THEME: Although diverse religious influences have shaped American culture, the dominant tradition has been Protestant Christianity. This topic deals with the currents of English Protestantism that most heavily influenced the colonial background to the American nation.


English Christianity, 1520-1620

The Reformation in England was first of all a political act. In the 1520s King Henry VIII and his Parliament took  the governance of the English Church from the pope, declaring the monarch as its head. [Act of Supremacy, 1534]. He also closed the kingdom's many monasteries and convents, confiscating their land to use as political patronage. Otherwise King Henry, who disapproved of Protestant ideas, left religious life pretty much intact. This was the beginning of the Anglican branch of Christianity which eventually came to be marked by both Catholic and Protestant features.

After Henry's death (1547) Church reformers like Thomas Cranmer, with the approval of Henry's teenage son, Edward VI, (1547-1553), brought the Anglican Church towards Protestant piety and theology, reforms reflected in Cranmer's  Book of Common Prayer.

When Edward died, his older and devoutly Catholic sister, Mary Tudor  (1553-1558) returned England  to the Roman Catholic fold and made martyrs  of Protestant-minded church leaders by driving them into exile or executing  them. But like her young half-brother, Mary's reign was short.

She was succeeded by her younger half-sister, Elizabeth (1558-1603), sympathetic to some of Cranmer's reforms and eager to bring stability to her kingdom.  Her religious settlement was a blend of Catholic tradition  and Protestant reform. During her long reign  the pendulum swing between Protestant and Catholic identities stopped and  England entered a kind of golden age (the Elizabethan Age).

Despite Elizabeth's attempt at a balanced religious settlement, there were still people in Britain who missed the older Catholic ways and still others who wanted to push further towards Protestantism. These more radical reformers who wanted a "purer" more Protestant church, though a diverse bunch, came to be known as Puritans. [Rise of Puritanism]

The new monarch, James I (1603-1625), in whose reign the foundation of England's American colonies was laid, faced ever more vocal demands from Puritans. By the 1620s and 1630s it was clear  that the Reformation in Britain had laid the roots for a  contentious religious diversity that by the 1640s would lead to Civil War. This was the religious background to the founding of the English colonies, to what historian Perry Miller has called "Errand Into the Wilderness."[Read it in Porterfield, #1.]

There is a wealth of more information on the Reformation in  England at this BBC site:  Reformation.


English Protestantism in the New World: City on a Hill

bulletPLANTINGS: 17th century Virginia, New England, & In Between
bulletHow important were Puritanism & the New England Way?
bulletUnity and Diversity: [Note how Marty (chap. 5) stresses the differences between Virginia, New England, and the Middle Colonies. ]
bulletConversion Experience
bulletHearts pierced by the Word: "They whose hearts are pierced by the ministry of the word they are carried with love and respect to the ministers of it." (Thomas Hooker (1586-1647), Repentant Sinners and Their Ministers)
bulletTransformed Personalities
bullet Thomas Shepard as a Case History of  the Puritan Experience
bulletEmanuel College, Cambridge, 1620s (3rd generation of English Protestantism)
bulletPattern of his conversion experience (See excerpts in the Shepard document.) Note that his account, in both form and images, is like a sexual seduction; (note male and female images)
bulletThe Way Down
bulletThe Pit
bulletStumbling out and up
bulletAcceptance of grace and the Covenant; he saw God's mercy as free and himself as passive in coming to Christ. He also saw Christ as his antithesis. he also saw that he was elected for this gift of becoming completed united to his antithesis. (Again, note the sexual imagery.)
bulletPuritan Theology to Fit the Experience: The major Protestant theologian for Puritans was John Calvin, although they drew on others as well.
bulletJustification and Sanctification (See John Cotton document on the Covenant of Grace.)
bulletDivine Sovereignty and Will
bulletHuman Depravity & God's Grace
bulletSeparation of Nature and Grace:This is perhaps the most important Protestant departure from traditional Christianity. (See Consecration of Nature)
bulletThe Elect & Predestination: See the Calvin document..
bulletCovenant & Community of Saints (See Winthrop in Porterfield)
bulletA person, once convinced of being touched by grace, made a covenant with God and a covenant with other saints to gather into a church. For them the church was not everyone within a parish boundary but rather those who had the experience of grace. Thus the Puritans saw themselves as apart from the rest of society, a vanguard called to lead the way towards God's kingdom.
bulletThe Church for a people of covenant.  
bulletThe Cambridge Platform (1648)and Congregationalism
bullet Cambridge Platform,  (source text)
bulletVocation (calling) and  Mission
bulletCalling was an important part of the Puritan experience. It is remarkable that although they believed in predestination, once convinced they were favored with God grace, they were relentlessly activist.
bulletGod and Humankind as active forces in history
bulletEschatology & Millennialism
bulletPuritan Resources
bulletCotton Mather Home Page


THE NEW ENGLAND WAY: A Polity for a City Upon a Hill.

The Puritan's theology of justification, experience of grace, covenant, and church led them to develop in New England a particular political and social order to serve Winthrop's vision in The Model of Christian Charity. By 1648 the ideas that shaped the New England Way were expressed in the Cambridge Platform.

bulletOnly those admitted to full membership in the church could fully participate in government.
bulletThe Church was the moral compass for society and its rules and moral teachings were enforced by the government. The government protected and supported the church and the church served the political order.
bulletReligious diversity and disrespect for established social order and traditions were not to be tolerated.


The Protestant emphasis on the individual experience of grace quite naturally led some to question institutional authority. Indeed, the major Protestant reformers (Luther and Calvin) recognized the problem and tried to deal with it in various ways. For the founders of the New England Way, the problem manifested itself early in what came to be called the Antinomian Crisis. (Antinomian is based on Latin for "against law or rule".) The crisis was centered on the activities and views of an extraordinary woman in Boston, Anne Hutchinson. But the problem, which was fundamentally the issue of the rights of individual conscience vs. the requirements for institutional authority and communal order, was also seen in the ministry of Roger Williams, the founder of  Rhode Island.

bullet Anne Hutchinson's Trial & the Antinomian Crisis  
bulletAn essay on the social significance of Hutchinson & Antinomianism (long and heavily scholarly, so it's tough slogging, at Palo Alto College, Texas)
bulletRoger Williams, A Plea for Religious Liberty
bulletThe New England Way Bedeviled

Towards the end of the 17th century fears of witchcraft troubled some New England communities, most famously Salem in Massachusetts. Although the persecution of alleged witches is strictly speaking not an issue of dissent, it does illustrate the way troubled communities can pick on individuals perceived to be deviant to use as scapegoats.

Here are three essays on recent views about the witchcraft hysteria. Note how historians have been exploring the social dimension of the topic.
bulletThe Devil in America
bulletEarly American Horror Show
bulletWho Burned the Witches [on the European phase]

Here are two sites offering various  materials:

bullet Witchcraft in Salem Village [a rich archive of materials on the trials. BEWARE - one can get swamped with so fascinating information.]
bulletSalem Witchcraft [a Salem city guide with information for tourists and students.]