What Were the Main Beliefs of the American Puritans?

ABSTRACT:  This article explores a vital question related to American origins: “What Were the Main Beliefs of the American Puritans?”  The answer will explain how The Shining City Set On a Hill Declined so quickly from its lofty goals by the second and third generations.  And more importantly, how may we avoid such a fate in the future? Puritan society was established on the foundation of a Biblical covenant in which every church member swore allegiance to obey the Word of God in personal, family, church, and civil government.  Unbelieving strangers could be part of the community, but could not participate in government decision-making. 


The Puritans, led by Cotton Mather, looked to recent scientific, advances in Europe, especially by Isaac Newton, to prove or verify the Bible.  They did the same thing with the classical literature of ancient Greece and Rome.  Thus, they subtly elevated the authority of Science and classical logic above that of the Bible.   The Bible commonwealth was further weakened by Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, and the Quakers. They substituted a subjective “inner light” for the Word of God.  As Puritan children moved out further from the town center they lost spiritual accountability and motives shifted toward material land ownership.  A “Half Way Covenant” was set up to allow children of the 2nd generation, non-church members to be baptized.   This eroded the covenant structure because evidence of an emotional decision was required for church membership, which children could not always provide. 


Rev. Thomas Hooker moved to establish Connecticut in 1636 in response to the pressure of unbelieving merchants to be given the vote based on land ownership and “good standing.” Finally, the execution of about 20 people for witchcraft based on spectral evidence gave the Puritans a spiritual black eye.  When William and Mary came to the English throne in 1688 they renewed Massachusetts’ charter. But, they made land ownership rather than Biblical covenant the basis for participation in government. And so the Shining City on a Hill went down in flames.

I. Introduction

A. Foundational Beliefs of the American Puritans

The American Puritans were a group of religious settlers who arrived in the early 17th century bringing with them a set of profound theological convictions. These laid the groundwork for their community in the New World. One such belief was the Calvinist doctrine of predestination and the authority of the Bible in all aspects of life.  Predestination posits that God ultimately predetermines the fate of every individual. But this was not in the sense of Greek “fate” that does not allow for God’s merciful response to human repentance. 

In the book of Jeremiah God is said to change his mind in response to a change of mind and behavior on the part of a nation.  We have an example of this with the nation of Ninevah. Their practices were so barbaric toward defeated foes that Jonah fled in horror from God’s command to preach to them.  In the end, Jonah preached and Ninevah repented via the decision of their federal head, the king.  Ultimately it is a question of whose will is ultimate, God’s or man’s.  Jesus told his disciples, that “ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you and ordained you” to bear much fruit.  God exercises His power mysteriously through the free choices of men to accomplish His will. 

This notion profoundly influenced the worldview of the American Puritans. It underscored their commitment to living in accordance with what they perceived as God’s divine plan. The Puritans’ emphasis on the absolute authority of the Bible in shaping their lives extended to everything. It included a belief in the total depravity of humanity, reinforcing their dedication to a life governed by biblical principles. 

B. Bible Covenant Cornerstone of Puritan Society

At the core of Puritan society was the concept of a biblical covenant. This was a sacred agreement between individual or corporate humanity and God that dictated their way of life. The Mayflower Compact of 1620 serves as an early example of this covenantal commitment. This was drafted by the Pilgrims before disembarking at Cape Cod. It expressed their intent to create a self-governing body rooted in Christian principles. This covenant extended beyond personal piety to encompass familial, ecclesiastical, and civil dimensions. It created a tightly interwoven fabric of shared religious principles that defined the Puritan community.  They viewed themselves as a chosen people, destined for a special purpose with God.  This Covenant formed the basis of their communal identify and moral framework, shaping every aspect of Puritan life.

In spite of this covenantal commitment, the American Puritans were compromised in certain core aspects of their epistemology. This has to do with how we know what we know. This could have come in part from the poetry and political prose of the learned George Buchanan in the late 1500s.  Buchanan was an associate and successor of John Knox and boyhood tutor of the fledgling King James I. He was a Christian humanist, who wrote an influential Latin history of Scotland.  The Massachusetts Puritans were also inordinately influenced by the classical literature. This was evidenced by use of ancient Greek and Roman place names for New England counties and towns (Athens, Aurelius, Brutus, Cato, Junius, etc).  This had much to do with their ultimate failure, as Plutarch’s Lives nudged out the Bible in their thinking.

C. American Puritan “Shining City Set on a Hill”

The Puritans envisioned their fledgling community as a metaphorical “Shining City Set On a Hill.” It would be a beacon of divine light illuminating the path for others to follow. Governor John Winthrop, in his 1630 sermon aboard the Arbella, articulated this vision. He invoked Matthew 5:14 in the Sermon on the Mount to inspire a sense of divine mission among the settlers. This metaphor captured their aspiration to create a society distinguished by righteousness and moral excellence, setting an example for the world.

D. Learning from the Mistakes of the American Puritans

The missteps of the American Puritans provides valuable insights for the Christian Reconstruction of America. Their experiences highlight the dangers of compromising foundational principles. For one thing, mishandling of the Massachusetts witch trials points to the importance of safety in a multitude of Biblical counselors. In particular the importance of incorporating ministerial advisors into the courtroom, as outlined in Deuteronomy 17: 9-12. We must take great pains to ensure that Christian Reconstruction efforts remain firmly grounded in commitment to specifics of Biblical law.

From a New Testament standpoint, teaching the nations to order their criminal justice systems according to the law of God is summarized in Exodus 20-24. This true Christian nationalism as defined by God. It is a key aspect of the Lord’s final Great Commission in Matthew 28: 18-20. It says, “Go ye therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…teaching them to observe all things, whatsoever I have commanded you….”   The Greek word “ethnos,” commonly translated “nations” is better understood as “cultures.” The word encompasses every expression of man’s faith in every realm of existence.

II. Decline of the Shining City

A Shift in Authority from Bible to Science and Classics

1. American Puritan Influence of Scientific Advances

There was a subtle shift in authority from the Bible to empirical observation.  The American Puritans sought to reconcile biblical principles with scientific progress. Consequently, they embraced the works of Isaac Newton’s laws of motion and principles of universal gravitation.  Initially embraced to validate biblical truths, these inadvertently elevated scientific reasoning to a positon of authority above that of scripture. 

This shift marked the beginning of a gradual erosion of the Bible’s exclusive authority in shaping the worldview of the nation. The integration of Newtonian physics subtly elevated empirical observation, challenging the exclusive dominance of biblical authority and contributing to the erosion of the original covenant-based foundation. The Bible contains foundational guiding principles for every aspect of creation, including science.

All such evidence from creation should be used to convict the unbeliever of his dreadfully vulnerable position before God.  The unbeliever is in the dock, not God.  The evidence should never be used to invite the unbeliever to stand in judgment over God or His word. 

2. American Puritan Integration of Classical Logic and Literature

In pursuit of a well-rounded education, American Puritans also integrated classical logic and literature from ancient Greece and Rome. This integration, while intended to complement their religious beliefs, unintentionally elevated classical knowledge to a level comparable to the Bible. For example, Puritan educational institutions incorporated classical texts alongside biblical teachings. The subtle influence of classical logic began to share intellectual space with the once-unquestioned authority of scripture.

Plutarch’s Lives in particular was integrated into the curriculum at the Harvard Log Cabin College early on.  The gradual intertwining of classical logic and literature with Puritan thought undermined the authority of the Bible in guiding their worldview.

B. Weakening of the Bible Commonwealth by Dissenters

1. Subjective “Inner Light” as Alternative to the Word of God

Dissenters like Anne Hutchinson challenged the established order by introducing the concept of the “inner light” as a direct, personal revelation from God. Hutchinson’s charismatic preaching attracted followers, creating a theological divergence from the authority of the Bible. This departure weakened the cohesive foundation of the Puritan community. The subjective “inner light” introduced an alternative source of divine guidance, eroding the exclusive reliance on scripture. 

Today the internet is rife with this brand of false prophecy that always falls short of expectations.  It includes endless speculations about the appearance of an alleged end-time antiChrist, who likewise never lives up to the billing.  The Trump Prophecy in which a man claims to have received revelation and published it in a book is an example. This is, in effect, adding to the Prophecy of Scripture, which is forbidden in Revelation 22:18. The Biblical penalty for all failed prophecies is capital punishment.  In an oath-bound, Christian nation false prophets would be warned once and allowed to pay a ransom if repentant.    

In a similar fashion, dissenters such as Roger Williams and the Quakers challenged the established religious order by introducing the concept of the “inner light.”   When Williams refused to respond after much personal counseling it was determined that he would be placed on a ship bound for England.  Before the ship embarked, Williams fled into the wilderness, eventually establishing a colony in Providence, Rhode Island.  This free-thinking colony attracted dissenters of every stripe, eventually driving Williams to distraction the same way he had in Boston.   The colony was nicknamed Rogue Island.  Poetic justice? 

2. Loss of Spiritual Accountability as the Community Expanded

By these means, the Puritan community, initially tightly knit, experienced a loss of spiritual accountability as it expanded geographically. Families moving further from the town center found it challenging to maintain the communal and church bonds that had characterized the early years of settlement. This contributed to a shift in focus from communal commitment, to individual material pursuits.

How did this alienation get started? In the Old Testament the youngest children were required to eat the Passover meal, which served as a visible object lesson to nurture their child-like faith.  Jesus told his disciples not to forbid the little children “to come unto Me.” Yet children are routinely excluded from the Lord’s table in today’s churches until they are old enough to have mastered a catechism.  Our approach is “excluded until proven worthy,” whereas Gods’ requirement is “included until proven unworthy.”  It is guilty until proven innocent versus innocent until proven guilty.

The alienation started early, when many members of the 2nd generation, having grown up in a Christian home, were unable to relate an emotional conversion experience that was required for church membership.  This led to the alienation of the 2nd generation and establishment of the improvised half-way covenant for baptism of their children, as we shall see below. 

III. Erosion of Covenant Structure

A. American Puritan “Half Way Covenant.”

1. Baptism of Children from Non-Church Families

The introduction of the “Half Way Covenant” in 1662 marked a significant departure from the original covenant structure. This compromise allowed the baptism of children born to non-church member families, weakening the exclusivity of church membership.  The stigma of “non-churched” should never have been attached to the second generation.  They should have been welcomed as members of the covenant family from baptism at birth.  Innocent until proven guilty. Even as the children of the believing families in ancient Israel were permitted – indeed required – to participate in the Passover meal. It was an object lesson to their faith: “When your children ask you, ‘What does this service mean to you?’ you are to reply, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses…’” (Ex. 12:26).

2. American Puritan Shift from Covenant Oath to Land Ownership

As the second generation of American Puritans grew up, a notable shift occurred in their motives for community participation. Having been denied membership in the covenant family, the spiritual tie was weakened or destroyed. The spiritual commitment, gave way to an increasing focus on material land ownership. Families moving away from the town center sought economic opportunities through land acquisition. They failed to prioritize the communal spiritual principles that had defined the early years. This shift reflected a decline in the covenant’s influence, as material pursuits took precedence over the original spiritual commitment.

B. Requiring Emotional Decision for Church Membership

1. Not All Children Could Recount An Emotional “Decision”

The requirement for an emotional “decision” as evidence for church membership posed challenges, particularly for children. Unlike adults who could articulate a personal conversion experience, children often struggled to fulfill this criterion. The inability of some children to recount an emotional or definitive “decision” became a problem. Ultimately, it led to a loosening of the covenant structure.

The emphasis on an emotional “decision” experience as a prerequisite for church membership created a subjective standard. This subjective standard did not align with the covenant’s initial focus on a solemn oath or ceremony of covenant initiation for the children. And so, contrary to Jesus’ command to “let the little children come unto me and forbid them not” the 2nd generation was excluded from the covenant community. The gravity of this neglect is seen in God’s warning of death to Moses for refusing to circumcise his own sons on the journey to deliver the children of Israel.

“On the trip, at an overnight campsite, it happened that the Lord confronted him and sought to put him to death. So Zipporah took a flint, cut off her son’s foreskin, and threw it at Moses’ feet. Then she said, ‘You are a bridegroom of blood to me!’ So He let him alone. At that time she said, ‘You are a bridegroom of blood,’ referring to the circumcision.” (Ex. 4:24-26)

2. Church Membership Based on Emotion Rather Than Oath

This departure from the solemn oath of covenant commitment weakened the spiritual foundation of the community. This was because emotional decisions took precedence over a coherent and shared commitment to the biblical covenant. 

Pastor Jonathan Edwards was dismissed from his first church for violation of this principle.  This led to publication of his book, Religious Affections, which affected the emotional tenor of his evangelistic crusades.  And it contributed to a spirit of Yankee individualism in the colonies.  With the covenant foundations thus eroded, the door was left open for philosophes like Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams to press for a godless, neutral, social contract in Philadelphia.  The documents they produced were based on unalienable human rights and other Enlightenment concepts during the founding decade.

IV. External Pressures and Compromises

A. Hooker Establishes Connecticut Without Bible Covenant

1. Demand for Voting Rights Based On Land Ownership

Rev. Thomas Hooker played a crucial role in the establishment of Connecticut in 1636, driven partly by external pressures from unbelieving merchants. These merchants, seeking greater influence, pressured the Puritan leaders to grant voting rights based on land ownership rather than adherence to biblical covenant principles. This demand challenged the original covenant commitment, as the foundation for political participation shifted from spiritual allegiance to material considerations and “moral good standing.”  

The compromise to appease these pressures marked a pivotal moment in the erosion of the Puritans’ commitment to their covenantal principles.  From that moment “the American Experiment” was doomed.  It was a commitment to political pluralism that was ultimately enshrined in the First Amendment to the national Constitution.  Political Pluralism is equivalent to Political Polytheism. That’s because the door is open for every man’s god to have a seat at the table of public discourse.  It is therefore a violation of the First Commandment:  Thou shalt have no other gods before me.  

Every god has a law code, a formulation of what is right and what is wrong.  Jews have the Talmud, Muslims have the Koran, Hindus have the Bhagavadgita, Confusians have the Five Classics, and Christians have……………nothing.  If you thought that Christians have the Bible, you will look long and hard to find it in the U.S. Constitution.  The Founding Framers self-consciously left it out.  Rejection of the Bible is a commitment to injustice and ultimate political anarchy. 

2. Abandonment of oath to Bible Law Legal System

In response to external pressures, including demands for land-based voting rights, the American Puritans compromised their covenant commitment by abandoning the original framework based on the Bible’s legal system. This compromise, a capitulation to secular interests, marked a departure from the covenantal principles that initially guided the establishment of the Puritan community. This tragic lurch towards secular government diluted the influence of biblical law, compromising the integrity of the Shining City’s initial vision.

B. Execution for Witchcraft

1. The Stain on American Puritan Reputation, Especially The Scarlet Letter

The infamous Salem witch trials resulted in the execution of about 20 individuals based on spectral evidence and departure from Biblical due process. Between 40,000 to 60,000 had been executed for witchcraft in Europe during the same period.

Nonetheless, this left an indelible stain on the reputation of the American Puritans. This stain was vividly portrayed by Nathaniel Hawthorne in his classic novel “The Scarlet Letter.” Hawthorne’s narrative highlighted the spiritual and moral consequences of the American Puritans deviating from their foundational principles. Although Hawthorne set up and attacked a straw man, the Puritan’s opened the door with their inattention to the details of Biblical law. 

2. American Puritan Failure Not Having Ministerial Advisors In Court

The failure to follow the biblical mandate outlined in Deuteronomy 17: 9-12, which required having ministerial advisors in court, contributed to the tragic outcomes of the witch trials. The absence of ministerial guidance allowed for the acceptance of spectral evidence, leading to unjust convictions. This failure underscored the importance of integrating biblical principles into legal proceedings, as outlined in their own scriptural teachings, and revealed the consequences of compromising these principles under external pressures.

V. Changes with Arrival of William and Mary

A. Renewal of Massachusetts’ Charter in 1688

In 1688, the ascension of William and Mary to the English throne marked a significant turning point for the American Puritans. The new monarchs sought to bring the American colonies more closely under royal control, leading to the renewal of Massachusetts’ Charter. However, this renewal came with conditions. The English Crown, rather than upholding the Puritan ideals rooted in a biblical covenant, now asserted its own authority over the colony.

B. Shift From the Biblical Covenant to Land Ownership

With the renewal of the charter came a consequential shift in the basis for government participation. Previously, the American Puritans had founded their society on the biblical covenant, emphasizing spiritual commitment as a prerequisite for political engagement. However, under the renewed charter, the criterion for participation shifted to land ownership. This transition altered the very foundation of governance, with the possession of land now determining political rights.

This was the result of a dramatic philosophical sea-change that transpired in Britain during the course of the 17th Century.  A group of Whig writers known as the British Commonwealth Men introduced the concept of godless, secular government. Rights were supposedly guaranteed under a written constitution.  Most prominent among them were John Milton, James Harrington, and John Locke.   Harrington spoke of an “equal agrarian” principle to suppress the accumulation of large land holdings.  Locke introduced the social contract. William & Mary were obviously strongly influenced by the British Commonwealth Men. In the next century, Jefferson and Madison were also strongly influenced.  Madison wanted a secular republic as a reaction against Europe’s religious wars.  He got it.

VI. Lessons for Cultural Reconstruction

A. Mistakes of the American Puritans

Reflecting on the mistakes of the Massachusetts Puritans offers valuable insights for Christian Reconstruction efforts. The gradual shift from covenant commitment to emotional response, is seen in the “Half Way Covenant.” This historical misstep demonstrates the importance of vigilance in restoring and preserving the original covenant structure.

For example, the vast majority of Christian conservatives in the U.S. are hopelessly deceived by the emotional, patriotic siren song of the U.S. Constitution.  This intellectual idol must be forsaken before any hope of reform can succeed.  God cannot bless any reform effort that involves a return to the “original intent” of a godless, secular, social contract.

B. Biblical Principles in Government

The experience of the American Puritans underscores the critical importance of paying attention to details of Biblical civil government. Even a document based on a convenant commitment can be deficient due to neglecting important aspects of doctrine.

For instance, the original Massachusetts Body of Liberties had enumerated about 10 of the Bible’s capital punishment crimes.  That’s a good start, but it neglected Biblical principles of mercy via ransom that are exemplified in Exodus 21 and several other places in the Old Testament.  Under this principle the victim has the option of extending forgiveness and mercy to a penitent, convicted offender. This would replace the death penalty with a monetary ransom in view of the penalty or ransom paid by Christ. 

C. Spiritual Accountability in Community Expansion

Another lesson from the Puritans’ decline is the significance of spiritual accountability and commitment in community expansion. As the Puritan settlements expanded, the loss of intimate connections and shared spiritual responsibility contributed to the erosion of their covenant structure. Christian Reconstruction initiatives should prioritize strategies that foster and maintain spiritual accountability within growing communities, especially families. This will ensure that expansion does not come at the cost of diluting the original spiritual commitment.

D. Incremental Reformation

1. The Bible Model Legislation Project

The experience of the American Puritans serves as a stark warning about the danger of compromising core beliefs under external pressure. The execution of individuals for witchcraft was influenced by societal expectations. The absence of ministerial advisors in court, as per Deuteronomy 17, is another example of the danger of ignoring details. Christian Reconstruction efforts must remain steadfast in their commitment to the specfices of Bible law to avoid undermining the spiritual integrity of the community.

The Bible Model Legislation project is geared toward gradual replacement of specific laws in the states one at a time.  As issues arise these simple statutes may be introduced on a state by state basis.  Below is an example of a homicide statute with the case law related to the commandment from the Decalogue


2. One Law Code

The Papal Revolution of 1075-1122 resulted in a secular state divorced from the church and all accountability to the law of God.  From that day to this, Western Civilization has been plagued by a plurality of law codes. These include Roman law, common law, natural law, canon law, corporation law, constitutional law, feudal law, manorial law, mercantile law, urban law, royal law, historical law, positive law, case law, equity law, administrative law, bureaucratic law, procedural law, and sociological law, among others. 

As these law codes have evolved over time – and are altered by violent revolution — they have grown progressively more remote from the Bible, and despotic. Like Gulliver we find ourselves bound down tight by Lilliputians in a legalistic and litigious society. This plurality of evolving legal systems, ultimately competing with and eclipsing Biblical law, lies at the heart of God’s great controversy with Western Civilization.

The Bible requires only one Biblical law code and one legal system. This must be applied equally to citizen and foreigner alike and to all spheres of life, church and state. One law. “There is to be one law and one ordinance for you and for the alien who sojourns with you” (Num. 15:16). Even as Luther burned the Canon Law of the church, at some point (soon) we must start over from a Biblical Law foundation, never departing from, and always returning to, the Biblical case law principle. Here are the basic features of such a statute:

VII. Sample Statute: Homicide

Thou Shalt Not Kill

A. Case Law  Principle:

“He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint you a place to which he may flee. If, however, a man acts presumptuously toward his neighbor, so as to kill him craftily, you are to take him even from My altar, that he may die” (Exodus 21:12-14).

B. Statutory Application:

Homicide. A judgment for homicide may only be rendered after diligent inquiry (due process). That would include the testimony of a least two witnesses.

Witnesses may be human or a non-human line of evidence (Gen. 4:10). Human witnesses must be involved in the execution process and the execution must follow as soon as practicable after conviction.

1. Negligent Homicide Penalty: The just requirement of the law for cases of negligent or accidental homicide is the death penalty. However, The City of Refuge provision and the death of the Great High Priest (Jesus Christ) allows for a ransom to be substituted for the death penalty at the discretion of the victim’s immediate family and the judge.
2. Premeditated Homicide Penalty: The just requirement of the law for cases of willful or premeditated homicide is the death penalty. No ransom, monetary or other, shall be accepted for the life of the murderer.

Related Applications & Points of Law.

  1. Ex. 21:29,30 allows for a ransom to be paid in lieu of death penalty for accidental manslaughter.
  2. Num. 35:31 allows for no ransom in the case of premeditated murder. Nor may he flee to the church for sanctuary.
  3. Num. 35:30 requires more than one witness. The Bible requires that the witness shall “cast the first stone” or otherwise participate in the execution. The execution shall be public.
  4. Eccl. 8:11 requires speedy execution upon conviction to ensure the deterrent value of the judgment.

VIII. Conclusion

A. Summary of the Key Points

In summary, the decline of the Shining City Set On a Hill among the American Puritans was caused by subtle shifts in authority, the influence of dissenters, erosion of covenant structures, and other compromises. These ranged from reliance on the authority of scientific advances, to the introduction of subjective “inner light” doctrines, and the renewal of a charter based on land ownership. Each stage contributed to a gradual deviation from the original oath-bound covenant structure. The decline underscored the dangers of compromising core beliefs under external pressures and the importance of maintaining spiritual accountability in community expansion.

B. Historical Lessons For Christian Reconstruction

The historic narrative of the American Puritans offers a compelling example to guide the Christian Reconstruction of America or any nation. Of prime importance is return to a covenant commitment to the law of God as the foundation of the criminal justice system, per Exodus 20-24. Incremental advances, one statute at a time may be required. Stop excluding children from the community based on criteria of humanistic rationalism. Constructing a “parallel society” is good as long as it is based on building blocks of Biblical law and not vague conservative principles.


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