What were the beliefs and purposes of the Puritans? Did they consider themselves better than others?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The term “Puritan” was originally used as a term to mock deeply committed Protestants who wanted to “purify” the Church of England and move its theology further away from the theology of Roman Catholicism. One reason that so many “Puritans” emigrated from England to New England was that so many people in England found Puritanism difficult to accept. Puritans were strongly influenced by the teachings of the Protestant theologian Jean (or John) Calvin. Calvin taught that a person’s salvation was entirely dependent on God’s grace. There was (he believed) no way to “earn” salvation by doing good deeds or being a “good person.” Only God could decide who would be saved from hell, and since God knows everything that happens at all times, including the future, God knows who will ultimately be saved. The minority of people who will be saved are the “elect” (the chosen). Puritans often believed, after examining their consciences, that there were among the “elect.” Many of them, however, were never entirely sure that they were among this chosen group, although they hoped that they would be. Puritanism thus encouraged a great deal of individual psychological self-examination, and in fact many scholars believe that the rise of Calvinism helped encourage the outburst of autobiographical writing that occurred throughout the seventeenth century.

Puritanism could encourage a sense of superiority in some Puritans.  Puritan beliefs could lead some Puritans to assume that they were among the elect while most other persons were not. Anyone who resisted Puritan doctrines (especially Roman Catholics or conservative Anglicans) might well be among those destined for damnation.  After all, Puritans believed that if God had chosen a person to be saved, that person was more likely than others to be good and to do good.  (Being good and doing good could not obligate an all-powerful God to grant a person salvation, but persons chosen for salvation were likely to be good and do good.) Opponents of Puritanism often considered Puritans to be “holier-than-thou.” They often regarded Puritans as smug and egotistical, and they also often considered Puritans to be hypocrites. Opponents of Puritans believed that Puritans were intolerant and extremely self-assured. In short, opponents of Puritans often felt that Puritans were guilty of spiritual and intellectual pride – an extremely serious failing in any Christian. Opponents of the Puritans oftend considered Puritans to be, in the words of Satan in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown,"

"more conscious of the secret guilt of others, both in deed and thought, than they could now be of their own."

Of course, not all Puritans deserved the criticism they received from their opponents, but the idea that Puritans were proud, self-righteous hypocrites arose early and lasted long.