Welcome to part three of my Truth v. Myth series on the Protestant or Puritan work ethic. Here we will see how the ambitious Puritan political platform played out in England and was then transplanted to the New World.
We’ve seen that the English Puritans wanted to wipe out poverty, encourage private enterprise, and vigorously embrace the newly emergent capitalist system. Their religion spurred them to achieve these goals, but they did not rely on God to work a miracle for them. The Puritans had many converts from the nobility, powerful men who sat in the House of Lords, and most Puritans of common birth were politically active. The Puritans had members in both houses of Parliament and agitated constantly at court and in the popular press for the changes they desired.
Unfortunately, the Puritans would not abandon their insistence that the Anglican Church (or Church of England), the state church, be radically “purified” (hence their name) and stripped of its remaining Catholic qualities. Elizabeth I and James I after her took a firm hand in stopping such religious agitation, which invariably led to bloodshed and public turmoil, and seemed to promise eventual civil war. (These fears would be realized in the Thirty Years’ War and the English Civil War.) England had gone through extremely divisive religious conflict during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary, and had landed as a unique Protestant nation: the original Catholic church in England was taken over by the English government, completely separate from the Roman Catholic Church governed by Rome. The Anglican church was sort of neutral or Protestant-by-default, but it was not Lutheran or Calvinist. Anglicanism avoided both submission to Rome and affiliation with European Lutherans or Calvinists.
This policy had maintained a fragile peace in England since 1558, when Elizabeth I took the throne. Puritans who agitated for further reformation, with a Calvinist bent, were not looked upon with kindness. James I particularly loathed the Puritans and their near-relations, the Separatists, who decided Anglicanism could not be purified, and therefore separated from it, leaving the church. Puritans and Separatists were persecuted in England as traitors.
By refusing to drop their demands for religious change, the Puritans sabotaged their efforts to get their social reforms passed. By the 1620s, many Puritans were beginning to fear that God had abandoned England, and was about to punish it, perhaps destroy it. When William Laud, a pro-Catholic Puritan hater, was made Archbishop of Canterbury–head of the Anglican church–in 1630, he launched a Puritan eradication campaign that made life very dangerous for Puritans of all walks of life.
In that year, a small group of influential Puritans left England. Led by John Winthrop, a well-known royal lawyer and property owner, they left to establish a safe space in America where Puritans could wait out God’s wrath on England. While England was punished, America would thrive, regenerating a holy people to lead England back to God’s grace. They founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, with its seat of government in Boston.