HISTORY in CONTEXT | The Puritan Tradition and American Identity

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Historical Background

In 1585, England began its first venture in the colonization of North America at Roanoke in present-day North Carolina. The failure of that short-lived attempt did not deter English joint stock companies from seeking to establish other colonies, first in Virginia and later in Massachusetts.

While English settlers to Virginia in 1607 came more for economic adventure than religious principles, the families who migrated to Plymouth in 1620 and Massachusetts in 1630 came to set up godly communities. As other colonies grew, each one developed its own character, but all were influenced by events, ideas, and the political and religious movements in England.

Maryland, established as a refuge for Catholics, became increasingly Puritan over the course of the 17th century. Rhode Island and Providence Plantations and Pennsylvania, both with large Quaker populations, guaranteed freedom of conscience for their inhabitants. With economies that ranged from mercantile to trade to plantation farming, the differences between them sometimes seemed to outweigh their similarities as colonies of England. Yet eventually, all 13 mainland colonies came together to revolt against the Crown in 1775 and declare independence from England in 1776.

Religious Tradition

In the 17th century, England became increasingly influenced by Puritan ideals. The Puritans were not only religious reformers; they were also legal reformers and economic adventurers. Puritans saw religious, legal, and economic relationships as focused around the contract or covenant, which meant individuals rather than authoritative institutions shaped their relationships with God, the government, and the economy.

Puritans rejected Catholicism—the Mass, transubstantiation, the priest as an intermediary between the individual and God, and the veneration of the Virgin Mary and the saints. At church services, ministers read the Bible and then explicated it to their congregations, but members of the congregation also read it and interpreted it for themselves.

Literacy and argumentation were prized in New England, though as communities based on consensus, they often found it difficult to cope with dissent. Churches broke from one another, new colonies formed, and Baptists, Quakers, and other sects challenged the established Congregational model.

In the Congregational model, ministers depended on the goodwill of their parishioners. They occupied a critical position in society, but they also relied on their congregations for financial support. While there was a separation of church and state, ministers were one arm of the society’s body and magistrates the other. Puritans worried about the state interfering in the church, as had been the case in England, but they also did not encourage ministers to serve in the court system or in the legislative assemblies in order to protect the government from becoming a theocracy.

Puritan ideas about conversion held that salvation often ran in families, a belief known as the perseverance of the saints. Puritan households contained books like Lewis Bayly’s The Practice of Piety that explained the steps of conversion and assured them that salvation ran in godly families as part of God’s covenant with his people.[1]

Artworks at the NBMAA

Joseph Badger, Samuel Moody, ca. 1758, Oil on board (mounted on aluminum), 27 5/8 x 21 3/4 in. (70.2 x 55.2 cm), Charles F. Smith Fund, 1967.7
Joseph Badger, Hannah Minot Moody, ca. 1758, Oil on board (mounted on aluminum), 27 1/2 x 22 in. (69.9 x 55.9 cm), Charles F. Smith Fund, 1967.8

The subjects in the portraits of Samuel Moody and Hannah Minot Moody in 1758 by Joseph Badger descended from prominent Puritan families, the Bradstreets and the Moodys. These Massachusetts families settled New Hampshire and Maine. By the time this portrait was painted, the New England colonies were religiously diverse. They were changing politically and expanding economically. The seeds of religious diversity that are enjoyed today, were certainly sown in colonial America.

John Trumbull, The Rev. Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright, 1820, Oil on canvas, 29 3/4 x 23 3/4 in. (75.6 x 60.3 cm), Harriet Russell Stanley Fund, 1948.08

In the early republic Anglicanism drew Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright to the ministry in Hartford, though his grandfather had been a fiery Congregational minister in Boston in the 18th century. (Portrait by John Trumbull, 1820). In a sermon at Christ’s Church in Hartford in 1828, he spoke about the need to train missionaries to help in returning American blacks to Africa and ending slavery in America.[2]

The Puritan influence continued on into a later work, West Rock, New Haven, by one of America’s most esteemed painters in the 19th century, Frederic Church. Church was a Connecticut native, born in Hartford in 1826. With a strong interest in painting, he became the first pupil of Thomas Cole, America’s preeminent landscape painter and founder of the Hudson River School. The Hudson River School painters glorified the American landscape as an extraordinary wonder, a sentiment that contributed to its growing national identity.

Frederic Edwin Church’s “West Rock, New Haven,” 1849 not only reflected the beauty of the American landscape, but also harkened back to the English Civil War to give 19th-century Americans a message about their republican inheritance.

Frederic Edwin Church, West Rock, New Haven, 1849, Oil on canvas, 27 1/8 x 40 1/8 in. (68.9 x 101.9 cm), John Butler Talcott Fund, 1950.10

From 1629 to 1640 King Charles I suspended Parliament and ruled as an autocratic monarch without recourse to Parliament. Audio Charles claimed his royal prerogative and the doctrine of the divine right of kings gave him this power. He needed Parliament to raise taxes. By October 1640, Charles I’s anti-Puritan religious policies had alienated Parliament, and in 1641 Parliament rebelled against the King. From 1642 to 1649, Parliament waged war against the King. When Charles I was captured, tried, and executed, England began an experiment in republicanism that its North American mainland colonies picked up 135 years later. 

Church's painting, West Rock, New Haven, depicts Judges’ Cave at the top of the rock. After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the Crown sought justice against the judges who had signed Charles I’s death warrant. Three of these judges, William Goffe, Edward Whalley, and John Dixwell, fled for the colonies and found temporary shelter in the New Haven cave. Local Puritans fed them and protected them from agents of the King. Church’s depiction of West Rock reminded its viewers of the cause of the American Revolution as well as embodied American national aspirations and dreams.

Historical Background Resources

Hudson River School

Connecticut History

Lesson Plan

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[1] Edmund Sears. Morgan, Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1965), 115, 122.

[2] The Hartford Courant, “Excerpt: The Rev. Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright.” Published: September 29, 2002. Retrieved from The Hartford Courant archives.

[3] John M. Murrin, Anglicizing an American Colony: The Transformation of Provincial Massachusetts (New Haven: diss., Yale University, 1966); Ignacio Gallup-Diaz, Andrew Shankman, and David J. Silverman, eds., Anglicizing America: Empire, Revolution, Republic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015); Timothy H. Breen, "An Empire Of Goods: The Anglicization of Colonial America, 1690–1776," Journal of British Studies 25, no. 4 (1986): 467-499.