The foundation of Puritanism in the early generations of British settlement in North America created a resonating tradition of protestation in the thirteen colonies and the future United States until the present day. However, the Puritan faith faded quickly during the 18th century and has left as its only trace the phrase “puritanical” in order to portray a simpler, more moralistic lifestyle. Why did this happen, given the strength of the Puritan communities in the 17th century? There are several reasons why the Puritan communities did not make it from settlement to nation.
Numbering over 20,000 in 1650 and peaking at 90,000 in 1700 in the New England colonies, it seemed that Puritanism was running strong in the British colonies. The creation of the Plymouth settlement in the future Massachusetts in 1619 (in Cape Cod) led to the Mayflower Compact, which stated that the will of the majority would be the deciding factor in the settlement’s laws. This was in response to the Anglican Church’s draconian measures against religious expression (or at least perceived draconian nature of these measures) and fundamental belief in religious freedom in the Puritan communities.
However, there were early disagreements between moderate Puritans (who felt that reform could be made within the Anglican Church) and the radical Pilgrims (who felt the need to set an example to the Anglicans) over how to govern the colony. The Plymouth settlers absorbed with the more organized Massachusetts Bay settlers to create a “city on the hill,” a strongly religious community to set an example for future settlers. However, while it would seem that combining the communities would strengthen the Puritan cause, it only furthered the diffusion of Puritan fervor in the New England states and exacerbated the already raging debates between different Puritan groups.
The new Massachusetts Bay colony, established in 1630 and fused with Plymouth in 1691, centralized economic functions and increased the Crown’s ability to manage their colonial charters. The economic growth of the colony caused an inverse interest in religious activity and the time originally spent on earnest religious practice was now spent on craftsmanship and business ownership. As well, the teachings of Anne Hutchinson (who believed that a direct relationship with God, rather than good deeds, would allow followers to receive grace) confirmed the worries of the more conservative Roger Williams (who felt that church and state should be separated to maintain the Puritan faith) that combining community functions would ruin the purpose of the religious community in the first place.
The final nail in the coffin for Puritanism was te Half Way Covenant, which stated that in order to vote a member of the community did not need to fulfill all of the requirements for being a Puritan (though they did need to belong to the community). The Covenant, a nod to the moderate Puritans and to the efforts to democratize the settlement’s government, demonstrated that the strength of a radical movement is dependent on too many factors (including static economic, social, and political factors) to remain strong for more than a few generations.