Early American Faith: Puritans vs. Those Other (Heretical) People

arrivalIt’s an accepted fact that America’s founding came about largely because people of faith long persecuted in England and Europe came here to seek religious freedom, desiring to serve God as each person’s conscience dictated.  It is, therefore, somewhat of a curiosity that one of the first groups to migrate to America expressly for religious freedom would, in fact, persecute and denigrate other people of faith.

In today’s vernacular some would call the Puritans the “Hard Right” I suppose – to them it was “our way or no way”.  Over the next few Sundays, I’ll explore the faith beliefs of Puritans and those who they considered “out there” or heretical.  Maybe when the series is finished, we can have a greater appreciation for all Christian beliefs and denominations because, essentially, Puritanism in its purest form didn’t survive long in America.   With the moral and cultural decay in America today, however, might our country benefit from a little Puritanism?

Puritan History

First of all, “Puritan” was not term of endearment in sixteenth century England – it was purely a contemptuous term and at times those who held the strict beliefs were called “precisionists”.  King Henry VIII transformed the Roman Church into the state Church of England in the 1530’s, but retained some of the liturgy and ritual of the Catholic Church.

Belief systems continued to clash afterwards with Protestant King Edward VI and Catholic Queen Mary who followed Edward.  Out of this reformation and church upheaval, the Puritan movement arose, and even within the movement there was contentiousness – some believed in a presbyterian style of governance while others preferred a more local approach by individual congregations.

By the early seventeenth century, Puritans sought to leave England to head to the colonies of New England to escape persecution.  Puritans tended to migrate as families and were highly educated and highly devoted to serving God.  One of the first groups actually left England and lived in Holland for a time before departing for the New World, arriving in 1620 at Plymouth, Massachusetts.  This group referred to themselves as “separatists”, meaning they had totally repudiated the Church of England.

The Mather Family

One of the notable Puritan families to immigrate to America was the Mather family.  Richard Mather arrived on August 15, 1635 in the midst of the Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635 with his family.  Richard had ministered in a church in Liverpool and twice was suspended for nonconformity in the Anglican Church, so he was compelled to leave and seek greater religious freedom.  Four of his sons followed in his footsteps and became ministers — Samuel, Nathaniel, Eleazar and Increase.

Increase Mather was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts in 1639 and educated at Harvard.  Upon graduating he continued his education at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.  He returned to Massachusetts in 1661 and married his stepsister, Maria Cotton (Richard had married John Cotton’s widow after his first wife died).  His ordination in 1664 at the North Church made him an influential member of Boston society, both religiously and politically.

MatherFamilyIncrease became acting president of Harvard and later was appointed as President in 1692, holding that position until 1701.  Increase would later preach sermons which attempted to “tone down” the Salem witch trials, and in some ways his reputation was tainted by his involvement.

Increase had been given his name, according to the Encylopedia Britannica, “because of the never-to-be-forgotten increase, of every sort, wherewith God favoured the country about the time of his nativity”.  Increase was a staunch Puritan, unapproving of ostentatious clothing, intoxication and all forms of immorality.  He died in 1723 at the age of 84.

Increase’s son, Cotton, was born in 1663 and named after his maternal grandfather John Cotton, also a prominent Puritan minister.  Like his father, Cotton attended Harvard and then joined Increase as the assistant pastor of North Church, assuming the full pastorate in 1685.  Cotton wrote over 450 books and pamphlets, some admonishing subsequent generations of the original Puritans who had migrated to New England to return to a more strict Puritanical theology.

Cotton was also involved with the Salem witch trials — he supported them and his father did not, so that likely placed a strain on their relationship.  He also dabbled in science, conducting experiments in plant (corn) hybridization.  Cotton contributed research in support of the first experiments with smallpox inoculation in 1721.

The church at the time was opposed to human experimentation, and also considered diseases such as smallpox to be part of God’s judgment for the sins of humanity.  Cotton was first made aware of smallpox vaccination when he was introduced to the concept by an African slave in 1706.  Although the controversy continued, that first experimental inoculation in 1721 did indeed save lives.  Cotton died in 1728 at the age of 65.

Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!

© Sharon Hall (History Depot), 2014.


  1. I’m related to a Purtian – Governor John Endicott


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