Who names their religion after an insult? The Puritans might have. Some historians believe that the first time the word “puritan” came into speech, it was used to taunt Anglican worshipers for their beliefs. These people considered themselves reformers or separatists. They wished to purify the Church of England from corruptions they viewed as sins, or they wished to leave the church and start their own congregation of true believers.
Typical Puritan beliefs included predestination, an emphasis on plain worship spaces and a strict adherence to the Ten Commandments.
The History of the Puritans
The Puritans were English Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries who disagreed with some of the doctrines of the Anglican Church. They thought of themselves as separatists or reformers. Either way, their extreme views made many people in England hostile toward them.
Soon, these Anglican separatists set out on their own for the New World. One group went to Plymouth Rock, and the other went on to form the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The group who settled in Plymouth Rock believed that true Christians should separate themselves from anyone they considered the nonbelievers, including people who also belonged to the church who did not conform to Puritan ideals.
The group that settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony wanted to reform the Anglican Church from within, not establish a church on their own. The group in Massachusetts Bay held that individual membership in a church should be voluntary, so they created the idea of the “compact.” A compact was a voluntary, solemn agreement between believers. Such agreements were used to form organizations for any purpose – social, political, ecclesiastical or otherwise – in the colony.
What Were Puritan Beliefs?
Overall, Puritans held many of the same beliefs as their Anglican Christian counterparts. These beliefs are recognizable to most Christians today. They believed in one God, God the Almighty. They believed in the Trinity: that the one God had three parts: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. They also believed that Jesus was the son of God, born on earth as a human to die for the sins of believers. However, Puritan beliefs differed in some major ways from both the beliefs of the Anglican Church and the beliefs of modern-day congregations.
One of these beliefs was the Calvinist principle of predestination. The term “predestination” means that believers are preordained or chosen to be among the elect of God before they were born. In other words, Puritans believed that an individual’s fate was decided before he had the ability to choose. Because they believed that God’s chosen people are already in the church, they did not do much proselytizing and were not the type to send missionaries to far-off places. The other side to predestination is that Puritans believed there was nothing an individual could do to be saved. They could participate in the sacraments and follow God’s law, but only God could choose who went to heaven or who deserved eternal damnation.
Another Puritan belief involved how an individual could be saved. Not only did Puritans believe that everything regarding salvation was in God’s hands, but they also believed that those God chose to be saved would find God’s call irresistible. Believers would then be compelled to live by God’s law by doing good works and generally being good members of the church and society. However, Puritans were quick to clarify that, contrary to Catholic doctrine at the time, it was not a person’s goodness that saved him. Their belief was more the opposite: The chosen elect of God did good works because God had already saved them.
Puritan beliefs also emphasized an adherence to rules. They took after the teachings of St. Augustine, who interpreted the Bible as requiring abstinence from believers. One verse they pointed to in particular was Romans 8:12-14: “The night is far spent, the day is at hand; not in carousing and drunkenness, not in debauchery and lust, not in strife and jealousy. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof.”
The Covenants With God
The Puritan code of ethics had a high standing in everyday life at Plymouth Rock and the Massachusetts Bay Colony. While it may seem like Puritans saw good behavior as their side of the bargain for salvation, that is a much more modern view. The belief that God would compel the faithful to behave themselves according to a strict code strongly influenced Puritan ideals.
These Puritan ideals were expressed in covenants. One such covenant was the Covenant of Works, a historical covenant that God made with Adam. According to Puritan teachings, God promised Adam, Eve and all of their children eternal life if they obeyed the rules he set out for them. When they broke the rules or one rule in particular – eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil – Adam and Eve broke the covenant. God wouldn’t make a new covenant with man until later in Genesis when he created the Covenant of Grace with Abraham.
The Covenant of Grace is the origin of the Puritan code of ethics. According to this covenant, the payment for sin is death and eternal damnation. In the Puritan gospel, God still chooses who he wants to save, but believers still had to hold up their side of the contract by demonstrating strong acts of faith. The idea of the Covenant of Grace, however, went against many other Puritan teachings, especially for Puritan leaders who wanted to stick to strict Calvinism. Eighteenth-century theologian Jonathan Edwards, in particular, rejected the Covenant of Grace as being against Puritan ideals.
Other Puritan reverends taught the Covenant of Redemption, which they presumed existed before the Covenant of Grace. The Covenant of Redemption said that Christ, who existed before he was born as a man, chose to be born on earth so that he could die to save the elect from God’s wrath by paying the price for their sins himself.
What Was the Puritan Code of Ethics?
For Puritans, their strong beliefs in God and doctrine translated into a strict adherence to rules on earth. The foundation for most of these rules was the Ten Commandments, which are found in the Bible in both Exodus and Deuteronomy.
1. You shall have no other gods before Me.
Puritans believed that there was only one God. To them, worshiping anything or anyone else was considered idolatry.
2. You shall make no idols.
Making an idol of something means elevating it above its usual worth, perhaps to the point where it’s all you think about. If you only think about money, then you have made money your idol.
This commandment came up more frequently in Puritan life than you might think. Puritans eschewed ornamentation, believing that even their churches should be plain so that worshipers could focus on God. People seen adding too much elaboration to their outfits or even suggesting that there should be more candles on a church altar might find themselves accused of idolatrousness.
3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
Although many people think that saying “God” is taking the Lord’s name in vain, that’s not true, because “God” is not God’s name. God the father is referred to by many names in the Bible, but most commonly, it’s transliterated in the Hebrew Bible as "YHW" or "YHWH" and pronounced "Yahweh." The Hebrews were so reverential toward the name that they were even careful of writing it out completely. For the Puritans, saying this name in vain would be blasphemy.
4. Keep the Sabbath day holy.
Puritans believed that everyone had to go to church on Sundays, but some went as far as to prohibit any kind of work or labor on the Sabbath.
5. Honor your father and your mother.
Honoring your father and your mother went a step beyond respecting them, at least for Puritans. In those days, fathers were the head of the household. Wives and children weren’t just under the dominion of Puritan fathers – they were considered property. Any children who didn’t obey orders from their father were considered disobedient or possibly influenced by the devil. That is where the phrase “to beat the devil” out of someone comes from. Puritan parents wishing to correct a misbehaving child used corporal punishment, including caning or whipping with a switch.
6. You shall not murder.
Murder has been against the law in most cultures and time periods. For Puritans, only God put someone on earth, so only God could take him out of it. According to Puritan thinking, God often extended this power to his servants on earth. Magistrates and judges could order the death of criminals, and executioners could carry out the orders without their job being considered a sin.
7. You shall not commit adultery.
Committing adultery is the act of sleeping with someone other than your spouse. The Puritans had strict codes of sexually appropriate behavior. That is why “Puritan” is often used as a pejorative and a synonym for prude. Puritan women had to follow rules set by their husbands. Being seen in public with another man could get a Puritan woman in trouble. Real adultery that involved sex, what the Puritans might call “fornication,” was punishable by law and could have resulted in sentences ranging from banishment, public humiliation or death.
8. You shall not steal.
Just like in most other cultures throughout time, stealing was forbidden. However, of the other commandments, this was one of the most easily rectified. Puritans were no strangers to the courthouse. If they believed that a neighbor had done them wrong or taking something of theirs, they could bring a lawsuit against them. Much like small claims court today, courts in Puritan times would try to find out who was at fault and then rectify the problem. This often meant that the offending party would pay the person they had wronged for what was stolen if the item itself couldn’t be returned.
9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
“To bear false witness” is to lie. Lying carried a heavy burden for Puritans, whose beliefs and civic structure relied heavily on covenants and agreements. If Puritans lied, it could tarnish their name and their standing in the colony. Lying also usually covered up for other misdeeds.
10. You shall not covet.
Coveting is wanting something that isn’t yours. While the act of desiring itself might not sound so wrong, it can lead to other sins. Coveting your neighbor’s wife might lead to adultery. Coveting your neighbor’s candles might lead to theft. Coveting riches could lead to idolatrousness. Even though no one could know if you were coveting something, God would, and Puritans always answered to the higher power.
Other Puritan rules stemmed from these and from laws developed by colony magistrates to keep order. Puritans tried to abide by the rules because when they sinned, they believed they were going against God, and their eternal souls were at stake.
Rebecca Renner is a teacher and college professor from Florida. She loves teaching about literature, and she writes about books for Book Riot, Real Simple, Electric Literature and more.