It might be safe to say that Puritans are the Protestant sect that’s aged the most poorly.
Presbyterians? Sure, I know some Presbyterians, they’re cool. Baptists? Yeah, all right, they seem fine. But Puritans? Is there anything particularly endearing about them? Not only has the word Puritan become a synonym (unfairly, of course) for “person who hates sex,” but even Puritans themselves don’t want anything to do with the term anymore (these days, they call themselves “Congregationalists“). I won’t lie—that makes them pretty hard to write about. It’s hard to give history’s most-hated Protestants a fair shake, especially in a humor column like this.
Still, they’re important, if for no other reason than they almost single-handedly invented American evangelical Christianity, so I’m going to do my best.
You probably know that most of the early American colonies were founded by Puritans, including some who called themselves “Pilgrims,” because even they weren’t big on being called Puritans. Most of the colonies in present-day New England were founded by them, and the original visions for these early colonies were… let’s say, ambitious. As pastor John Winthrop famously preached to the Pilgrims on the Mayflower in his sermon “A Model of Christian Charity,” the Puritan colonies would be “a city upon a hill” to the world, showing just how awesome life would be if everyone were a really dour Calvinist. (President Reagan would later adopt the same expression, but I think he meant we’d be an example to the world of how great things would be if everyone had a microwave oven, or something.)
As anyone who has visited New England in the past century can tell you, this… didn’t work out so well.
To talk about why, we might have to dive for a moment into what, exactly, Puritanism is. The Puritans were so-called not because they were morally uptight and obsessed with purity (though some of them were that as well), but because they wanted to “purify” the Church of England (though there were also Puritan Separatists, like the Pilgrims, but that was a whole other thing). The Church of England, they said, had retained too many vaguely Catholic beliefs and practices, such as celebrating holidays, burning incense in worship, and burning heretics at the stake (just kidding, they were okay with that last part).
One thing in particular that Puritans were sick of were all those fake Christians. You know what I’m talking about—people who know the Bible forward and backward, say they trust in Christ for salvation, are baptized, and even faithfully serve their neighbors and stuff, but then you ask them, “So when did you come to Christ?” and they’re like, “Uh… what?” (Those guys are the worst.) That’s the thing about Calvinism, though—Calvinists decided that neither baptism nor the Lord’s Supper secured salvation, so if they wanted to be extra-super-sure the Church only comprised super-real Christians, they had to have some test of salvation. What they landed on was, “Does this person have a dramatic conversion story?”
So, if you wanted to join a Puritan church, you had to give a testimony of how you had converted to Puritanism. Give yourself a gold star if you can already see the very obvious problem that the Puritans didn’t see coming: people who had been baptized Puritan as infants and then raised in the Puritan church their whole lives were extremely unlikely to have stories about dramatically converting to Puritanism.
The upshot was that, within a couple of generations, the Puritan colonies had more non-Puritans than actual Puritans. They were less a city on a hill and more just a normal city.
Churches back then weren’t big on their declining influence (hmm, that sounds familiar), so they started introducing what they called the “Halfway Covenant,” otherwise known as “Okay, You Non-Converts Can Sort-of Be Church Members, We Guess.” Under the Halfway Covenant, anyone who had been baptized into the church as a baby could be a voting member of the church, but only the ones with a testimony could share in Communion. This was a compromise that satisfied nobody, but since Puritans are always grumpy, nobody really noticed how unsatisfied they were.
What the Puritan churches really needed to stay healthy was a sudden outpouring of conversions—and, surprisingly, they actually got just that, thanks to Northampton, Massachusetts, pastor Jonathan Edwards. Widely considered the quintessential American “fire and brimstone” preacher (though he actually delivered his sermons calmly and demurely), Edwards made history when he preached the famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (also known as “Seriously, You Guys, If You Don’t Convert, You’ll Go to Hell, for Realsies”) while guest-preaching at the church in Enfield, Connecticut. Supposedly, Edwards was interrupted numerous times by the congregation wailing and crying out, “What must we do to be saved?” and there were deep gouges in the backs of the pews afterward from where congregants had dug in their fingernails out of sheer terror. So clearly, Edwards was an effective preacher. Or, at the very least, he had the same hype-man as William Castle.
The result of the preaching of Edwards and others was the First Great Awakening, in which masses of New Englanders experienced dramatic conversions to Christianity. As it turned out, though, this would lead to Edwards butting heads with his Northampton congregation as he tried to push back on the Halfway Covenant, insisting on full conversion for membership privileges. In the end though, it wasn’t being at odds with his board of elders that brought Edwards down—or even the fact that he was a mostly unrepentant slave owner (haha, why would that be a problem for white, American evangelicals?). In the end, it was dirty magazines. Because, isn’t it always dirty magazines?
What finally got Edwards ousted from the Puritan colonies was called the “Bad Books” incident—and yes, they actually called it that. What happened was apparently that some young men (read: twentysomethings) in the congregation found some dirty books (read: midwifery textbooks) and decided women’s bodies were hilarious. To be fair, they weren’t wrong about that, but when they started harassing the young women of the congregation and making fun of them for having the gall to menstruate, that was the last straw. (If anything, the lesson here is that locking kids away from sex ed indefinitely just means they turn into sixth-graders whenever they happen to find out about this stuff.)
Edwards wasn’t about to take this lying down, so, during the announcements at church, he called out the names of all the young men he wanted to question regarding the incident. Unfortunately, his list included both the offenders and innocent witnesses, without making any distinction between the two, and that was the last straw for the parishioners, who already saw Edwards as aloof and unapproachable, even for a hell-obsessed Puritan. In short order, he was ousted.
This, however, was not the end of his career. Edwards did what all evangelical pastors do when ousted by their congregations: he just started a new church, probably after posting a bunch of inspirational messages on his Instagram. Specifically, he started a mission to Housatonic Indian Tribe and (to his credit) ended up defending them against aggressive white settlers on numerous occasions. Then, later, he died of smallpox, as was the style at the time.
And, in any case, people liked the First Great Awakening so much that they decided to have a second one about 30 years after Rev. Edwards’s death (except, by then, everyone was Wesleyan instead of Calvinist)—and then, depending on who you ask, there was a third one and a fourth one. So, in the end, Edwards’s biggest contribution to evangelicalism wasn’t the fire-and-brimstone preaching, or the porno scandals, or even the racism—it was the perennial chasing of the latest fad.