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The Puritan ideals and values significantly impacted the development of the New England colonies, both intentionally and unintentionally. Despite the Puritan’s intentional efforts to control all aspects in New England society through their strong work ethic, educational system, and centralized government, actually the unintentional influences had greater long term effects as the Puritan “way of life” transitioned into a secular society by the end of the 1660s. Politically, the Puritans gained a larger amount of political and religious freedom due to discontent from total control. Economically, the abundance of natural resources and strong Puritan work ethic led to a trade based society focused on mercantilism and socially, the Puritans transitioned away from their initial ideas of unconditional acceptance towards rigid and radical beliefs that led to the persecution of others who did not share their beliefs. Clearly, the values held by the Puritans led to intentional and unintentional changes that led the New England colonies to transition into a secular society.
The purpose of Puritan society was to become a “city on a hill.” The Enlarged Salem Covenant of 1636 proclaims, “we will do nothing to offend the Church … We do hereby promise to carry ourselves in a lawful obedience to those that are over us, in Church of Commonwealth.” [Doc. C] This document reflects the views of most Puritans who would call upon God for everything. They even praised God after an attack on an Indian village. [Doc. D] By looking at a town map of Puritan New England, it can be seen that the entire town revolves around the church. [Doc. B] There is a large emphasis placed on communitarianism rather than individualism. There was a meetinghouse established for the purpose of collaboration and “democratic” decision making. In a Puritan town, Political roles could only be held by those who had public conversions and became “saints.” Although there were town meetings, they were by no means democratic; power was held by male property holders who were church members. This idea of a Puritan theocracy eventually led to discontent. In John Cotton’s “Limitation of Government” written in 1655 [Doc. H] he reiterates that the power of government must be limited. Along with a call for political freedom, Roger William’s “A Plea for Religious Liberty” of 1644 set the first calls for separation of Church and state. These ideas were in total stark contrast to the ideas that were originally set forth in Winthrop’s “A model of Christian Charity” written in 1630, only twenty-five years earlier. [Doc. A] These outcries marked the transition away from total control. Eventually as the Puritans became acquainted with ideas of freedom church membership declined and as an unintentional response the church was forced to introduce the Halfway Covenant which allowed children of “visible saints,” or pre-existing church members to join the church. This compromise was a result of Puritans not conforming to Winthrop’s original standards. Through the numerous outcries for freedom and finally the introduction of the halfway covenant, it can be seen that the Puritans had transitioned away from their original saintly “City on a hill” ways that were lived by in the early 1630s. Yet, this is not the only factor that must be looked at when examining the Puritan’s influence on the New England colonies.
Despite the Puritan’s attempts to create a society centered on God and hard work (sweat), they actually created a thriving trade economy based on materialism. Originally, hard work was not motivated by monetary success; it was motivated by the idea of proving oneself to God. New England towns were not designed for means of making profit. Often resources such as a mill or pasture were on a basis of community use. [Doc. B] Yet with houses and resources so close together privacy was rare, thus, is was essential in Puritan society to be seen by others as hard, busy workers – all the time. This idea rooted from the belief that idle hands were the devil’s workshop. As Robert Keagne proudly proclaimed in his final will and testament, “my account books… testify to the world on my behalf that I have not lived an idle, lazie, or dronish life not spent my time wantonly, fruitlessly…” [Doc. I] Keagne’s words embody the Protestant work ethic which was firmly instilled in most Puritans. Despite the fact that New England had no profitable staple crop due to infertile land and short growing seasons, the Puritans exploited New England’s abundant forests and fisheries to create a thriving economy based mainly on shipbuilding, saw mills, and the exportation of fish. This, aided by the Protestant work ethic led to an increase in mercantilism and secularism which eventually forced religion to compete with New England’s newly found trade based society. Yet Puritan values affected not only aspects of New England political and economic development, but that of social development as well.
Despite that Puritans held the ideas that their Godly society was equal and non-oppressive, it was actually inevitable that the Puritan’s strong religion beliefs would only lead them to believe that their religion is absolute which eventually led to conflicts with other societies. It can be seen in the Enlarged Salem Covenant of 1636 that the Puritans prided themselves in equality and freedom without oppression. [Doc. C] However, this idea is soon contradicted by William Bradford after his Colonist’s attack on the Pequot River Village only one year later. Bradford coveys how many colonists viewed American Indians as inferior beings [Doc. D] despite the pledges made previously in the Enlarged Salem Covenant. American Indians were not the only groups oppressed by the Puritans. John Cotton’s “Limitation of Government sets forth the idea that women, children, and servants played a subordinate role to men and should have limited liberty and authority. Dame schools further enforced this idea that Women were meant to be housewives and serve their husbands. Along with social intolerances, there were many religious prejudices as well. Nathaniel Ward’s “The Simple Cobbler Aggam” of 1647 demonstrated the social pressures on the Puritans. They were led to believe that those who accepted other religions other than their own were insincere about their own and thus there should not be socially accepted. [Doc. G] These ideas show how the Puritans evolved in to a new society that would exile those who did not conform to the Puritan way of life. Due to differing beliefs, many separated from the Puritan church – willingly or unwillingly. Roger Williams, for example, who believed in true religious freedom went on to find Rhode Island after his banishment in 1635. Thomas Hooker, went on to find Connecticut, which was a safe haven. However, others such as Anne Hutchinson who had a heavy belief in Antinomianism, were not as lucky; she was banished for her beliefs and killed by Indians shortly after. These are all examples of oppression that were unintentional. These ideas of oppression were most likely drawn from the compulsory education which instilled preset religious beliefs into the Puritans. Laws were established in 1642 and 1647 that required education. The Law of 1642 required that parents and master see to it that their children knew the principles of religion and the capital laws of the commonwealth. However, largely due to neglect, the idea of formal education as we know it was born. The Law of 1647 required that towns of fifty families hire a schoolmaster who would teach children to read and write. Towns of a hundred families were required to hire a grammar schoolmaster who could prepare children to attend Harvard College. It became very common for Puritan towns to have schools to support the newly enforced ideas of public education. [Doc. B] Through the enforcement of education, the Puritans evolved from a non-oppressive society into a society that patronized others who did not share their beliefs.
In conclusion, it can be seen that through a combination of intentional and unintentional changes, the Puritan way of life transitioned away from the original “city on a hill” idea set forth by Winthrop in 1630, into a secular society unfocused on the original intentions. Politically, the Puritans set forth more freedom to those who were not visible saints. Economically, the Puritans shifted their strong work ethic away from religion and towards New England’s rigid forests and fisheries. Finally, the puritans transitioned their main social goals from unconditional acceptance towards an oppressive society with rigid beliefs. A strong combination of these factors led the Puritans and New England colonies to become the trade-based secular society they were at the conclusion of the 1660s.
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