The Puritans were English Reformed Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries who sought to "purify" the Church of England from its "Catholic" practices, maintaining that the Church of England was only partially reformed.[1] Puritanism played a significant role in English history, especially during The Protectorate.

The Puritans were in alliance with the growing commercial world, the parliamentary opposition to the royal prerogative, and the Scottish Presbyterians in the late 1630s with whom they had much in common. Consequently, they became a major political force in England and came to power as a result of the First English Civil War (1642–46). Almost all Puritan clergy left the Church of England after the Restoration of 1660 and the 1662 Uniformity Act. Many continued to practice their faith in nonconformist denominations, especially in Congregationalist and Presbyterian churches.[2] The nature of the movement in England changed radically, although it retained its character for a much longer period in New England.

Puritans by definition were dissatisfied with the limited extent of the English Reformation and with the Church of England's tolerance of practices which they associated with the Catholic Church. They formed and identified with various religious groups advocating greater purity of worship and doctrine, as well as personal and group piety. Puritans adopted a Reformed theology and, in that sense, were Calvinists (as were many of their earlier opponents). They also took note of radical criticisms of Zwingli in Zürich and Calvin in Geneva. In church polity, some advocated separation from all other established Christian denominations in favour of autonomous gathered churches. These separatist and independent strands of Puritanism became prominent in the 1640s, when the supporters of a Presbyterian polity in the Westminster Assembly were unable to forge a new English national church.

Puritanism was never a formally defined religious division within Protestantism, and the term Puritan itself was rarely used after the turn of the 18th century. Some Puritan ideals became incorporated into the Church of England, such as the formal rejection of Roman Catholicism; others were absorbed into the many Protestant denominations that emerged in the late 17th and early 18th centuries in America and Britain. The Congregationalist churches, widely considered to be a part of the Reformed tradition, are descended from the Puritans.[3][4] Moreover, Puritan beliefs are enshrined in the Savoy Declaration, the confession of faith held by the Congregationalist churches.[5]


In the 17th century, the word Puritan was a term applied to not just one group but many. There continues to be debate among historians over the definition of Puritanism.[6] Historically, the word Puritan was considered a pejorative term that characterized Protestant groups as extremists. According to Thomas Fuller in his Church History, the term dates to 1564. Archbishop Matthew Parker of that time used it and precisian with the sense of the modern stickler.[7] Puritans, then, were distinguished for being "more intensely protestant than their protestant neighbors or even the Church of England".[8]

Some Puritans are known as "non-separating Puritans", those who were not satisfied with the Reformation of the Church of England but who remained within it, advocating further reforms. This group disagreed among themselves about how much further reformation was possible or even necessary. Others thought that the Church of England was so corrupt that true Christians should separate from it altogether; they are known as "separating Puritans" or simply "Separatists". The term Puritan in the wider sense includes both groups.[9][10]

Puritans should not be confused with more radical Protestant groups of the 16th and 17th centuries, such as Quakers, Seekers, and Familists. These groups taught that individuals could be directly guided by the Holy Spirit and prioritized direct revelation over the Bible.[11]

In modern times, puritan is often used to mean "against pleasure". In this usage, hedonism and puritanism are antonyms.[12] In fact, Puritans embraced sexuality but placed it in the context of marriage. Peter Gay writes of the Puritans' standard reputation for "dour prudery" as a "misreading that went unquestioned in the nineteenth century", commenting how unpuritanical they were in favour of married sexuality, and in opposition to the Catholic veneration of virginity, citing Edward Taylor and John Cotton.[13] One Puritan settlement in Western Massachusetts banished a husband and sent him into exile because he refused to fulfill his marital duties to his wife.[14]

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