The Puritans in America, Book Three

Book One: Mourt's Relation
Book Two: The Puritan Dilemma

This is my final review on this topic about the Puritans:

The Third Book

Edmund Morgan, author of Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea, examines the evolution of the concept of church membership in New England.  Sounds enthralling, I know, but it is a fragment of early American history.

Recall the problem the Puritans faced: building a church that was pure and good and right in a world that was not pure or good or right.  If we are all sinners, who is worthy to attend church?

According to St. Augustine, there are in fact two churches: 
"One was pure but invisible; it included every person living, dead, or yet to be born, who God had predestined for salvation.  The other was visible but not entirely pure; it included only living persons who professed to believe in Christianity.  Not every member of the visible church was destined for salvation, for not every man who professed belief would actually possess the true belief, the saving faith necessary for redemption.  The visible church, operating in the world of time and of human corruption, must inevitably contain sinful men.  It was holy, but not completely..."
The Puritans in New England set out to determine the right way to apply church membership.  In old England, anyone could attend and be members of the Church, and only bishops could discipline members; therefore, churches could not remove unworthy members, even though the Bible provides instruction and examples how to expel officers or members who are immoral.  The Puritans believed that church discipline was essential to the survival of the Church.

The Separatists vs. non-Separatists

The Separatists removed themselves from the Church of England for the lack of discipline and because it had been improperly founded; they refused to recognize it as a church. Meanwhile, the non-Separatists did not encourage separation from or rejection of the English Church because separation caused schisms, which were always troublesome.

Both factions of Puritans agreed on church discipline, but the Separatists yearned for membership similar to the invisible church.  Some qualifications were: the rejection of the Church of England, the knowledge and understanding of Christian doctrine, and outward behavior as a sign of saving grace.  I think that last one is where the charge of self-righteousness grew.

The Puritans, who came to New England after the first wave of Pilgrims, resembled the Separatists but recognized the English Church and refused to separate from them.  These non-Separatists also concerned themselves with how to reach those who were lost if the Church refused to admit them because they failed a strict membership test (such as the Separatists applied).

More on Anne Hutchinson

John Cotton warned the Salem church about the dangers of Separatism because it focused on good behavior.  Even church covenants were aimed at good behavior, and worship was only a covenant of works.

Anne Hutchinson was a follower of John Cotton but, in addition, claimed to be in direct contact with God and that she and her followers were able to discern whether a man was saved or not.  Puritans, even strict Separatists, understood that no one could tell a man's heart, but God alone.

The non-Separatists worked to shrink the gap between God and man, but rejected the heretical efforts of Anne Hutchinson and others who claimed one could bridge the gap and become pure.  They learned that they "must live in the world, face its temptations, and share its guilt, while avoiding a greater perfection in this world than God required or allowed."

The visible church, like man, "must remain in the world, bring its members closer to God, spread the gospel, and offer the means of salvation to everyone."  Most importantly, they "embraced the world of sinners in order to clasp the saints contained within it."

Much has changed since then: there was a turning point, which eventually led to a revival (The Great Awakening), and a new Separatist movement, prompting the debate began all over again.  I never concerned myself with how important the little details were to the Church, but of course they are.  They have been since the early Church, and they always will be, as long as Christians endeavor to do right by God.
"As long as men strive to approach God through the church, the world will never seem pure enough for the saints, and the Puritan experience will never be wholly unfamiliar."

This book count towards:


  1. Thanks for all the posts on the Puritan books that you've been reading, Ruth. I know so little about them and you've now added more to my knowledge! And congratulations on getting a few of your history reads knocked off. I'm terribly behind on mine …… :-Z

    1. You're welcome, and thanks. I've got one more left, actually, and I hope it will be my favorite. Hey, but didn't you have a chunkster for your challenge? (The History of the Ancient World?)

    2. I did but I have completely stalled on it. Probably because I was making myself take notes as I went along. When you get busy, it is much easier to pick up a book that you're just reading than one you are reading and taking notes. I've also stalled on "Red Land, Black Land"; it's not as interesting as I was expecting. I quite like history books, so I'm wondering if I should dump the latter and try something else.