In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Puritanism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historiographic Reviews
  • Journals
  • Puritan Piety and Lived Religion
  • The Wider Atlantic
  • Radical Puritanism

Atlantic History Puritanism
Abram C. Van Engen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0198


Puritanism is a problem. It had a massive impact on the early modern history of England and New England, and yet no scholar can quite agree on how to define it or exactly what influence it had. In the absence of consensus, scholars can still attempt to summarize who the Puritans were and what they did. First, Puritans emerged as a group of zealously godly Protestants who wanted to see further reforms in the Church of England. Thus, Puritanism often (though not always) involved controversies over ecclesiastical polity: the form and function of the Church of England. Second, Puritans frequently sought each other out, banding together and separating from the ungodly either physically (in conferences, schools, and trips to nearby godly sermons), mentally (seeing themselves as a persecuted minority), or through outright declaration (in the case of more radical Puritans called Separatists). In this sense, Puritanism formed a social movement of the bonded godly. But third—and most importantly—Puritans were driven by their piety, as both they and their enemies agreed. Such piety usually involved an experiential account of grace tied to predestination combined with a disciplined life of holiness. And this third sense of Puritanism helps explain the other two, for in seeking disciplined holiness and the experience of grace, Puritans looked to be nourished by encountering each other’s representations of grace (producing conferences and covenants among the godly) and, primarily, by hearing the Word of God through evangelical preaching, with consequences pertaining to the entire ecclesiastical system of training and ordaining ministers. In large part, then, Puritanism constituted more a way of life than a set of doctrines or positions. And this way of life—this zealous godliness in pursuit of a grace that none could earn—helped cause the founding of New England and the English Civil War while contributing (according to differing interpretations) to the development of English political thought, American character, and the rise of modern society. This bibliography attempts to lay out Puritanism through four frameworks: place, period, key features, and potential legacies. Before proceeding, a word should be said about capitalizing “Puritanism.” Scholars of English Puritanism no longer capitalize this term in order to emphasize the difficulty of definition, the fluidity of membership, and the centrality of reformed thinking to English society (rather than the idea of a radical wing). Scholars of New England Puritans typically do capitalize the word, recognizing a distinct culture, even if filled with its own diversity, although some have also moved away from capitalizing the term for many of the same reasons. This article retains capitalization in part because its purpose is to help distinguish a certain people and a certain historiography of that people, and in part to recognize the different situation in New England.

General Overviews

For many, grasping what the Puritans believed and how it shaped their lives often forms the first and most difficult aspect of the subject. Offering both a quick historical overview and an account of Puritan piety, Bremer 2009 does an admirable job opening the topic. The best scholarly introduction to Puritanism can be found in Coffey and Lim 2008, which provides not only a historical narrative to the development of Puritanism but also addresses major themes and legacies. Morgan 1958, ostensibly a biography of the first Puritan governor of Massachusetts Bay, lays out several key features of Puritanism, and Bremer 1995 presents a whole narrative of American Puritanism while linking it at key moments to transatlantic concerns. Spurr 1998, meanwhile, offers a very readable introduction to English Puritanism. In the 1990s, Puritan studies turned decidedly toward the transatlantic, emphasizing the many networks, communications, and interlinked histories that spanned the ocean (though the transatlantic emphasis remains much more a feature of American Puritan studies than of English Puritan studies). This paradigm shift has become important enough that, beyond the works cited below, almost any 21st-century publication on New England Puritanism will include some account of English and transatlantic affairs. Bremer 1993 represents the shift in historiography well while also providing a good introduction to Puritanism more generally. The best full-length study of transatlantic continuities in Puritanism remains Foster 1991. Finally, Bremer and Webster 2006 is a nearly comprehensive encyclopedia of Puritanism that includes an impressive set of Puritan biographies along with definitions of the most significant events and ideas.

  • Bremer, Francis J. The Puritan Experiment: New England Society from Bradford to Edwards. Rev. ed. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 1995.

    Arranged as both a developmental story of Puritanism and a series of topics about the subject, this very readable book provides a full overview of New England Puritanism and its relation to English affairs.

  • Bremer, Francis J. Puritanism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    A short overview of both the history and the characteristics of Puritanism. Best for those who are just beginning a study of Puritanism.

  • Bremer, Francis, ed. Puritanism: Transatlantic Perspectives on a Seventeenth-Century Anglo-American Faith. Studies in American History and Culture 3. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1993.

    This collection of essays maps Puritanism as both necessarily transatlantic and essentially experiential. It thus represents two shifts in Puritan historiography: first, a move toward the wider connections across the Atlantic and second, a larger and longer move toward defining Puritanism as based in experiential devotion.

  • Bremer, Francis J., and Tom Webster, eds. Puritans and Puritanism in Europe and America: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2006.

    A compendium of most major figures, events, and ideas of Puritanism, offering a short account of each.

  • Coffey, John, and Paul Chang-Ha Lim, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Puritanism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521860888

    This is perhaps the best introduction to the subject, arranged geographically, chronologically, and thematically. Good for an introduction to the full range of Puritan studies, but also good for long-term scholars in that it offers concise reviews of the major works on each topic within the field.

  • Foster, Stephen. The Long Argument: English Puritanism and the Shaping of New England Culture, 1570–1700. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

    Stressing continuity between English and American Puritanism, Foster tells a full story across 130 years including both sides of the Atlantic and their effects on each other.

  • Morgan, Edmund. The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop. Boston: Little, Brown, 1958.

    Morgan’s simple, clear biography of Winthrop lays out several key features of Puritanism (although he stresses a moderate, rather than a radical, version). Somewhat dated, it nonetheless presents an easy and scholarly introduction to the subject.

  • Spurr, John. English Puritanism, 1603–1689. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1998.

    A synthetic history summarizing multiple interpretations while advancing its own account of English Puritanism and its effects throughout the 17th century.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.