Puritan, the word conveys a stiff-backed man or woman in black who is upright, up tight, and no fun at all. It turns out even in the heydey of Puritanism back in the 17th century, nobody liked to be called a Puritan. Puritans called themselves “The Godly.”
So who were they, these godly? We all know how Henry VIII left the Catholic Church because he wanted to marry Anne Boleyn. That left a lot of unhappy English. Catholics were not happy about having to give up their religion. Those who went willingly to the Church of England, the Anglicans, had identity issues; the Church had to work out its principles, its rituals and ceremonies. Those who were influenced by the reformation in England, the Puritans, wanted the Anglicans to “purify” their church and abandon every trace of Catholicism. Each of the three groups hated the others, and England see-sawed back and forth as different rulers – (Edward VI was Church of England) (Bloody Mary was a Catholic) – persecuted those who were not in their group. Bloody Mary executed 400 Puritans.
Queen Elizabeth was a godsend, so to speak, as she allowed all three religions to exist. When James and Charles I followed her, they leaned more in the Catholic direction, and Puritans became fearful they might be persecuted again. They were forced to incorporate Church of England rituals into their services. John Cotton, the Bradstreets’ minister, was somehow successful in keeping his services “pure.” Twelve years after the Bradstreets left for the New World, the religious conflict between Puritans and Church of England would erupt into Civil War, in which Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan, attained power.
Puritans believed, like Calvinists, that those who would go to heaven were pre-elected. Good works could not get you into heaven, though it was important to spend your life serving God. Thus, Puritans felt they were a chosen people. The Pilgrims were not the same as Puritans, as Pilgrims were separatists. They wanted their own church, whereas Puritans wanted to work within the Church of England. Once in the New World, however, Puritans did tend to form new denominations.
Were Puritans as stiff and dull as we imagine them? They didn’t celebrate holidays. They couldn’t work on the holy day. They demanded obedience from children to their parents, and from wives to their husbands. But they certainly drank plenty of beer and other alcohol. They didn’t always wear black though they favored dull colors. Puritans seemed to love their children, as Anne Bradstreet’s poems and sayings demonstrate. They weren’t “puritanical” about sex. You weren’t supposed to have sex out of marriage. Once married, though, anything went. Enjoying the act did honor to God. One Puritan husband in the colonies was brought to court for not “servicing” his wife.
Anne Bradstreet and her family were good Puritans. They thought a lot about God and what God would want from them. But they were real people, also, with the human strengths and faults of all of us.