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The word ‘puritan’ is written sometimes with an upper-case and sometimes with a lower-case initial letter.

  • A Puritan – always with an upper-case initial letter – is a member of a Protestant religious movement prominent in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The Puritans were members of the Church of England who were dissatisfied with the state of the Church under Elizabeth I (1533-1603, reigned 1558-1603), believing that further reform was necessary and, in particular, that church services should be less elaborate, i.e., ‘purified’ by removal of the ritual and ceremony which they regarded as characteristic of Roman Catholicism. (The word ‘Puritan’ – from the Latin puritas (purity) - was coined in the 1560s as a derogatory term by those opposed to the Puritans, who preferred to refer to themselves as ‘the godly’.) Many, though not all, Puritans also disagreed with the Church over certain matters of doctrine and church government, and were sympathetic to the views of John Calvin (1509-1564): they accepted, e.g., the doctrines of justification by faith and predestination, and challenged the authority of bishops within the Church. Puritans were concerned to ‘purify’ not only the Church but their own lives: they adopted strict moral principles, lived austerely, and shunned sensual and frivolous pleasure.

Frustrated by their inability to bring about change in the Church of England, some Puritans emigrated to, e.g., the Netherlands, Ireland, or North America. The most famous of these emigrant Puritans were the Pilgrim Fathers, who in 1620 left Plymouth in the Mayflower for New England, where they founded Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts.

During the reign of King Charles I (1600-1649, reigned 1625-1649), when Parliament began to challenge the autocratic rule of the King, the Puritans allied themselves with the Parliamentarians, and in the Civil War (1642-1651) between the supporters of the King (Royalists) and the supporters of Parliament, many Puritans fought in the Parliamentary Army. (See further Roundheads and Cavaliers.) With the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the establishment of the Commonwealth the Puritans, now in a position to impose their moral and religious views on the population as a whole, enacted legislation banning what many in the country regarded as harmless and legitimate pleasures – they closed the theatres and insisted on the strict observance of Sunday as a day of worship. Puritan rule during the Commonwealth proved extremely unpopular, and with the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II (1630-1685, reigned 1660-1685), Puritans became a target for persecution. In 1662 the Act of Uniformity, one of a series of laws discriminating against those who refused to subscribe to the doctrines and practices of the Church of England, required all religious services to follow the forms of service laid down in the Book of Common Prayer, and in effect compelled Puritans to leave the Church of England. From this time onward those of a Puritan persuasion are usually referred to as Nonconformists or Dissenters.

  • A puritan – written with a lower-case initial letter - is someone who has strict moral principles, lives austerely, and disapproves of sensual pleasure, frivolity, and luxury. The word may also be used as an adjective to describe such a person or their attitudes. The adjectivepuritanical’ may be used in the same sense.
I puritani (The Puritans), an opera (1835) by Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835), is set during the English Civil War. The action takes place inside and in the neighbourhood of a fortress in Plymouth loyal to the Parliamentary cause, and the plot revolves around the love of Elvira, daughter of Lord Gualtiero Valton, the commander of the fortress, and Arturo, a Royalist sympathiser.

See further Reformation, Church of England, and Nonconformist.