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Importance of Puritan Religious Beliefs on Colonial America

The United States government is designed in such a way that religious beliefs are not to interfere with federal policy. This does not mean that the United States is a country without religion or has a government that is intolerant of religion, but in fact, quite the opposite. The country has always been filled with citizens of many different faiths and belief systems, and the government is set up to protect the beliefs of each one of these citizens.

The idea of “separation of church and state” can be a difficult concept to define, and its many intricate nuances have created close examination and continuous debate. Today, this concept is coming under heated attack from supporters and opponents of separation between church and state, from those that think the government interferes too much in the affairs of religion, to those that think the religious population holds too much influence on government policy.

The clearest way to define the benefits or drawbacks of separation of church and state is to look at its history and the many current conflicts surrounding it. An early instance of the church and state intermingling can be seen in the Puritan colonists whose religious beliefs not only influenced each other through their work ethic and emphasis on family, but also influenced the entire founding of the United States by making the protection of religious belief one of the foundational ideals of the new country and progressivism and education one of its key tasks in achieving and maintain strength.

While the Pilgrims established the Plymouth Colony with religion as its true drive, the formation of the Massachusetts Bay Company was originally established by Puritans and non-Puritans to make money from fishing and fur trading. However, as the persecution of Puritans increased in England, Puritan stockholders secretly bought out the rest of the shareholders for complete control of the company.

The charter that formed the company never dictated where the headquarters should be located, so the Puritans decided to take the charter and create their headquarters in the New World. This allowed them to govern themselves with little interference from England. As the Puritans that traveled to the New World were highly prepared and adequately equipped, the colony was able to thrive.

Because of the independence they enjoyed, they were also free to pursue a government established based on their religious beliefs. Because of conflict in England, which put Puritans in power briefly, the successful Puritans in Massachusetts flourished unabated and their communities grew by leaps and bounds. The Puritan Ethic created a strong more and ethical code that the Puritans lived by and helped set the religious, moral, and legal philosophies that would come to define the United States.

The Puritan ethic stressed that those elected beforehand by God would achieve eternal salvation; that those so elected for salvation could be recognized by how they lived on earth; that they would shun idleness, extravagance, and vanity; that they would avoid frivolous pastimes such as dancing card playing, and theater going; that they would read the Bible regularly for religious and moral guidance; and that they would devote their lives to working hard, being thrifty, achieving business success, and accumulating material wealth.

To a great extent, the colonial Puritan family succeeded in most of these regards, as the Puritans that traveled to the New World were highly prepared, adequately equipped, and the colony was able to thrive. Because of the independence they enjoyed, they were also free to pursue a government established based on their religious beliefs and their strong Puritanical ideals. One aspect of Puritan life that would continue to echo throughout the founding of the United States was their industriousness and strong work ethic.

Though they were a very pious people, they were also willing to do what it took to ensure the survival of their colony, even more so than the southern colonies that failed to experience the same kind of unity and success as the Puritans. An example of the successful Puritan ethic at work comes from the story of Dedham, a small Puritan commune in began in 1636. They created a closed, corporate community in which love, forbearance, cooperation, and peace were the fruits of their labor, however as much caused from the peasant mentality they all shared than their Puritan faith.

According to Steiner, its heavy emphasis on order appealed to both of these aspects of their culture, as did its balancing of collectivism and hierarchy; its pattern of politics, a passive town meeting happily agreeing in the direction of selectmen, reflected these values and the age-old view of society as an organic whole in which popular politics was limited to a man’s promoting unity by publicly and voluntarily assenting to measures implementing the one true way. The community experienced fifty years of steady growth, a lowered death rate, and unified peace.

The community of Dedham, much like many of the Puritan communities, goes a long way in dispelling popular belief that they were led by paranoid or strict leaders. Quite to the contrary, these Puritan communities were much more democratic than one would ever think, and had many of the early ideals of socialism to keep them afloat. This common misconception of the Puritan ethic may have been perpetuated by opponents that wished to curb the ever-growing influence of Puritanical ideals on the country, but they soon became intrinsically part of the American landscape.

While many contemporary Americans view the early Puritan settlers as dour, emotionless, cold, and pious, that description is only fractionally correct. The importance of Puritanical discipline and work ethic is hard to ignore in the founding of the United States, but what is not as well known is the Puritans’ egalitarianism and cosmopolitanism. The Puritans were indeed pious, but not to a fault, as many claim by example of the Salem which hunts and castigation of those of different faiths. Puritan attitudes towards education and reason characterized an enlightened form of thinking, very uncharacteristic of the usual perception of Puritanism.

Puritans were largely in agreement with the educated people of the time, and the uniqueness of the Puritans derived from their spiritual fervency at the core of their being, which in turn influenced every aspect of Puritan life. They were not afraid of change, and it reflected in the changes they initiated in school curriculums, and the Puritans lived comfortably with the growth of Renaissance humanist traditions of learning, though they never completely abandoned religion in this education.

Many of the communities had collectivist ideals that encouraged the harmony of all as opposed to the success or happiness of a few, and this would be seen in many of the collectivist ideals of the United States that would lead to social welfare and organizations like labor unions. And, while Puritans were often quasi-humanist in some of their views towards education and progress, when it came to law the Puritans looked to the Bible for guidance. This unique combination of democracy and religion would become an American ideal in all matters of life, including the law.

It is well-known that the Puritans executed criminals for things such as witchcraft and violations of Biblical law, but only one Puritan capital punishment failed to have precedence in the Bible. The Puritans could not find any biblical precedence for rape, but they still made it a capital punishment. This mere fact shows that Puritans had serious flaws and were not always individually pious. The Puritan rape law is an example of cultural forces shaping Puritan statutes dealing with sexual offenses.

Outraged by the repeated rapes of the three young Humphrey sisters, all of whom were under ten years old, the authorities used the common law to define the rape of girls ten years and younger, and then slid around the roadblock set up by biblical example by forming an analogy between the rape of a girl and the crime of sodomy, which in the Bible was a capital offense. The Puritans were forced to consider the matter of sexual transgressions almost as soon as they arrived. The first reported sex crime in Massachusetts occurred in 1631, a full ten years before the earliest instituted codification of Puritan law in the colony.

According to Wells, these early transgressions were not committed against a stark life devoid of pleasure, and one of the most persistent and most inaccurate ideas about the Puritans is that they lived a dull, drab existence. As evidenced by these transgressions, there were also cases of drinking and dancing to excess, but drinking and dancing were not in themselves considered evil by the Puritans. Puritan sex life was also not as it would seem, and the Puritans believed in a healthy, active sex life. There were even cases of marriages being annulled for males failing to perform conjugal duties.

When there was overindulgence or transgression, the sins were usually quickly placed in the public forum, in the church or the courts. While the Puritans did a fine job at regulating their desires and follies, they were human and subject to error and vice just as much as anyone else. The influence of the Puritans on Colonial America is difficult to ignore. Their emphasis on religion, hard work, family life, and strict order were ideals that could be seen within the pages of the Bible that they held so dear to their existence.

From their religious beliefs came all their democratic and educational ideals, which not only helped create the laws for their society, but served as an example for the other colonies that were forced to contend with the same challenges of colonial life. Their success served as a template on how to bring communities together to create a successful union, and their influence would later be seen in the revolution that finally brought the rest of the colonies together as a single, independent, indivisible nation under God.

Bibliography

Bush, S.“Reviews — Godly Learning: Puritan Attitudes towards Reason, Learning and Education, 1560-1640 by John Morgan” Modern Language Review 84 (January 1989): 116. Gordon, Irving. American History. Second Ed. New York: Amsco School Publications, Inc. , 1993. Steiner, B. (1970, Sep. ) “A New England Town, the First Hundred Years: Dedham, Massachusetts, 1636-1736 by Kenneth A. Lockridge. ” The New England Quarterly. 43, no. 3: 482-489. Wells, M. “Public administration in early America: Sex and the law in Puritan Massachusetts” Management Decision 40, no. 5/6 (2002): 596.

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