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Puritans: A Time of Change

A Time of Change
                               HIST 602 Midterm
Stacy Tyo
Oct 2013

 The Puritan beliefs were one of many religious based prompts of the American Revolution and a turning point for the change in Puritan ideals. The Puritans firm old fashioned beliefs in hard work and self denial (Goodbeer, 2005) made them unapproachable to many as the turmoil of the times weighed on the colonists.  The Puritan belief was dwindling by the mid 1600s.  Many things contributed to this: a life filled with strict by-the-bible living, and constant sessions of self doubt of their worthiness to their God.  The deaths of Puritan leaders, political isolation from other members of their church in England, and the rise of business were also factors.  This put a strain on the community as a whole and finally led to the end of Puritan beliefs in New England. Many colonists maintained a longing for a fuller sense of freedom from and the Puritans passiveness for retaliation against England and their handling of the witch trials did not appeal to the colonists over time.  The Puritans added fuel to a fire that was already burning.  The American Revolution was grouped in a series of events that led to a significant break in the Puritan heritage.
            Puritans were people determined to change the church. To do this the Puritans believed they must eliminate long standing church practices such as bowing at the name of Jesus and making the sign of the cross at a baptism. They did away with celebrating Christmas and Easter (Carp, Defiance of the Patriots). They also believed that clergy should have an extensive education and be able to marry (Gaustad, 2005).  Puritans felt that Bishops were not Pastors and extradition from the church should be based on spiritual grounds not politics (Gaustad, 2005). Puritans were also Calvinists (believed in predestination) and especially attracted England’s economically depressed people.
The Puritans left England seeking to make changes freely and recruit followers. After many hardships during their first few years in the colonies the Puritan survivors finally became successful. Starting in 1630 John Winthrop led thirty thousand Puritans to settle in the Massachusetts Bay Colony which later became Boston (Gaustad, 2005).  Winthrop and most of the other Puritans had experienced a religious conversion. With their conversion they were able to become church members, vote, and own property. Their form of government had elected leaders such as Winthrop who made decisions with the advice of magistrates and the clergy. The Puritan system of congregational church government did lead way to democracy in political government.  Although among the Puritans it was understood that the entire purpose of government was to enforce God’s lawsPeople who disobeyed the authority of the Puritan clergy in Massachusetts Bay were subject to punishments such as; fines, floggings, banishment and death. 
By 1660 Puritans were seeing a continuing decline of commitment within the congregations. Many of the people emigrating from England were not joining churches.  Boston and many other communities were becoming more secular and the people were more materialistic.  Puritan leaders were able to hold the reigns of peace steady until the English crown was no longer worn by a Puritan. One of the biggest blows to long standing church members was the decision to revoke the Massachusetts Bay Charter which put all land being held by the colonists under the control of the King (  In 1686 the King appointed a royal governor of Massachusetts. This angered the Puritans because the newly appointed governor authorized religious toleration for all Protestant churches, including the hated Quakers, not just the Puritan congregational churches (Carp, 2010).  The governor brought with him Anglican clergy and many members of the Church of England.  The loss of the Charter and the arrival of a new governor, they had not elected, brought Puritan control of the region to an end. In 1689 when news arrived of a new King of England, the Puritan leaders arrested the governor and sent him to England where he was released.  For a short time it appeared that the leadership was again in the hands of the Puritans. Although it was not long before another royal governor would arrive in New England and the Puritans were again weakening in strength and numbers.
There was yet another episode in the downfall of the Puritan way and that was the witchcraft trials and executions in the summer of 1692 (Goodbeer, 2005).  Throughout the history of the colony there had regularly been accusations of witchcraft but these cases were usually handled quietly and effectively. Life for the Puritans was a struggle between God and Satan. This belief made Puritans conscious of supernatural forces in their everyday lives. If a thunderbolt struck a church it was interpreted as a sign from the devil. If diseases killed the Indians this was seen as the will of God (Goodbeer, 2005). The Puritan clergy did not discourage this belief in the presence of Satan and evil spirits because they were influenced by the supernatural.  Satan was believed to function by taking possession of individuals. Once that had happened they were called witches. Witches supposedly tormented and weakened the good intentions of the faithful. Puritan leaders attempted get rid of witchcraft at its very first signs but were not always successful. The Salem witchcraft trials were put in place to properly punish people for using witchcraft (Goodbeer, 2005).    These trials were the result of unsettled social and religious conditions in Massachusetts as the colony was rapidly evolving.  During the Salem witchcraft trials most of those accused as witches were property owning women ( The Salem “witch hunt” in 1692 was opposed by the more responsible members of the clergy.  Even with some opposition if they failed to drive Satan out of an alleged witch the witch was hanged.  The clergy would conduct an investigation and then usually send the accused to be examined by another minister in another parish. During this time the accusers often reconsidered their accusations that often came from personal or financial conflicts. With a small number of exceptions charges were usually dropped. In the case witchcraft in Salem the conflicts among neighbors and families, economic and political disputes, anxiety among the young people, gender conflicts, and a growing class division with the clergy and leading figures on one side and the poor on the other all fed into the drama. The many problems of the previous two decades made for an uneasy atmosphere that generated fear and paranoia. During the Salem witch trials magistrates had excluded the clergy who had always handled witchcraft charges from participating in the investigation. In the three years that followed families of the victims sued officials and won their cases and nearly all soon recognized what a catastrophe had occurred (Goodbeer, 2005). Several public officials made public apologies. But by 1695, there was little left of the Puritan society.
The American Revolution was a pot readying to boil over.  There were many factors in the break from the Puritan heritage in addition to the American Revolution.  The Puritans left England only to find more hardships in the New World.  While they had their glory days they were short lived. The many events the Puritans endured; changing of rule in England, opposition to their core beliefs, the witch trials and finally the power of the ever changing New World overtook the Puritans. Although they were ready to fight they were forced to abandon much of their heritage.


(n.d.). Retrieved from
(n.d.). Retrieved from
Carp, B. (2010). Defiance of the Patriots. Yale University Press.
Gaustad, E. (2005). Roger Williams. New York: Oxford Press.
Goodbeer, R. (2005). Escaping Salem. New York: Oxford University Press.

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