Chapter 6: The Puritan Heritage

What’s the Difference? A Comparison of the Faiths Men Live By
by Louis Cassels

Chapter 6: The Puritan Heritage

The English Reformation was a compromise, and like most compromises, it left many people dissatisfied. The Church of England as it emerged under Queen Elizabeth I was too Calvinist for strict Catholics and too Catholic for strict Calvinists. The Catholic protest was climaxed by the bull of excommunication issued by Pope Pius V in 1570. The Calvinist protest was expressed in the Puritan movement, which kept England in turmoil for a century, exerted a mighty influence on the colonization of America, and led directly to the establishment of two great new Protestant denominations.

The term "Puritan" was applied to all-out Protestants who wanted to "purify" the Church of England of Catholic influences. The poet John Milton, who was an ardent Puritan, described Puritanism as a drive to "reform the Reformation" — to carry the break with Rome to its logical conclusion. The Puritans were true spiritual sons of John Calvin — earnest, austere, suspicious of the comforts and pleasures of this world, fired with a great sense of rectitude and a conviction of their own "election" as children of God.

By 1563 — five years after Elizabeth came to the throne — the Puritans constituted a sufficiently strong faction within the established Church of England to challenge its policies openly. They first voiced "scruples" on a relatively trivial matter — the kind of vestments worn by the clergy. Soon they were protesting against a whole range of "Romanish" practices — kneeling at Communion, the use of the sign of the cross in baptism, the observance of holy days. In 1580 they went a significant step further and denounced the whole idea of a hierarchical church governed by bishops. Instead, they said, each congregation should manage its own affairs, and elect its own minister.

The Church of England, backed by Elizabeth’s government, reacted by imposing heavy penalties on "nonconformists." More than two hundred ministers were suspended for involvement with the Puritan movement, and about seventy were sent to prison. These acts of repression merely stimulated the movement, and when James I succeeded Elizabeth on the throne of England, near the end of the sixteenth century, Puritanism was a thriving force in English religious life.

James I was a notoriously pigheaded man, even by the high standards of English royalty. He crushed every hope of an accommodation that would have permitted the Puritans to remain within the Church of England, and, with a public promise to "harry them out of the land," launched a ruthless persecution.

Many of the Puritans fled to Holland. This exodus was an event of far-reaching importance in religious history.

Two major Protestant groups — the Congregationalists and the Baptists — can trace their origins to congregations of English Puritans living in exile in Holland.


Although Holland granted religious freedom to the Puritans, it could not provide all of them with homes and jobs. By 1620 the plight of the transplanted Puritans had become bad enough to make them willing to undertake a dangerous adventure. A little band of men and women from the Puritan congregation at Leyden, Holland, returned briefly to England, and on September 6, 1620 sailed from the port of Plymouth in a frail 180-ton ship named the Mayflower. They were bound for Virginia, where they had received a grant of land. But their tiny ship was blown far off course by North Atlantic gales, and they arrived instead in Massachusetts. They disembarked at Plymouth Rock, and promptly began building a church.

The Pilgrims

This first batch of Puritan colonists — who are known in our history books as "the Pilgrims" (for no good reason except to make things more difficult for school children) — were soon followed by others. By 1640, more than twenty thousand Puritans had emigrated from England to the rocky and inhospitable wilderness which they named "New England."

They were stern, hardy people, full of religious zeal. The churches they established were strictly "congregational" in government — which is to say that all questions, including the choice of a minister, were settled democratically, with each member of the congregation having an equal vote. Because of this distinctive form of church government, they came to be known in America as "Congregationalists."

In their eagerness to purge all remnants of "papalism" from their churches, the Congregationalists adopted a severely simple form of worship, built around Scripture readings and interminably long sermons. (Some of the famous colonial preachers — Cotton Mather, for one — considered a two-hour sermon a relatively brief homily.) The austerity of the Congregational liturgy was reflected in the rigorously plain architecture of the churches in which it was housed. Everyone who has seen a New England village in the autumn must be forever grateful that the Puritan conscience permitted the addition of high steeples, which were considered acceptable adornment because they pointed upward toward God. To squelch any possible scruple about vain display, however, the steeples were also given a functional use as bell-towers, for summoning the faithful to church.

Although they had come to America seeking religious freedom for themselves, the Congregationalist were not keen on granting it to others. They accorded "established" status to their own churches, and did not hesitate to use the power of civil government to achieve their religious ends. Only Congregationalists in good standing were permitted to vote in civil elections in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Everyone was taxed for support of the Church, and those who failed to attend a worship service were subject to punishment by the civil government. Sabbath observance was enforced by civil statute — the first "blue laws."

During the colonial era, Congregationalism dominated New England, while Anglicanism dominated the Southern colonies. The Revolution led to the discrediting amid virtual collapse of Anglicanism, and Congregationalism emerged from the struggle for independence as the most powerful religious body in America.

The Congregational Stamp on American Life

Congregationalists have placed their stamp on American life in many different ways. Their concept of democratic government is reflected in our basic political system. Their harvest festival of thanksgiving to God (which they adapted from Old Testament accounts of the Jewish feast of Succoth) survives, in name at least, in the national holiday now dedicated to turkey dinners and football games. Their concern for education is enshrined in such Congregationalist-founded institutions as Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Williams, Amherst, Oberlin, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Wellesley.

Two other Congregationalist concerns have had a tremendous influence on religious life in America. They are foreign missions and Negro rights.

The first missionary ever sent out by an American church was the Reverend Thomas Mayhew, a Congregationalist who started preaching to the Indians on Martha’s Vineyard island in 1641. A few years later another Congregationalist missionary, the Reverend John Eliot, translated the Bible into the language of the Algonquin Indians. It was the first Bible printed in the American colonies.

In 1806 a group of students at Williams College formed America’s first missionary society. It came to be known as the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, and it pioneered the great movement of American foreign missionaries into Hawaii, India, China, and South America during time nineteenth century. It is still active, operating hundreds of schools, colleges, hospitals, clinics, leprosariums, and providing "fraternal support" to thousands of indigenous Christian churches in twenty-five countries.

During the decades preceding the Civil War, such Congregationalist ministers as Henry Ward Beecher led the movement for the abolition of slavery. Determination to win social justice for Negroes has continued to be a strong Congregationalism tradition into our own day.

Although insisting on the autonomy of the local church, Congregationalists recognized the value of cooperation in such projects as supporting missionaries and founding colleges. Early in the nineteenth century they began forming "associations" on a local and state basis. In 1871 a national association was founded, the National Council of Congregational Churches, which in 1931 merged with the General Convention of the Christian Church to form the Congregational Christian Churches.

The United Church of Christ

In 1957 the Congregational Christian Churches merged with the Evangelical and Reformed Church, a Calvinist body formed during the colonial era by German and Dutch immigrants to Pennsylvania. The new denomination is called The United Church of Christ. With a membership of more than 2 million, it is the nation’s seventh largest Protestant body.

Modern Congregationalists are rarely "puritanical" in their attitudes toward dancing, card-playing, Sunday observance, and so on. Many of them bend over backward to demonstrate their open-mindedness on questions of private morality. Although their churches are still officially Calvinist in theology, they have carried to its logical conclusion the doctrine that each individual is free to interpret the Scriptures for himself. There is no creed, no set of beliefs or doctrines, that a person must embrace in order to become a Congregationalist. Thus one encounters in Congregationalist (or United) churches a great latitude of belief, ranging from Calvinist orthodoxy to way-out theological liberalism.


According to Baptist folklore, the Baptist movement originated with John the Baptist, who baptized Jesus and others in the River Jordan. Without denying this claim — a bold thing to do in the presence of an ardent Baptist — church historians point out that the first record of a church congregation calling itself "Baptist" is found in Holland in the year 1609. It was established by a group of Puritans who had fled from England under the leadership of John Smyth. While in Holland, they were attracted to some of the doctrines of a group of Protestants known as Anabaptists, who were the forerunners of the modern Mennonites (who are discussed at greater length in the next chapter).

The Anabaptists

The Anabaptists condemned infant baptism, which was then practiced almost universally by Protestants as well as Catholics. They held that baptism is not a sacrament in the sense understood by Catholics and most Protestants — that is, an outward rite in which divine grace is mystically imparted to a human soul — but is rather a kind of testimonial of faith, in which a believer in Christ bears witness to his own conversion and is initiated into the fellowship of the Christian community. Thus, they said, baptism can have no meaning unless it is restricted to those who are old enough to make a mature "decision for Christ." They also insisted that baptism must be by total immersion of the body — the method which the New Testament indicates was used in the baptism of Jesus — rather than by the pouring or sprinkling methods which most other Christian bodies have adopted as a symbolic substitute for immersion.

The Baptist congregation founded by John Smyth and his followers in Holland took over this Anabaptist doctrine of baptism, and grafted it onto a Puritan-Calvinist theology that emphasized congregational autonomy, reverence for the Bible as the sole source of Christian teaching, and the competence of each individual soul to gain direct access to God without the mediation of any priest or minister.

America’s Debt to Roger Williams

Although the Baptist movement grew slowly in Holland, and gained a foothold across the Channel in England, it was in America that it finally found fertile soil. The first Baptist church in the new world was founded in 1639 by the Reverend Roger Williams, a Church of England priest who had cast his lot with the Puritans and fled to Massachusetts under threat of imprisonment. But Williams found the established Congregational Church of the colony every bit as intolerant as the state church that had stifled his spirit back home in England. He particularly disapproved the assessment of taxes to support Congregational churches, and the use of civil law to enforce church discipline. Again threatened with imprisonment or deportation, he left Boston in 1636 and took refuge among the Narragansett Indians. From them, he secured title to a piece of land that is the present site of Providence, Rhode Island. Other discontented colonists joined him thee, and in 1639 they baptized one another by immersion and formed America’s first Baptist congregation.

The founders of the Baptist colony in Rhode Island were unique in that they treasured religious liberty for others as well as for themselves. They drew up a compact that provided for absolute freedom of religion and strict separation of church and state. This concept, now enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, is one of the most precious aspects of America’s heritage. Under it, religion has thrived in this nation as it ha never done in any country with an established state church. All American denominations now look upon religious liberty as a blessing — and we owe it primarily to the Baptists who followed Roger Williams into the wilds.

The Baptist movement remained relatively small throughout the colonial era. But with the coming of independence, and especially with the opening of the Western frontier, it began to grow explosively. The local Baptist church, governed by its own members, free to elect and ordain its own pastor, totally independent of any ecclesiastical organization, proved highly attractive to the freedom-loving men of the frontier. The preaching in Baptist churches was often more fiery than profound, since a congregation could ordain to the ministry any man who felt he had a divine call to preach, however little education or preparation he might have bad. But Baptists were not greatly troubled by a lack of learning among their pastors:

they were convinced that the Bible itself contained all the "saving truth" that any man needed to know, and that each man was required to "work out his own salvation" by reading the Scriptures and by making a personal commitment of faith in Jesus Christ. The emphasis on personal faith led, inevitably, to a preoccupation with a felt experience of conversion. And this led, in turn, to emotion filled "revival meetings" and to the tradition of concluding each Sunday service with an "invitation" to repentant sinners to come forward and declare their faith in Christ.

The Baptist Groups Today

Today, the Baptists constitute America’s largest Protestant family by a wide margin. There are approximately 23 million of them. They are grouped into twenty-eight different associations, conferences, or conventions (Baptists do not like time term denomination). At first glance, this may seem like a high degree of fragmentation. But the real marvel is that ninety thousand local Baptist churches — each a law unto itself and fiercely jealous of its independence — have been able to coalesce into as few as twenty-eight organizations.

The largest Baptist body, and the largest single Protestant organization in America, is the Southern Baptist Convention. Formed in Augusta, Georgia, in 1845, it remained largely a regional body until about 1940. Since then, however, it has far outgrown the boundaries implied by its name. There are now "Southern" Baptist churches in all fifty states. California, for example, has nearly a thousand. Nationwide, the Southern Baptist Convention has more than 10 million members.

Southern Baptists are uncompromising Fundamentalists in theology. They will fire a seminary professor who suggests that the creation story in Genesis is a religious parable, and is not meant to be read as a literal scientific account of what took place during the first seven days of the world’s existence.

Their rigorous conservatism in doctrine has made them wary of contacts with other denominations (including other Baptist groups), which are, in their view, gravely tainted with liberalism. They have accordingly remained aloof from such cooperative organizations as the National and World Council of Churches, and have refused even to discuss possible mergers.

The American Baptist Convention, which used to be called the Northern Baptist Convention, is considerably smaller, with slightly more than 1.5 million members. Some of its churches are Fundamentalist, but many are receptive to the viewpoints of Modern Orthodoxy or Liberalism. The American Baptists are very active in the National Council of Churches and other cooperative Protestant bodies.

Two other large Baptist bodies are predominantly Negro in their membership. The National Baptist Convention of the U.S.A., Inc. claims 5 million members. The National Baptist Convention of America reports 2.7 million.

In addition to these four giants, which account for more than 90 per cent of the nation’s Baptists, there are Seventh-Day Baptists, who worship on Saturday instead of Sunday; Primitive Baptists, who conduct foot-washing ceremonies as part of each celebration of the Lord’s Supper; Free-Will (or Free) Baptists, who stress man’s freedom to choose salvation or perdition; Predestination Baptists, who cling to Calvin’s doctrine of the double election; and many other varieties.

Despite their differences over doctrinal details, Baptists of all types are united in their insistence on "believer’s baptism" by total immersion. They also have in common a fierce devotion to the principle of church-state separation, which they defend with great vigor through a highly effective Washington lobby called tile Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs. Baptists frequently suspect Roman Catholics of trying to undermine the "wall of separation" and raid the public treasury. For this reason and others, anti-Catholic sentiments are more pronounced among Baptists than in almost any other Protestant group. (The Baptist World Alliance was the only major Protestant body that rejected the invitation to send observers to the Vatican Ecumenical Council.)

Among the issues that divide Baptists, none has a higher emotional voltage than segregation. Negro Baptists and Northern white Baptists are committed to the elimination of racial barriers. Southern Baptists have had great travail of conscience on this question, and with a few notable exceptions, Baptist churches in the South have tended either to sit out tile desegregation fight, or passively defend the status quo.

Baptists are great supporters of foreign missions. The Southern Baptist Convention alone maintains more than 1500 full-time missionaries abroad. They also are zealous evangelizers at home, conducting house-to-house visitation drives to reach unchurched families. The greatest practitioner of mass evangelism of our time, the Reverend Billy Graham, is a Baptist.

In recent years, Baptists have made a mighty effort to upgrade the educational level of their clergy. You may still encounter an "ordained amateur" in the pulpit of a small-town or rural Baptist church, but elsewhere today you are much more likely to find seminary-educated ministers.

How Baptists Worship

Baptist worship is traditionally informal: a typical service includes spontaneous prayers, Scripture reading, hymn-singing, and the sermon, followed by the pastor’s invitation for converts to come forward.

The Lord’s Supper is observed at least four times a year, with grape juice instead of wine, and small cubes of ordinary loaf bread instead of the flat Communion wafers familiar to Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, and others. The elements are passed around the pews by deacons, and members of the congregation receive them while remaining in their seats instead of coming forward to kneel at an altar rail. To Baptists, the observance is strictly an "ordinance" — that is, a memorial to Jesus — rather than a sacrament with mystical power to convey grace.

Baptist ministers customarily wear business suits rather than gowns or any other type of clerical vestment. There is no altar in a Baptist church. The pulpit dominates the interior architecture. Behind the choir section, usually, there is a tank about four feet deep which can be filled with water for baptism by immersion. In some rural areas, baptisms are still performed in a river, just as they were by John the Baptist nearly two thousand years ago.