Friday, November 21, 2008

Puritan Belief and Political Ideaology

A Shining City: Puritan Pride on the American Revolution Time Line

Puritanism may be the most maligned religion in American History but conflict with the Anglican Church was a cause of the English Civil War and the American Revolution!

Puritan beliefs have been considered a principle cause of the English Civil War, and as such are a considerable mitigating factor in the American Revolution. The Puritan revolt in 1641 was framed by the resistance, politically, to the autocratic rule of the Stuart Kings. They were afraid that the “impurities” of the Anglican Church would, with the support of the absolute rule of King Charles I, bring back the religious influence and tyranny of the Roman Catholic Church.

The First Republican Revolution

The primary catalyst in the English Civil war was found in those persecuted meeting houses in East Anglia where the preponderance of Puritan belief had its greatest following and would send New World Puritan leaders like John Winthrop to New England. It was this religious fervor that contributed more men and financial support to this first Republican Revolution than any other population center in England. These Puritans believed that there was a right and a wrong way to do everything. It is this distinct black and white view of society that has given the very word “puritan” its universal meaning today as a synonym for repression, especially of the religious sort.

Do's and Don'ts

Interestingly enough, if you were to interview the average Puritan believer just prior to the American Revolution you would not find that they had a prideful self righteous attitude. Instead you would more likely encounter a very deep sense of self doubt as to whether one was sure they would truly enter the Kingdom of God. This doubt was so ingrained that there was an almost universally poor “religious self-image". Cotton Mather illustrated this in his "Essays to Do Good". He explained that doing well or even having good intentions was not good enough. One also had to realize that even innocuous things, which may only make a good work “less perfect than it might otherwise be”, could be “an unequivocal evil”. The reason for our modern misconception is because we focus on the “don’ts” of which they were sure, rather than the “do's” of which they were not. While they were never assured that their own practice of religion was ever pure enough, they were adamant about what kind of religion was not. Pure religion was not, in any way, shape or form, Roman Catholic!

The Inevitable Choice

This meant that several issues endemic to Puritan belief made the revolutionary break from Great Britain almost inevitable. They believed that one’s relationship with their creator could only be achieved by proving, with your way of life, that you were chosen by God. This heavenly choice was the only way to become truly free from sin and to experience the liberty of a clean conscience before God. They believed that any governmental influence that promoted another doctrine was tyranny. This was the reason for their fierce rejection of anything other than self-determined government.

The Security of Liberty

Naturally, these values ran over into their political and economic practices. These factors all but insured that the impetus for American Revolutionary reform would begin in the New England Colonies. It had taken these religiously insecure descendants of East Anglian Britons more than 150 years to achieve a semblance of security by establishing their own system and ideal of liberty and self-determination. King George III, in his own insecurity about the future military superiority and economic survival of the Empire, decided to limit those liberties. These Puritans, with their collective and ancient fear of tyranny would never submit!


Visible Saints, The History of a Puritan Idea by Edmund S. Morgan, 1965, Cornell University Press

Albion’s Seed, Four British Folkways in America by David Hackett Fischer, 1989, Oxford University Press

The Cousins' Wars: Religion, Politics, and the Triumph of Anglo-America by Kevin Phillips, 1999, Basic Books

Posted with written permission of the Author


Brad Hart said...

Interesting post. As for Puritanism being a root cause of the American Revolution, I have my doubts. After all, wasn't the American populace more caught up in the fires of the Great Awakening -- a movement that shunned Puritan doctrine -- prior to the Revolution's outbreak?

Roger Saunders said...

Actually, Puritanism was just one of many roots of the revolution. It was also in Puritan churches that some of the biggest religious (and revolutionary - small r) shifts were made in religious thought which made a definite contribution to radical political shifts of thinking as well. One may be able to argue about whether Theology or Philosophy was the basis for the American Revolution but one cannot argue about whether radical religious thoughts about liberty were a catalyst and one of the precursors to revolutionary thinking.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I buy that, Roger. Once the old theological order was overturned, surely the less important area of politics would soon be on the table.