Ultimate Diffusion: The Impact of Puritan Christianity

It is inescapable that the history of Christianity in the West is one marked by consistent change and evolving degrees of influence.  Catholicism alone was and remains an immense power going beyond the religion; as the authority of the Catholic Church grew, so too did it infuse the political, commercial, and social landscapes of the West.  Then, the Christian denomination of Protestantism, emerging from the immense conflict with the European Church, reinforces how strongly linked were the ties between faith and societies as wholes.  The evolution of another form of Christianity more clearly emphasizes how the religion shaped, and was shaped by, a particular population: Puritanism in the New England colonies.  In a very real sense, the presence of this Christianity was so fundamental to the early American people, it became integral to the evolving culture itself, and to all aspects of its political, social, and commercial identity.

This complex evolution and influence of Puritanism trace back to its groins in England, where it arose as a response to perceived wrongs in Christian practice and belief.  The Protestant movement had greatly fought against the power of the Catholic Church and insisted on an emphasis on Scripture; for the Puritans, however, this was not enough.  Protestant belief still sought a distinction between faith and general living, but the Puritan view held that this was incompatible with true Christianity.  For example, Protestants saw Christianity as an enabling faith, and one enhancing personal liberties.  For the Puritans, anything done by anyone must be in accord with God’s commands, so personal liberty was a completely different concept for them (Richard L., 1982, 9) .

As is famously known, this was a breach in Christian views so extreme, the Puritans determined to create a new life across the ocean.

This transition is critical, in that the Christian faith was now taking on a virtually unprecedented dimension.  As the Puritanism informed its adherents of basic obligations in living, the primary one being that of an absolute insistence on God’s word, they made the radical move of forming a new society in an unknown land.  The legend of Puritans as seeking religious freedom is true to an extent, but the greater reality is that the people were intolerant of any Christianity deviating from their own, and thus were compelled to “invent” a new society and culture.  In the process, and not unexpectedly, the Puritan Christianity became more intent than ever, as it was the founding agent in so dramatic a shift.  This is an evolution of Christianity that has almost limitless meaning in terms of the American culture it would vastly help to shape.  In essence, Puritanism is Fundamentalist Christianity, and this is the foundation of American society as a society (Mark A., 1992, 40).

It is widely noted how the circumstances of the Puritan population in early America shifted traditional parameters of faith, or of the role Christianity was assumed to hold in Western culture.  Certainly, this extreme form of Christianity was based in church life, and in absolute adherence to the austere principles of the denomination.  This in turn, however, encompassed every aspect of living because the nature of Puritan belief goes to all behaviors and ways of thinking.  It holds to the Bible as the ultimate source of truth., but it translates that truth into inestimable social codes.  Then, it is noted that the Puritan spirit was not content to adhere to its own populations.  The Christianity is in fact marked by a zeal, if not commitment, to reform others not of the faith, and the early American Puritanism exhibited a consistent desire to master over all social, commercial, and political agencies (Mark A., 1992, 40).  In a sense, and as the Puritan population was the sole population save for the Native Americans, this translated to an even stronger insistence on maintaining the faith in all behaviors and functions.

This zeal would very much stamp Puritan Christianity into spheres of authority. The Reverends John Mather and Cotton Mather, as well as Governor John Winthrop, exemplify how Puritan Christianity became an integral part of the political order of the 17th and 18th centuries.   This was essentially a Christian sect that relied on the absolute commitment of its adherents, many of whom moved into positions of power simply because they were accustomed to speaking out on the religious issues.  There is no discounting the powerful influence of this Christianity, then, as going to political and governmental arenas.  Moreover, the Native Americans noted above were very much embraced by the Puritans as needing guidance.  Many community leaders took it upon themselves to act as missionaries and bring God to the people they viewed as desperately requiring salvation.  To that end, for example, Puritan Roger Williams first came to America.  He met with Narragansett natives and reportedly forged alliances with them which actually upheld their rights to land (Jerry D., 2006, 54).  Zealous Puritan reformer, Williams likely enhanced his efforts in these directions by insisting that the native people be dealt with fairly; in essence, then, Puritan ideology merged with social and political concerns, and thus encouraged a spread of Puritanism.

That Christian values are so ingrained in American civil processes and institutions today supports just how this movement became completely infused in every arena of the new American society.  It is arguable, in fact, that no other agent was remotely as impactful as this impetus to both practice and share the Puritan faith.  This was Christianity as religion, but also very much as a pervasive cultural ideology.  The initial motive to protect the faith was so powerful, it compelled hundreds of English citizens to leave their home, just as the motive also went to a strict observance of conduct not practiced in that country, and consequently not truly Christian to the Puritans. Even as the history of Christianity is so immense and complex, and so marked by episodes of conquest, the coming to America of the Puritans exists as one of the most potent cases of Christianity having an impact on a new land, if only by virtue of that Christianity as the primary agent for the settling of it.

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