Popular Misconceptions Concerning Puritan Theology and Church Life
It remains important to understand that those who considered themselves “Puritan” were not of one certain monolithic theological outlook nor any specific ecclesiological outlook. In other words, Puritanism was less of a denominational perspective and more of a prevalent movement that embodied a central ideological objective. The objective to rid Anglicanism of the things considered “indifferent.”
Within certain Protestant circles, many may claim that “If Puritanism was still around today, I’d be a good Puritan!” Probably not. It is important for us to note that Puritanism was not synonymous with any of the denominational sects that we are familiar with today.
It solely rested upon a shared conviction for reform within the Anglican Church. Even at the height of Puritanism’s reign in the American Colonies, distinctly “Puritan” congregations did not exist. Those with Puritan convictions might find themselves attending a church that shared their convictions. Yet, none of these churches were marketed as distinctly Puritan.
Puritanism and Reformed Theology
The theology of the Reformation reigned supreme in the hearts of most Puritans. Puritans were Calvinists who believed that humanity was sinful from birth, that God unconditionally elected sinners for salvation, that Christ was sent by the Father to atone for the sins of those whom he unconditionally elected, that humanity could not resist God’s irresistible call to salvation, and that those whom God had chosen were unable to fall from grace.
Due to their staunch belief regarding the absolute sovereignty of God, Puritans were wholly convicted of the belief that He should be properly worshiped as the Sovereign King. God was not in any way to be treated as puny, weak, or lacking in any necessity. These Puritans held firm to their confidence that proper adoration of God begins with understanding humanity’s true nature of fallenness and God’s sovereign mercy to save.
In fact, the Puritanistic idea of God’s sovereignty would not only exhibit itself in the way that the Reformed understood salvation but also in everyday life. If God was truly omniscient and omnipotent, how could his sovereignty be limited just to the order of salvation? Surely these attributes were not constrained to one sphere of life. As a result of this, Puritans saw God’s reign over humanity as providential.
Puritans believed God’s providential role in everyday life also hinged upon His desire to actively discipline his people. If any one person were to act out of step with the convent of grace, they were to be actively punished for their theological wrongdoing. Ironically, such a belief resembled aspects of the Eastern philosophy of karma.
The Historical Implications of Puritan Theology
Mary Dyer, a young woman living in Boston during the 1630s, found comfort in attending Anne Hutchinson’s Sunday meetings. Although, Hutchinson’s reputation in Massachusetts Bay was not viewed in a positive light. Puritans saw Hutchinson’s teachings to be heretical and out of step with biblical authority. Thus, when Dyer gave birth to a deformed baby, prominent Puritan figures devised a plan to take a stab at her.
Her minister, the Reverend Joseph Wilson, vehemently stated that
We have been visited of late by the admonition of the Lord. One Mary Dyer of our midst, who has lately become addicted to heresy, has produced not a woman child but a monster. God himself has intervened and pointed his finger at this woman at the height of her sinful opinions.
Although quite an extreme example, the reaction of Wilson perfectly portrays how most Puritans understood God’s providence in discipline to play out in everyday life. God was not only active in the lives of the regenerate, but He also lacked passiveness when it came to those who defiled His name.
This situation is fairly ironic, for the institution that Puritanism fostered, resembled aspects of Catholicism — the very system that Puritans so inspiredly toiled to abolish. Due to their Calvinistic tendencies, the Puritans had formulated a God who acted sovereignly and providentially against those who rejected the conventional belief of their day. A conviction that greatly resembled the tyranny present within Medieval Catholicism.
The Catholic Tendencies of Puritanism
Historian Mark Noll, when commenting on the ironic implications of Puritan theology, states that
The Reformed attacked Catholic dogma, but they reasserted a Catholic kind of Christendom by insisting that God’s rule should encompass everything… the Reformed of every rank in society were expected to function as theologians since social, political, economic, and artistic spheres of life were also God’s concern.
In this way, the Reformed were more medieval than most would have expected. Most Colonial Massachusettsan’s saw God’s governance in the form of one organic unity. It was through this “organic unity” that God instituted his providential control. God’s reign was not separated into the temporal and the spiritual. Rather, both were one.
Similar to the quasi-omnipotent medieval reign of the Catholic church, nothing was to escape God’s sphere of influence. The theological “scope of government” that Puritanism fostered was all-encompassing in its control of humanity. In modern political terms, Puritanism promoted big government. Likewise, scholars have argued that big government was the exact trend that influenced the advent of the Protestant Reformation.
The theological aspects of Puritanism can be most aptly characterized as a combination of personal acceptance of faith and shared societal and ecclesiastical unity. This shared unity ironically formalized itself as something more Catholic than Protestant. Sixteenth-century Reformers harked back to ancient Christendom by emphasizing the importance of freedom of conscience in determining religious matters. Yet, Puritanism deviated from traditional Reformation theology when inhabitants of Massachusetts Bay asserted the need for a theologically-unified political system.
Mark Noll and various church history scholars rally behind one predominant definition of Puritan theology,
[Many] characterize Puritanism as a religious movement combining medieval commitments to the unity of society with Reformed Protestant views of personal salvation, that is, Calvin’s soteriology with Erasmus’s Christendom.
Puritanism fostered quite a peculiar conjunction of theological distinctions. When we wholly subjugate ourselves to the Reformed aspects of Puritan belief, we fail to understand the role that Catholicism played in its formation. In the following edition of this series, we will delve into how the theological implications of Puritanism defined the political and sociological structures within the Massachusetts Bay Colony.