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An Overview of the Differences Between the Puritans and Modern Evangelical Christians

Updated on November 1, 2012
Two of the misunderstood groups that are often maligned are the Puritans and the Modern Evangelicals.
Two of the misunderstood groups that are often maligned are the Puritans and the Modern Evangelicals.

An Overview of Differences


The differences between the Puritans and today’s Evangelical Christians are an intriguing study. Since many modern thinkers have not studied these groups, the error is made of lumping them all together and painting them with a broad brush. It is often easier to criticize groups that one does not understand than to actually explore what they are about. Although they share some similarities, there are many differences between the two groups.

Within the history of Christianity, each of these groups are part of the expansion of the Church at different times in its history. They share some commonalities, and also have differences between them. Since the focus of this study is limited to the differences, the overview will limit the discussion to that parameter.

In terms of background on the Puritans, they had been persecuted in England and found the Netherlands too corrupting in their influences. The Puritans wanted their worship and church to be “pure” Other Puritans remained within the Church in an effort to reform it from the inside.. At that time, they considered the Church of England (Episcopalian) to be beyond reform. In an effort to attain purity, they spoke out against what they perceived as impurities that existed in the church.Since many of these reformer Puritans held positions within the schools and universities, when they spoke out, the Church of England believed that those holding such views needed to be removed. The removal of men from positions of influence added to the Puritans' claim of being persecuted.

England had a national church, and preachers were expected to be a part of it if they desired to preach. The Puritans encountered problems fitting in with the established practices of the national church which they believed had been corrupted. The Puritans had firm convictions and were willing to stand up to anyone for those beliefs including royalty. The royalty resented their boldness. When one of their Pastors was confronted by Queen Elizabeth, he responded, "Remember, Madam, that you are a mortal creature." Such actions often agitated the political leaders of that day. The royals often felt threatened by people who had such strong convictions and spoke so plainly.

The author C. S. Lewis said of the Puritans "We must picture these Puritans as the very opposite of those who bear that name today: as young, fierce, progressive intellectuals, very fashionable and up-to-date. They were not teetotallers; bishops, not beer, were their special aversion. . . ."

Differences in religion were fighting words in England and other places in Europe. Wars were fought where the combatants were often categorized by their religious affiliations. The Puritans lived during the time of the Reformation, when many groups rose up against the established Catholic Church, its practices and doctrines. The rising up against the church had serious consequences. There were wars and massacres, like the one in Paris on St. Bartholomew’s Day where thousands were massacred based only on their beliefs. Governments and national churches often resorted to violence and force to suppress dissenting opinions. Since the Puritans held beliefs that were independent of the established Catholic Church, they were often targets of those persecutions.

The Puritans held to the idea of “Sola Scriptura”. This meant that the Bible and the Bible alone should be the sole determinant of what is allowed or not allowed. They applied this idea in a very radical form, applying it to every aspect of their lives. This led to them always wearing somber clothes, naming their Children with Hebrew based names, and applying Biblical standards to determine behavior in all aspects of life. They were known by having long hair, a nasally twang in their speech and having a unique walk.

Many modern Evangelicals, also place an emphasis on Scripture, yet often regard the New Testament more often than the Old Testament. Within some circles of the Evangelical movement the idea of replacement theology is present. Replacement theology is the idea that the modern church is the replacement for Israel in terms of the promises and prophecies. Although some Evangelicals have some distinctiveness in their speech, they do not have the long hair, nasally twang and a unique walk in their gait. Modern Evangelicals do not all preach from the same Scripture although they all emphasize the importance of Scripture. Many battles have occurred within the Southern Baptist Convention over the inspiration of Scripture and the degree to which they regard its authoritative status.

There is also a sub-group withing modern Evangelicals that wish to exercise "Kingdom Theology" or "Dominion Theology". They wish to enact the Kingdom of God on earth through their own efforts. This is the modern version of 'manifest destiny' which was the rallying cry of the Puritans. The modern rallying cry is "The Kingdom Now" or some variant of that phrase. Although they are a sub-group, at times, the evangelicals who focus on discipleship distance themselves from the 'Kingdom Theology' groups. The tow groups have distinct differences in the methods they use in reaching out to their communities.

There are several groups that are under the umbrella of evangelical. Those that hold to the Bible and it’s authoritative role in life are often regarded as ‘fundamentalists’. Those which hold to the Bible as a guide book rather than being authoritative are often viewed as being the ‘liberal’ position. Those whose views are between those two positions are often termed as ‘moderates’. The groups also vary on whether spiritual salvation occurs on a personal level or on a social level.

The Puritans as a group despised and condemned ‘democracy’ as a form of government. They instead sought after theocracy as their preferred form of government. They viewed man as flawed and depraved in his views when left to govern without God. They also believed in the limited government, along with the importance of education. Along with this, they believed that they were 'smarter' and better than other groups, and therefore more entitled to rule. Before you assume that Puritanism is somehow anti-American, at the time of the Declaration of Independence, Puritanism provided the moral and religious foundation for 75% of those people declaring their independence. If there was any all-American religious foundation, Puritanism is as close as it comes.

Many evangelicals have not taken such a hard stand against democracy as the Puritans. Some even attempt to work within the democracy framework. Although the Puritans maintained some strict adherence to Biblical teachings as a qualification for office, the modern Evangelicals have not set up such standards. Even though their critics paint them as Puritans, few modern Evangelicals would dare to have such qualifications for political office holders. For instance, among the crimes which carried capitol punishment were, worshiping other gods, witchcraft, blaspheming God, murder, murder through guile (deceit or trickery), bestiality, homosexuality, adultery, man stealing and being a false witness. Although the modern Evangelicals occasionally address such issues, they no longer make them a requirement for office holders or seek capitol punishment for such actions.

A major difference between the Puritans and the modern evangelicals is their theology. A majority of the Puritans believed in Postmillennialism. This meant that they believe that through their actions and purification of the world, that they could usher in the return of Christ. This mindset gave them justification to tell others how to live and conduct their lives. They believed they had a duty to reform the world, if not conquer it. During the war between the States, the Puritans used the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" to put forth the idea of salvation through the killing of Southerners and how they were the chosen vessels of God. Their mindset was that generational variant of 'manifest destiny'. Most modern Evangelicals hold to the idea of Premillenialism, which does not involve the purification of the world salvation through killing or the taking over of the world to bring in the kingdom. This theological difference has a very different mindset that those of the Puritans.

Since the Puritans knew that laws were necessary for society to function well, before they even landed, they wrote up the Mayflower Compact, which set down the first laws in their efforts to govern themselves. These same Puritans with the emphasis they put on education founded the colleges which became Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth. So before you consider castigating the Puritans, recall that they were foundation for American liberty, the formation of American and the foundation of many of the most esteemed universities in America. Modern Evangelicals also emphasize education and have founded several colleges as well.

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    • Mikio profile image

      Mikio 4 years ago

      Wow. You truly answered my question. Thank you.

    • Admiral Murrah profile image
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      Admiral Murrah 4 years ago from Texas

      Mikkio,

      You asked an honest question which deserved an honest answer. I am glad that you asked it. I was curious about some of those areas as well. I learned a lot in putting it together. Thank you for asking the question.

    • Mikio profile image

      Mikio 4 years ago

      Your expository essay on the topic is very fair and well researched. Very educational. Looking at the surface, it does seem that Puritans of the past and the Evangelicals of today share the same psychological traits: insecurity and doubt. Perhaps, the topic might be analyzed by the scholars in the field of psychology of religion. If you are up to it, I'd love to read what you may have to say.

    • Admiral Murrah profile image
      Author

      Admiral Murrah 4 years ago from Texas

      Mikio,

      Thank you for your comments, complements and observations. After looking into it, they do share some common traits. I did not address that angle, but rather focused on the differences. Understanding the traits will involve looking at them in the context of the times in which they lived. It will take someone familiar with many areas of scholarship in order to handle it honestly and fairly.

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