The earliest English settlers of New England were called “Puritans,” a label coined and hurled at them derisively by their enemies. The label stuck; and even today, nearly four hundred years later, we tend to think of the first settlers of Massachusetts as dour killjoys. This view of Puritan society derives from the prejudices of later generations, who disparaged their Puritan progenitors as the kind of repressive folk they most loved to hate.
The “Puritan” epithet both clarifies and obscures these early English settlers for us. Members of the Church of England, they did not wish to leave the church but to purify it. Their “purifying” mission sought to rid the church of its elaborate customs and showy ritual. They wanted a simple style of worship, appropriate to what they viewed as God’s truth . As their model , they took the “primitive church,” Christianity in its earliest years before its institutionalization- and to Puritan eyes, corruption-in Rome.
In rejecting pomp and ostentation, the Puritans were also condemning the church as an elitist institution allied with the aristocracy. They sought to make religion appropriate to the values of their own emerging middle class. The Puritans believed that salvation did not lie in a set of rituals performed by the church on behalf of the sinner but in a drama within the soul of the believer, and they called those whom God had saved “saints.” They believed in a “revolution of the saints” and viewed themselves as the culmination of a biblical narrative that extended without interruption from ancient Jerusalem to their own time.
The Puritans were not democrats: like most people of their day, they subscribed to a hierarchical view of the world organized in a “Great Chain of Being,” a scale that ranked all creation from the lowest orders to the highest in graduated steps, mirroring the mind of God. Though they despised the “corruption” of aristocratic culture, they nonetheless maintained the deferential customs of a class society in which the “lower orders” deferred to the authority of their “betters.” They had only a limited notion of what we call today scientific causality. They viewed all events as direct signs from God, rather than as the results of natural causes.
And yet, even as they dragged a large portion of the late- medieval world across the ocean with them, the Puritans also produced the first outlines of modern social life. They enjoyed the highest literacy rate in seventeenth-century Western society, insisting that salvation was tied to a person’s ability to read the Bible. Within six years of founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in Boston, the Puritans established Harvard College (1636); and within ten years, they were publishing the first books in English in the New World.