Early American Faith: Puritans vs. Catholics

The Puritan movement arose from the desire to purge the Church of England from the influences of Roman Catholicism.  The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century aimed to reform the beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church.  The most notable challenge to Catholicism was brought by Martin Luther, a German Augustinian monk, who famously posted ninety-five theses on the Wittenberg church door, thus signaling a desire to debate the subject.

Martin_LutherLuther’s argument was that the Bible, rather than the pope, should be the ultimate authority.  He also believed that salvation came through faith and not by merely performing good works.  The practice of selling indulgences, which seemed to Luther to be “salvation for sale”, was another target.  A “Counter Reformation” arose and for a time England sided with the Catholic Church.

Henry VIII began speaking out against Lutheran beliefs, which prompted the pope to give him the title “Defender of the Faith”.  Later, Henry VIII would become more concerned with the continuation of the Tudor dynasty when he instituted the Church of England and installed himself as the supreme head.  This move had come about because his wife, Catherine (daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V), had not given him a male child and he wasn’t comfortable leaving the throne to a woman.

HenryVIIIHenry sought an annulment from the Catholic Church so he could marry Anne Boleyn.  When the pope refused his request, Henry had a law passed in Parliament which made him head of the Church of England.  This was the first step aimed at breaking away from the Catholic Church and introducing Protestant beliefs.

After Henry’s death, England was led by leaders who held different religious beliefs – Edward VI leaned more toward Calvinism (but his reign was short-lived), while Queen Mary tried to re-establish the connection with the Roman Catholic Church.  Her reign was marked by the persecution of Protestants, earning her the nickname of “Bloody Mary”.

Those who fled the persecution would later return after her reign ended and launch the Puritan movement because, ultimately, the Church of England still largely resembled the Catholic Church except for allegiance to the pope.  This was the major point of contention that gave rise to the Puritan movement.  Puritans wanted to purge the Church of England of all resemblance to Catholicism.  They didn’t want to separate from the Church of England, but instead reform the church and return it to its roots.

Next week’s article will discuss those who wanted to separate from the Church of England, calling themselves “Separatists”.  The immigrants known as the Pilgrims were composed of a group of Separatists who had split from the Puritans (those of other faiths were also part of the Mayflower group) to pursue their own belief that the Church could never be reformed.

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

© Sharon Hall (History Depot), 2014.

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