The ideas put forth by the Puritans are not simply an important starting point for American culture because they were the first in the country, but because they offered ways of thinking that are still ingrained in our culture today. Although many of the thoughts of Puritans have gradually dissipated or become less meaningful over time, it is important to note that Puritan writers and thinkers such as John Winthrop and Roger Williams offered ideas that were new at the time that stayed with the American consciousness—culturally, socially, and politically.
Notions of freedom, liberty, and the role of religion within the state have long since been at the forefront of national debates. When the Puritans considered such ideas, their thoughts and writings on the matter were never quite forgotten, only shifted and modified to suit the taste of contemporary concerns. In “The Journal of John Winthrop” and Williams’ treatise, “The Bloody Tenet of Persecution for the Cause of Conscience” many ideas that are still present in modern American life and culture are brought forward and explored. By examining these writings, it becomes more possible to trace the philosophical development of America from the colonial to the modern period.
The idea of government and the meaning of liberty have been questions plaguing Americans since the time John Winthrop wrote in his journal in 1648. In many ways, the issues he addresses, most notably in the section of his journal containing his speech to the General Court, are the same that are alive in contemporary debates about the role of the government and what moral liberty means. In the beginning of his speech he states, “The great questions that have troubled the country are about the authority of the magistrates and the liberty of the people” and the modern reader cannot help but think about how such a statement resonates today. This shows that the Puritans paved the way for constantly questioning the political and moral foundations from the very beginning.
In addition to this more general notion about Puritan culture in early America, Winthrop brings forth the question of what true liberty means. While it differs from more contemporary notions, he does provide a valid starting point for American culture’s obsession with an ever-broadening and changing definition of liberty and freedom. For instance, Winthrop writes that there are two types of liberty; natural and civil. In terms of nature Winthrop writes in one of the important quotes from The Journal of John Winthrop, “man, as he stands in relation to man simply hath the liberty to what he lists; it is a liberty to evil as well as to good.” By making this claim he is building the foundations for later American ideas such as what freedom is and to what extent personal liberty should be allowed, particularly if the possibility of evil exists. Aside from this early allusion to more modern debates in America, Winthrop also puts forth the related idea about how liberty is something that is God-given.
John Winthrop says that “This liberty is maintained and exercised in a way of subjection to authority; it is of the same kind of liberty wherewith Christ has made us free.” In other words, Winthrop views the liberty of the Puritans as something that is loving and nurturing, but also something that has the potential to be abused. Winthrop was quite ahead of his time in many aspects, especially in terms of how he thought critically about the meaning of liberty and the individual’s right to act according to moral (or immoral) principles. These ideas were a crucial starting point for American culture because they set forth the questions about the personal sense of free will and liberty; both in terms of the state and the self.
A more specific contribution to later American culture was put forth by Roger Williams who, although steeped in some Puritan ideals, was something of an outcast among his peers because of his somewhat radical religious and political views. In his piece entitled, “The Bloody Tenet of Persecution for the Cause of Conscience” he discusses the very modern issue of the separation between the church and the state. His comments in this piece are remarkable because they offer an early argument on the topic thus building the groundwork for later American cultural notions of the separation of religious and civil matters. They are also revolutionary in terms of their later effects because although he makes an argument for the separation, it does not seem to be the same one put forth by the eventual creators of the Constitution. For instance, he states, “an enforced uniformity if religion throughout a nation or civil state confounds the civil and religious, denies the principles of Christianity and civility, and [denies] that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh.” In essence, what he is suggesting is not the modern rationale for the separation, but that the two should be kept apart because one is too sacred (the church) to be mixed up with the other. This was an important thought for later American ideas and culture, even if the separation eventually was for the reason of keeping power balanced and without interference. Despite the ways these ideas might have changed from Williams’ initial assertions, it is worth noting that he laid the groundwork for such a debate—even if it caused him to become a pariah in the Puritan community. In addition to this progressive idea from the Puritan period, Williams also makes another forward-thinking point when he says in one of the important quotes from “The Bloody Tenet of Persection” that “God requireth not an uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state.” Such a statement is very similar to the eventual American creed of allowing the free practice of any religion without state interference. By using the intentions of God in his statement, Williams is saying that there is no one religion that should be mandated. Out of the many ideas put forth that would later go on to influence all aspects of the development of American culture and politics, this is perhaps the most important and still one of the most resonant.
Other essays and articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : Puritan Ideology in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and “A Model of Christian Charity” • The Influence of the Enlightenment on The Formation of the United States • Full Summary and Analysis of “The Minister’s Black Veil” by Nathaniel Hawthorne • Full Plot Summary and Analysis of “The Birthmark” by Nathaniel Hawthorne • The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne : The Effects of Sin on the Mind, Body, and Soul • Analysis and Plot Summary of “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathnaiel Hawthorne
Williams, Roger. “The Bloody Tenet of Persecution for the Cause of Conscience” 1643
Winthrop, John. “The Journal of John Winthrop.” 1648.