Puritanism: A Very Short Introduction
Written by a leading expert on the Puritans, this brief, informative volume offers a wealth of background on this key religious movement. This book traces the shaping, triumph, and decline of the Puritan world, while also examining the role of religion in the shaping of American society and the role of the Puritan legacy in American history. Francis J. Bremer discusses the rise of Puritanism in the English Reformation, the struggle of the reformers to purge what they viewed as the corruptions of Roman Catholicism from the Elizabethan church, and the struggle with the Stuart monarchs that led to a brief Puritan triumph under Oliver Cromwell. It also examines the effort of Puritans who left England to establish a godly kingdom in America. Bremer examines puritan theology, views on family and community, their beliefs about the proper relationship between religion and public life, the limits of toleration, the balance between individual rights and one's obligation to others, and the extent to which public character should be shaped by private religious belief. About the Series: Combining authority with wit, accessibility, and style, Very Short Introductions offer an introduction to some of life's most interesting topics. Written by experts for the newcomer, they demonstrate the finest contemporary thinking about the central problems and issues in hundreds of key topics, from philosophy to Freud, quantum theory to Islam.
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When one thinks of Puritans and Puritanism (in the US this usually happens around the time of Thanksgiving) one usually thinks of men and women in staid black vestments who are dour in demeanor and extremely strict and bleak in their morals. However, this caricature has more to do with the way that Puritanism was used in the twentieth century as a byword for all sorts of strict moral and religious attitudes than with the real Puritans and their primary concerns. From that standpoint this very short introduction from the Oxford University Press serves as a useful guide to dispelling many of those prevalent myths and prejudices about Puritanism. It places its origins in the right historical and political context, and that is the one of sixteenth and seventeenth England. Puritanism arose in the aftermath of the splitting of the Church of England from the Catholic Church, and its primary impulses were to bring the Church of England further along the line of other protestant churches and get rid of what was perceived as remnants of Catholic practices. Puritans never became a separate and self-contained denomination, but were rather a reform movement within Anglicanism. In their theology they were closer to Calvinism, but overall did not possess a distinct theological tradition.
In England, aside from politics Puritans have had a significant influence on all aspects of public life. John Milton's "Paradise Lost" is a prime example of influence of Puritan ideal on literature and arts. One of the more surprising things that I came away with after reading this book was how quite ordinary Puritans actually were, and how in fact some of the stereotypes we have about them are in actuality quite the opposite of what the reality were. For instance, much like the rest of sixteenth and seventeenth English population Puritans readily consumed alcohol, even in preference to water which was at the time extremely polluted and unsafe to drink. The completely black outfits that are traditionally associated with Puritans were in fact worn only by the elite, since black cloths at the time symbolized high status and were hard to come by. The only accurate idea about them seems to be about their avoidance of theatre and dancing.
In the US Puritanism has a special status due to the nation's founding myth of Pilgrims who had established a colony in present day Massachusetts. For centuries many of the values and ideals that have been ascribed to the Pilgrims have shaped the way that Americans perceive themselves. The actual Puritans are long gone now, but many of their spiritual descendants are still with us in the form of different Protestant denominations. For the sake of better understanding of American religious heritage it is important to know about the origin of these denominations, and this very short introduction is a very useful step in that direction.