The Puritan Vision of a New World

In 1630, a decade after the Pilgrims first made their way to Plymouth Colony, another group came from England to establish the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Like the separatist Pilgrims, these “Puritans” also left England seeking religious freedom. However, the Puritans did not seek separation from the Church of England. Instead, they wanted to reform it and restore the ideals and practices of a Christian society. Within a decade, more than 20,000 Puritans had settled across Massachusetts, Long Island, and Connecticut, including the Plantation of Menunkatuck (1639), which would later be called Guilford.

Predestination, the idea that God had determined each human’s fate and the fate of all that surrounded them, was a central tenet of the Puritans’ belief system. This concept helped define their understanding of social order. They accepted that most people in their society were not predestined to be “saved” (go to heaven upon their death). The doctrine of predestination seems strange to us today, but for 17th century Puritans, it provided predictability and security as European society faced momentous change brought about by the Protestant Reformation, the beginnings of colonization, and the emergence of modern capitalism. The Puritans did not believe living a virtuous life would get them to into heaven, but rather that their virtue was a sign that they were among that small number already predestined for paradise.

The Puritans imagined themselves as a special people on a sacred errand into the wilderness of a New World. Their religious faith was not to be forced on anyone, but was to grow naturally through the hope, love, and faith practiced by all members of their society. Government and religion reflected Puritans’ understanding of God’s preordained order. Their society would be unparalleled in the known world, and their success or failure would be visible for all to see.

Puritans viewed New England’s Indigenous people as heathens that needed religious conversion and civilizing. At first this attitude was superseded by the need for trade and knowledge to help the Puritans survive in an unknown environment. The early colonists negotiated with the local tribes for land. However, as their self-reliance increased, and their dependence on Indigenous peoples trade and assistance decreased, Puritan attitudes shifted to reflect their belief in their own religious superiority. This included the idea that God intended the land to be freely taken and “civilized” into a biblical paradise by the Puritans. As the colonial era wore on, land ownership and English agricultural practices altered the landscape and environment in important ways.

The Puritan vision of a Christian utopia in America was most famously expressed by John Winthrop, leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. On board the ship the Arbella in 1630, waiting to disembark to begin a new life on a new continent, Winthrop gave a sermon entitled “A Model of Christian Charity.” In it, he called for his followers to lead lives of virtue and effort, love and compassion, sharing and helping. He warned that the world would be watching, and that in the face of great challenge his followers needed to rise above and create a model society in their highly visible “city upon a hill.”

Throughout our nation’s history of wars, expansion across the continent, and economic and social change, our leaders have often echoed the pattern of Winthrop’s sermon. His was the first of many great American calls to idealism and justice.

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Donley Lukens, photographer, “Tercentenary Celebration Church Service, 1939,” (costumed performers recall Guilford’s founding by Puritans) Guilford Free Library Archives