Puritans and Evangelicals
May 3, 2014 9:45 AM   Subscribe

How are modern US Evangelicals like (and different from) 17th century Puritans?

Historians, theologians, and Evangelicals - I need your help!

I get it that both "Evangelical" and "Puritan" are pretty big and diverse things, and that comparing two groups of people separated by nearly 400 years is inherently difficult if not impossible. That said, let's rip into it!

What are some of the general theological and cultural differences between the two? The "age of accountability" and teetotaling spring to mind, but there have to be others.

What would Puritans make of the Evangelical attitude to the free market and charging of interest?

What about their respective attitudes to engagement in the politics?

Would they recognize each other as being part of the same religion?

Additional resources onine or in print are always welcome - Bonus points for the Massachusetts Bay Colony in general and John Harvard and the founding of Harvard College specifically.
posted by cr_joe to Society & Culture (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Not a theologian and only an armchair historian here...

You may want to look into the history of the Baptists, and something called The Great Awakening in the 1800s. Today's Evangelicals are theologically sort of descended more from Baptists, which were themselves rooted in this Great Awakening - a religious revival in the United States that was kind of like this back-to-the-roots movement in religion which was focused more on emotion and less on strict study of scripture. At least as I've understood it, so look into this yourself as well in case I'm wrong...
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:50 AM on May 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

You might want to pose your question on Reddit's Ask Historians.
posted by Elsie at 10:50 AM on May 3, 2014

Umm. . . this is kind of like asking how the contemporary GOP is like the Federalist Party of 1800. The former is the organic and intellectual heir of the latter, but both are so completely enmeshed in their respective contexts that it's hard to make useful comparisons.

Further, unlike the political example, in which it's pretty clear who belongs to either party and who doesn't, neither the term "Puritan" nor the term "Evangelical" has a particularly rigorous, uncontroversial definition. Both are actually occasionally used as perjoratives. There are people who self-identify with the terms that others would object to, and people who refuse the terms that others would definitely describe as such.

What you want to do is to read some seminal works in American religious history. I think that the simplest way of putting it might be to say that Evangelicalism has a better claim to being the natural descendant of Puritanism than any other tradition, but that it's a bastard child at best. Some of the main historical/cultural/ecclesiastical movements and trends which lead from Puritanism to Evangelicalism were viewed by many Puritans as catastrophes--or at least would have been if they'd lived to see them. But trying to draw comparisons between the two traditions without tracing the history between them doesn't strike me as a particularly helpful project.
posted by valkyryn at 11:10 AM on May 3, 2014 [5 favorites]

Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism discusses Calvinist (English Puritan) views on work and the development of capitalism that some can find parallels with in modern Evangelicism.

Outside of economics, Calvinism is pretty extremist, in that fallen people more or less "get what they deserve" from birth and that the Bible is the literal word of their follower's god, notions that have major overlap with Evangelical thought. Evangelicism is a form of neo-Calvinism in a number of ways. I'd recommend investigating that overlap, if you want to draw a historical connection.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:07 PM on May 3, 2014

I agree with valkyryn, but given that it sounds like you're just wanting to know how the puritans in Pocahontas and George W. Bush would get along, I'll answer that Puritans would be so appalled by the relatively terrible work ethic, both business- and religious-wise, of Evangelicals, and at the complete decay of pretty much everything, that they'd probably decide that the entire North American continent needed a good cromwelling. They would not be able to agree on the definitions of any of the terms in your question, either.
posted by michaelh at 6:27 PM on May 3, 2014

Maybe it's because I've spent too long studying the actual Puritans (with a mix of estrangement and sympathy), but it seems to me that the nearest equivalent of the Puritans in today's world is the Social Justice Warrior movement, not the Evangelicals.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 11:16 PM on May 3, 2014

I am doing (casual, non-academic) research into 17th century New England right now, and am finding that people back then were pretty different than we assume. Currently I'm reading about Puritan child-rearing books. I was surprised to know that they were generally against child beating. Many modern Evangelicals, however, consider it essential discipline.
(This is the book I'm reading.)
posted by Biblio at 10:05 AM on May 4, 2014

Thank you all for the help on this!
posted by cr_joe at 8:34 AM on May 5, 2014

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