In the 16th century, the Protestant Church of England broke away from the Roman Catholic Church. But some devout Protestants believed insidious Catholic vestiges lurked in the new church. These radicals sought a direct, personal connection to God: they studied the Bible and purged anything not found there. They became the Puritans.
Persecuted by the dominant Church of England and believing themselves on the verge of the millennium—the apocalyptic battle of good and evil the book of Revelation prophesies and a 1618 comet seemed to presage—Puritans set sail for the new world.
Over the 1630s, an exodus of about 20,000 English Puritans migrated to New England. In their eyes, their scrappy settlements, clustered around the meeting house, stood as fortresses of Godly life.
In 1630, as Puritans aboard the ship Arbella prepared to arrive in Massachusetts Bay Colony, future governor John Winthrop delivered his sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity.” Now best known as the “city upon a hill” speech, it warns the Pilgrims to live as paragons, as “the eyes of all people are upon us.” But, if we look beyond the famous line, in the following excerpt, we see Winthrop exalt the Puritans’ covenant, or contract, with God—and urge them to honor not just what they owe God but what they owe each other:
Thus stands the cause between God and us. We are entered into covenant with Him for this work. We have taken out a commission. The Lord hath given us leave to draw our own articles. We have professed to enterprise these and those accounts, upon these and those ends. We have hereupon besought Him of favor and blessing. Now if the Lord shall please to hear us, and bring us in peace to the place we desire, then hath He ratified this covenant and sealed our commission, and will expect a strict performance of the articles contained in it; but if we shall neglect the observation of these articles which are the ends we have propounded, and, dissembling with our God, shall fall to embrace this present world and prosecute our carnal intentions, seeking great things for ourselves and our posterity, the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us, and be revenged of such a people, and make us know the price of the breach of such a covenant.
Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meek- ness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body.
—John Winthrop, 1630
Winthrop describes the congregation as “knit together, in this work, as one man” and “as members of the same body.” If a single Puritan errs, he does not just condemn himself; he reneges on his community’s promise to God. All will “know the price of the breach of such a covenant.”
Puritans believed in predestination: the idea that God has already determined the minority of people whom he will save and nothing can be done to win salvation. The elect, called living saints, would naturally conduct a Godly life. Puritans lived in paranoid comparison to their peers, inspecting each other for signs of God’s grace or damnation.
But in the ideal Puritan congregation, fellow saints would hold each other up and uphold their covenant together. This paradox—of individual salvation and deep, contractual interdependence—is just as central to Puritan life as the meeting house.
Daily Life Under the Covenant
While entrepreneurial single men ventured to colonial Virginia, most Massachusetts colonists arrived as families. The Puritans saw the patriarchal family structure as a sturdy safeguard against the American wilderness and households as “little commonwealths” on which the larger state depended. A good wife was her husband’s “helpmeet”: she cared for the home and their children and served as his deputy, trading and bartering in town. Puritan families relied on their neighbors for various goods and resources; in these symbiotic networks, relationships—assured by a wife’s good reputation—were as essential as food or fire wood.
Puritans gladly received children but saw them as stained with original sin from birth. Babies were baptized at the local meeting house within their first week of life and began religious education exigently; literacy was expected for Bible study. Anne Bradstreet, a Puritan poet, described her girlhood self as:
Stained from birth with Adam’s sinful fact,
Thence I begin to sin as soon as act:
A perverse will, a love to what’s forbid,
A serpent’s sting in pleasing face lay hid:
A lying tongue as soon as it could speak
Bradstreet concludes her poem with grateful devotion to all her elders for protecting her from herself. The entire Puritan congregation instructed and cared for all children, not just one’s own; children addressed any older woman as mother or gammar (grandma), in deference to their cooperative parenting.
Puritan morality welcomed sex within marriage but forbid both fornication—sex between unmarried adults—and adultery—sex between a married woman and a man, regardless of his marital status. Carnal knowledge “hardened” participants—blunting their capacity to contribute to civic or spiritual life. Unsanctioned sexuality endangered both the paramours and their society: one indiscretion contaminated the collective purity. When the Reverend Thomas Shepard recommended whipping as a punishment for fornication in 1640, he advised it would “do the man as much good & cleare up the repute & honor of the commonwealth,” remedying both the individual and the whole.
In England, ecclesiastical courts tried adulterers, but the colonial government made adultery a matter of state, demonstrating their belief that adultery undermined public safety, not just personal virtue. Courts routinely sentenced adulterers to receive 40 lashes and stand in public shame on a ladder by the gallows, while some courts added the scarlet A to that punishment.
Unlike the severe black-and-white uniform familiar from Thanksgiving decorations, historical Puritan clothing came in a variety of colors and textiles. Puritans even sometimes indulged in embellishments like ruffles, exaggerated sleeves or intricate embroidery—despite attempts to regulate such flamboyant dress. Officials discouraged ostentation as wasteful, prideful and particularly inappropriate for lower social classes. In 1651, magistrates restricted wearing costly fabrics, like lace or silk, to wealthy Puritans with assets of £200 or more; they wrote a law: “to declare our utter detestation and dislike, that men or women of mean condition, should take upon them the garb of gentlemen, by wearing gold or silver lace, or buttons, or points at their knees, or walk in great boots; or women of the same rank to wear silk or...hoods, or scarfs.”
- Molly FitzMaurice