The ideas of the Puritans have been balanced throughout American history by the ideas of the Enlightenment, particularly the Scottish Enlightenment. The tension and compromise between these ideas has been a part of America since its founding. Though the Puritans are either ignored, or sneered at, as primitive religious fanatics by academics today, there is no denying their place in forming America's moral and political foundation, and in the enduring character of the American people and culture. Protestant Christianity unquestionably defined the moral substance of America when it was born as a nation.
The Puritans came to America to escape the religious intolerance and political persecution that characterized Europe. They sought to establish a political society in which one could practice religion freely. Harmony, virtue and public service were to characterize Puritan society. This is the basis for liberty and good government in traditional America. The Puritan spirit of liberty, democracy, and Christianity brought grand accomplishment and progress that stands as a model and foundation for America.
John Winthrop (1588-1649) said, "We shall be as a city upon a hill." He believed that Divine Providence had given Puritans the freedom to determine their destiny, but that the eyes of the world would be upon them. Winthrop saw widespread moral corruption in the Christian political society of Europe. He and the Puritan pilgrims founded an unprecedented Christian society, combining their sense of destiny with a practical political program. The Puritan idea that God had bestowed His blessings of liberty on them, defined and bound them together, in a "Bond of brotherly affection."
The Puritans sought to form a distinct kind of human being and citizen, based on the Bible as a sacred text revealed to human beings by God. Life, liberty, and property are gifts from God to be used for the common good. A Christian should not act as the owner of God's gifts but rather as a "steward" of God, in obedience to divine ordinances. The individual had a duty to serve others and the community as a whole, through Christian charity. Charity unites right actions of the body with the proper condition of the soul. It is a full expression of one's love of God in this world.
John Winthrop wrote: "God Almighty in his most holy and wise providence has so disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in powers and dignity; others mean and in subjection." Human beings can understand their essence and purpose on earth only in the light of faith in and devotion to the Word of God as revealed in the Bible.
All human beings are equal—equally subject to the ordinances of God. But the unequal distribution of power and goods is simply a fact of life to be accepted. The economic, social, and political inequality or hierarchy that is evident throughout the world is permanent and has a purpose.
People need each other. The purpose of Christian community is to create that bond in which people may best share the gifts of God. Wealth, honor, and authority over others are not given for the personal benefit of individuals, but for the "glory of his Creator and the common good of the Creature, Man."
Love your neighbors as yourself, and do unto others as you would have them do to you. With faith in Christ, people can exercise such virtues as love, mercy, temperance, patience, and obedience; find the spiritual strength to resist temptations, and stand up to evil. It is difficult to live up to the highest of standards. The faithful will fall short, stray from righteousness, and perhaps even lose sight of their principles. Nonetheless, it is important to positively define how we should live, and address the vices and temptations common to man.
Put the commands of God before your own desires, lest you succumb to selfishness and sin. Follow the example of Christ—love, sacrifice, and forgiveness. The faithful even love their enemies. Peace and prosperity can be attained by understanding why the world is as it is—and living as a Christian.
The vices of the rich and the poor can fracture a community. Religious and political authorities must establish strong inducements to virtue. The Puritans sought to bond the members of the community so closely together in love for each other that they could feel each other's pleasures and pains; share in one another's infirmities and strengths; suffer together and rejoice together.
Justice is defined by political rules that regulate ordinary actions and the keeping of contracts. Mercy defines the inner disposition with which Christians should treat others in need. The wealthy exercise the duty of mercy in three ways: giving, lending, and forgiving. A Christian father must provide for his own family. Parental duty is fundamental to a Christian community.
We must not love wealth, which is temporary and subject to rust, the thief, and the moth. Physical pleasure is as ephemeral as the body itself. True treasures are gained through loving and obeying God—divine treasures that are fulfilling and everlasting. If we love and serve God we serve our own good. God will reward the righteous and merciful when they stand before Him on the day of account.
Puritans believed church and state should be separate in structure and function but united in purpose. As Winthrop said, "The end is to improve our lives to do more service to the Lord the comfort and increase of the Body of Christ whereof we are members that ourselves and posterity may be better preserved from the common corruptions of this evil world to serve the Lord and work out our Salvation under the power and purity of his Holy Ordinances."
The Puritans consented to be God's agents in the advancing of divine Providence. They made a covenant with God to be his chosen people, continuing the line of sacred covenants made between God and Noah, Abraham, Moses, and the nation of Israel. They were willing to obey the ordinances of God, be subject to God's will, and do God's work. America is the new promised land. A land of freedom, justice, and charity under God.
A covenant with God holds two possibilities. Failure to observe its articles will bring God's wrath down upon them. But if they fulfill their covenant God will richly bless them. Failure will be to give in to carnal intentions. Success will be a model of Christian charity. To obey or to refuse to obey is an act of free will.
John Cotton (1585-1652) established work as a necessary ingredient of any successful society, and by doing so defined what we call the Protestant Work Ethic. "A true Christian practices his vocation in the light of faith in the teaching of Jesus Christ. It is God who calls upon Christians to seek out some worldly vocation or work. Willful unemployment is a vice that reflects a condition of sin. A warrantable calling that serves God aims at the public good. A vocation is not a means to one's material self-interest but an opportunity and a vehicle to serve others." The core of the Protestant Work Ethic is not hard work but good works.
Since God distributes human talents, individuals must always remember that they owe their talents to God. The credit goes to God, not to oneself. Cotton says, "God must give a person the gifts for a particular vocation. A person must have the intellectual capacity and emotional disposition to succeed or even to excel at one's vocation. Indeed, one must seek out that vocation that utilizes one's greatest gifts or capacities to the best advantage of the community. One serves God by serving men, and serves men by serving God."
Cotton wrote: "One must humbly depend on God as the source of all benefits and for strength. One should work cheerfully, and must not be proud—for pride springs from the overweening sense of one's worth and abilities. Faith encourages one to seek the most humble, homely, difficult, and dangerous of vocations—especially those that carnal and proud heart would feel ashamed to perform. Humbly seek God's guidance in all ways. The fruits of one's labor belong to God."
The Puritans wanted to establish the highest standard of how human beings should act. They warned that liberty was vastly different from license—the unhindered pursuit of one's own desires. Liberty is subject to laws that promote the greatest good of the community. Everything that tends to disserve the interests of the community must be forbidden. That does not mean they were religious or political fanatics out to transform the world into a paradise by forcing others to conform to the perfect standard of liberty. The Puritans all came to and joined the community voluntarily. They knew what they were signing up for.
Liberty promotes individual virtue and industry and produces wealth and generosity. Liberty ensures the rights of conscience and makes room for dissent. But perfect liberty and licentiousness are incompatible. Precisely because liberty is a gift entrusted to human beings by God, and because our citizens are stewards of that blessing, they have a sacred duty to defend liberty. As Nathaniel Niles said in his "Discourse in Liberty": "How good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity."
- My source for this story is History of American Political Thought by Bryan-Paul Frost and Jeffrey Sikkenga.