The Influence of Calvinism on the Puritans in Massachusetts
The renowned Protestant reformer John Calvin profoundly influenced the New England Puritans’ religious and cultural development. As descendants of Calvin’s theological tradition, the Puritans sought to create a society inspired by Calvin’s teachings on predestination, divine sovereignty, and the pursuit of a righteous life.
Calvin’s theological framework provided the intellectual foundation and moral guidance that shaped the Puritans’ religious fervor, commitment to education, and vision of establishing a “City upon a Hill” —a place where others could look and be inspired to live similar godly lives. In this second part of our series, we will examine a little bit of the history behind the Puritans and hopefully come away with encouragement for our own lives and moments in history.
Before Coming to America
John Calvin lived in the mid-1500s, but the Puritans didn’t even arrive in Massachusetts till the 1600s. So how did Calvin influence them? Well, it goes back to England in the 1500s. Thanks to the invention of the printing press, Calvin’s teachings spread across Europe like wildfire. And the English were not exempt from the Calvinist storm. They soaked up everything they could about the Reformed faith.
Some of them went as far as to journey to Geneva, where they acquired further knowledge directly from Calvin himself. During their time in Geneva, they had the opportunity to acquire an English translation of the Bible, affectionately called the Geneva Bible. At the time, translations of the Bible in English were rare and often illegal, so this translation revolutionized the future Puritans by giving them direct access to the very words of God. Indeed, this translation would be carried on to boats that would bring them to the New World.
As the decades went on and the Englishmen returned to England, faithful preachers continued to teach the things they had learned about God from John Calvin. However, as the 1600s rolled around, a strong anti-Calvinist sentiment grew in the established church of England. Those who held to Calvin’s teachings were increasingly pushed out of mainstream religious spaces and, in some cases, were brutally persecuted.
This sour turn of events caused many Calvinist men and women to flee England and set sail for the New World. These men and women became the Puritans we know today.
Going to the New World
In the 1630s, most of these Puritans migrated to New England. Once in the New World, the Puritans found comfort in their faith and drew parallels between their journey and the biblical story of the Exodus.
They believed that, like the ancient Israelites, God delivered them from oppression and that they were bound to Him through a special relationship. They considered themselves chosen by God to establish a new and pure Christian nation. John Winthrop, their leader, reminded them of their duties as they sailed to America, urging them to become a shining “city set on a hill” for the rest of the world to witness.
Upon their arrival in New England, the Puritans settled in a town they named Boston, forming the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Life in this new land was harsh, but it gave them the freedom to worship according to their beliefs. Their religious services revolved around the Bible, the singing of the Psalms, and steadfast devotion to God. The authority of Scripture ruled every aspect of their lives.
Calvin in the New World
The Puritans sought to faithfully follow their Calvinist beliefs. Like Calvin, they taught that God had complete sovereignty over all things and that human beings were inherently sinful. They taught that salvation could not be earned but was entirely a gift from God. The concept of unconditional election shaped their worldview, emphasizing the importance of personal conversion and the pursuit of godly living.
Although individual faith was paramount, the entire community’s well-being was equally important to the Puritans. The Puritans believed that through their collective devotion and adherence to God’s will, they could establish a society that honored the Reformed faith and acted as a model for the rest of the world.
The New England Puritans, as faithful descendants of John Calvin, played a pivotal role in shaping America’s religious and cultural landscape. Like Calvin in Europe, the Puritans’ influence on New England society was far-reaching, encompassing various aspects of life, including politics, education, and social mores.
Localized Social Order
The Puritans were an ambitious bunch. They wanted to build a society that would last for generations. Following Calvin’s reforms in Geneva, they built their own society in the New World. They set up towns centered around churches where people came together for worship and important town meetings. But they didn’t just stop there. They created governments that worked with the church and tried to follow rules from the Bible.
These folks were serious about keeping things in order. They understood the inherent sinful nature of people, so they used laws from the Bible to keep their communities from falling into chaos. Through these laws, they believed they could establish a righteous and harmonious society.
Their commitment to biblical principles was so strong that they even set up punishments for severe crimes based on the laws outlined in the Bible. This was in direct contrast with England, where laws were often made arbitrarily on the King’s and parliament’s whims. Because of the Puritans, building legal codes based on the Bible became the norm in the rest of the American colonies.
In addition to their legal and religious pursuits, the Puritans were a diverse group with various professions. Many were prosperous merchants, skilled tradesmen, or farmers who contributed to the growth and prosperity of their communities. Their emphasis on family and their strong work ethic helped shape the foundation of the Puritan society in the colonies, reflecting their determination to live according to their religious beliefs and fulfill their calling from God.
John Calvin’s influence on the New England Puritans played a pivotal role in their development of social covenants, which in turn profoundly impacted the shaping of the United States Constitution. Calvin’s teachings emphasized the concept of the covenant, a sacred agreement between God and His people.
This notion resonated deeply with the Puritans, who saw themselves as a chosen community with a divine mission to establish a righteous society. Their belief in the covenant formed the basis of their political organization. They saw themselves as a chosen people, called to establish a model Christian community. Drawing inspiration from Calvin’s emphasis on moral discipline and Godly governance, the Puritans forged social covenants among themselves, binding their members to uphold the principles of their religious faith in all aspects of life.
These covenants formed the basis for their political organization and social order, setting precedents for the development of self-governance and the rule of law. The Puritans’ commitment to these social covenants laid the groundwork for the principles of consent, limited government, and individual rights that would find their way into the fabric of the United States Constitution, making their influence incredibly important in forming American democracy.
Like Calvin, education held great significance to the New England Puritans, who saw it as essential for preserving their religious and societal values.
They established Harvard College in 1636, the first institution of higher learning in British North America, to train ministers and educate future leaders. At the time, Harvard looked a lot like the Academy Calvin had established a century earlier in Geneva. The teaching at Harvard focused on preserving knowledge of God’s word and creating generations of Godly Christians.
The emphasis on education provided the foundation for a highly literate society, nurturing a tradition of intellectual inquiry and a commitment to moral education.
The Joy of The Lord
People usually think of the Puritans as a bunch of dreary killjoys dressed in all-black clothes. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Their lives should show us that true joy comes from embracing the Lord and freely serving Him. That’s precisely why they embarked on the journey to the New World—to find a place where they could worship God according to the true Reformed faith without facing persecution.
For the Puritans, freedom to worship and live out their religious convictions was true freedom. Their commitment to God and deep joy in serving Him drove their pursuit of religious liberty in the New World.
The legacy of the Puritans in the United States is profound, and we owe them a great deal. Their emphasis on education led to establishing schools and universities, creating a legacy of intellectual curiosity and academic excellence. Their unwavering commitment to the ideals of freedom, faith, and the pursuit of a righteous society shaped our American identity.
In the end, the Puritans, inspired by Calvin’s ideas, sought to establish a society that reflected God’s will and the principles found in Scripture. Calvin’s legacy lived on through the Puritans, leaving a lasting mark on the foundations of the New World.