAVITY

Adam and Eve
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In the early years of the 17th century, the Puritans, a group of English Protestants, introduced an unsettling idea into the realm of religious thought—the doctrine of Total Depravity.

Rooted in the belief of original sin, inherited from Adam and Eve's transgression in the Garden of Eden, this doctrine presented a bleak picture of the human condition.

Every facet of human nature—thoughts, desires, actions—was seen as irreparably stained by sin, gravitating innately towards evil.

John Owen

The renowned theologian, John Owen, one of the most significant figures in English Puritanism, ardently supported this doctrine.

In his seminal works in the mid-1600s, he described human nature as a 'darkened chaos', a 'spiritual abyss', incapable of choosing good over evil or attaining righteousness independently.

For Owen, mankind was in a state of desperate need, reliant entirely on divine intervention for salvation.

Mankind's Path to Redemption

Total Depravity posited a path to redemption that was steeped in humility and repentance.

It envisioned a humbled mankind, keenly aware of its sinful nature, on bended knee before the divine, imploring forgiveness.

This doctrine also emphasized the necessity for spiritual transformation.

But it came with a twist—it could not be attained through mere human effort.

Instead, it was dependent on God's providence, an outpouring of His grace that illuminated the dark recesses of the human soul, stirring it towards righteousness.

Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards, the influential Puritan minister, embodied this doctrine in his life and preaching during the Great Awakening in the mid-1700s.

His fiery sermons painted vivid pictures of human corruption and God's wrath, warning his listeners of their impending doom unless they sought God's grace.

He exemplified the doctrine's emphasis on repentance, humility before God, and the need for divine intervention to affect spiritual transformation.

THE BIBLE AS THE SOLE SOURCE OF RELIGIOUS AUTHORITY

puritan with a bible
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The Puritans proclaimed the Bible as the unrivaled authority in religious matters, a beacon illuminating the path to righteousness and salvation.

To the Puritans, reading the Bible was not a ritualistic duty but an intimate journey of discovery.

It was to be taken literally, read personally, and its wisdom applied directly in daily life.

The role of the clergy was not to dictate religious beliefs but to guide individuals in their own exploration of the scriptures.

This view was most strikingly expressed by William Tyndale, a key figure in the Reformation who translated the Bible into English in the 1520s.

He declared, "I defy the Pope and all his laws.

If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the scripture than thou doest."

A Rejection of Ecclesiastical Authority

This doctrine was a sharp rebuke to the Catholic Church's reliance on tradition, rituals, and the authority of the Pope.

Puritans believed that these practices were a distortion of the original teachings of Christianity, clouding the purity of the faith.

Instead, they insisted that the onus of understanding and interpreting faith lay squarely on the individual.

This radical shift towards individual responsibility marked a decisive break from the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church, a transition that has shaped Protestant Christianity ever since.

Shaping the Puritan Way of Life

The personal interpretation of the Bible didn't merely influence Puritan beliefs—it formed the foundation of their everyday life.

From their moral code to societal norms, every aspect of their existence was rooted in their understanding of the scripture.

John Winthrop, a leading figure among the Massachusetts Bay Puritans in the 1630s, underlined this belief in his famous sermon, "A Model of Christian Charity."

He called for a society built upon the laws of God, as revealed through scripture, a "city upon a hill" that would set a godly example for the world.

LIVING A PIOUS AND HOLY LIFE MEANING

the simple life of a puritan
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In the austere landscape of 17th-century England, the Puritans began carving out a niche for themselves.

Their vision was both revolutionary and deeply conservative—to lead a righteous and devout life as the most tangible evidence of divine election.

Living in a manner that aligned with the teachings of the Bible was, to them, the most profound expression of faith.

Rules of the Righteous

The specifics of this righteous life were clear and demanding:

  • A strict adherence to biblical morality that mandated honesty, humility, and charity.
  • Active participation in church activities, which served both as a place for communal worship and a platform for social interaction.
  • Frequent prayer, both in the private confines of their homes and in the public sphere of the church, seen as a direct line of communication with the divine.
  • And a resolute commitment to avoid sinful behavior, steering clear of everything from idle gossip to public drunkenness.

John Bunyan

John Bunyan, a popular Puritan preacher and author of 'The Pilgrim's Progress,' was an embodiment of these ideals.

From the mid-1660s, he dedicated his life to the service of God, through preaching, writing, and living in accordance with his understanding of the Bible.

His life was a testament to the power of personal faith and the transformative potential of a life lived in service to God.

The Call of the Divine

The Puritans believed in a divine 'calling,' a mission assigned to each person by God.

This calling was not limited to religious vocations but extended to all areas of life—be it their trade, their family, or their contributions to the community.

Thomas Vincent

In the latter half of the 17th century, Thomas Vincent, a Puritan minister during the Great Fire of London and the Great Plague, exemplified the concept of a divine calling.

His relentless efforts to aid and comfort his plague-ravaged parishioners even as the disease ravaged the city stood as a testament to his conviction of his divine calling.

Visible Saints

Living a pious life was also seen as a way to become a 'visible saint,' a model of virtuous living within the community.

This wasn't merely a status symbol but a profound responsibility—to live in a way that brought glory to God and served as an example to others.

Thus, the Puritan's path of righteousness was not merely a journey towards personal salvation.

It was a collective endeavor, a beacon for the community, leading all towards a life of piety and devotion, in the hope of achieving a divine connection.

IMPORTANCE OF COVENANT THEOLOGY

moses
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In the midst of the religious turmoil of the 16th and 17th centuries, a theological framework emerged, central to the Puritan way of life.

Known as Covenant Theology, it underscored the importance of a unique and profound relationship between God and humanity.

The Covenants of God

The doctrine proposes that God, in his infinite wisdom, has established a succession of covenants or contracts with mankind.

This sequence begins in the verdant expanse of the Garden of Eden with Adam and culminates in the New Covenant instituted by Jesus Christ, ushering a new age of grace.

Covenant Theology goes beyond merely examining the promises of God—it also draws attention to the obligations it places on mankind. In return for divine blessings, humanity has its own set of duties to uphold, ensuring a balanced, reciprocal relationship.

John Owen & Thomas Goodwin

Prominent Puritan theologians such as John Owen and Thomas Goodwin in the 17th century devoted much of their work to elucidating the principles of Covenant Theology.

Owen's 'The Death of Death in the Death of Christ' (1647) and Goodwin's 'The Covenant of Grace' (1668) are critical expositions that delve into the theological intricacies of divine covenants, illuminating its significance to Puritan life.

The understanding of God's grace and divine selection, as well as the individual's responsibility to lead a virtuous life, was made accessible through the prism of Covenant Theology.

It offered a path to decipher the divine will and comprehend the human role within it.

The influence of Covenant Theology was not limited to abstract theological discourse—it shaped numerous aspects of Puritan beliefs and practices.

It underscored the value of leading a pious life, elevated the Bible's centrality, and provided a theological basis for their rejection of Catholic traditions and rituals.

THE REJECTION OF CATHOLICISM & ITS RITUALS

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In the vast tapestry of Christian belief systems, Puritans marked their place as dissenters of Catholicism, viewing it as a corrupted and dogmatic rendition of Christianity.

Their critique, emerging prominently during the tumultuous Reformation period in the 16th century, was largely directed towards the Catholic Church's perceived deviation from pure, Biblical teaching.

The Stumbling Block of Tradition

The Puritans harbored a conviction that the Catholic Church had strayed perilously away from the Word of God, becoming obsessively entangled in elaborate rituals, pompous ceremonies, and man-made tradition.

This was a path they perceived as a dangerous divergence from the simplicity of the early Christian church.

Biblical Authority vs Papal Authority

This dissent was deeply rooted in their steadfast belief in the Bible as the supreme religious authority.

Their doctrine dismissed the Catholic emphasis on Papal authority, bringing the interpretation of scripture back to the individual.

Figures like William Tyndale, a key figure in the Protestant Reformation and the first to translate the Bible into English directly from Hebrew and Greek texts, played a vital role in making the scripture accessible to every individual.

The Puritan critique extended to various Catholic practices and dogmas.

The veneration of saints and use of religious icons were seen as idolatrous distractions from the worship of God.

Papal authority was rejected as an affront to the priesthood of all believers.

The concept of purgatory was dismissed as unbiblical, adding a layer of superstition and fear to the believer's relationship with God.

THE IDEA OF "VISIBLE SAINTS" WITHIN THE CHURCH

puritans at church
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In the strict and godly world of the Puritans, only those who exhibited the signs of divine grace in their lives and committed themselves to pious living were considered to be "visible saints".

This notion was born out of their understanding of the early Christian communities, where individuals were recognised for their exceptional devotion and moral virtue.

An External Testimony Of Faith

In contrast to the widespread ecclesiastical practice of the time, Puritan church membership was not determined by baptism or any external ritual.

Instead, it was based on the personal faith of an individual and the visible evidence of this faith in daily life.

An account from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century, for instance, records Governor John Winthrop speaking of his colonists as "a city upon a hill" because they were striving to live as visible saints, their actions a testament to their profound faith.

A Holy Litmus Test

The Puritan concept of "visible saints" was a litmus test of genuine Christian faith.

It underscored the value they placed on personal holiness and the manifestation of one's faith through action.

Figures like Anne Bradstreet, a notable Puritan poet, often wrote of the struggles of living up to this high moral standard.

Purging the Church of Unworthiness

This belief was a tool for maintaining the sanctity and purity of the church. It ensured that those who professed to be followers of Christ were indeed living according to His teachings.

A visible saint was not just a believer, but a role model and an embodiment of the Christian life.

As a result, Puritans of the 16th and 17th centuries such as John Cotton and Thomas Hooker worked tirelessly to build a community that reflected these values.

SIGNIFICANCE OF THE "CITY UPON A HILL"

city upon a hill
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The image of a "city upon a hill" embodies the Puritan conviction of a divine commission to erect a godly society that would stand as a luminous beacon of righteousness to the world.

This metaphor draws its potency from the Biblical phrase of being a "light unto the nations," rooting the Puritans in a narrative that placed them at the center of God's plan for the salvation of humanity.

Infusing Society with Biblical Values

At the heart of this metaphor lay the Puritan objective of constructing a society anchored in biblical values.

With the aim of inspiring the rest of the world, they sought to erect a moral society, bound by biblical principles.

Key dates like 1630, when Governor John Winthrop famously referenced the metaphor in a sermon aboard the ship Arbella en route to Massachusetts, highlight the historical moments when this belief visibly shaped their actions.

Churches and Schools

Integral to the realization of this "city upon a hill" was the establishment of churches and schools.

Men like Thomas Hooker, a prominent Puritan colonial leader, worked tirelessly towards this end.

The founding of Harvard College in 1636 is a testament to their dedication to education and its role in shaping a virtuous citizenry.

A Legal Code Mirroring the Bible

The Puritans aimed to mold a society whose laws and institutions echoed the biblical ethos.

The drafting of The Body of Liberties in 1641, a seminal legal code in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, offers a glimpse into their commitment to the fusion of religious belief and civic duty.

Forging a Moral and Just Society

In striving to bring this "city upon a hill" to life, the Puritans held an unflinching commitment to creating a moral and just society.

They pursued this through the development of community rules and regulations, the enforcement of ethical conduct, and a dedication to personal piety and community responsibility.

The Echoes of the City

This aspiration to create a "city upon a hill" was a cornerstone of Puritan belief, a guiding force in their endeavors to establish a new society in the New World.

It underpinned their societal structure, informed their ethical systems, and shaped their religious practice.

The legacy of this vision can still be traced in the American ethos today, a testament to the enduring impact of their puritan religious beliefs.

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