Puritans wore plain black and white clothes.
Puritans wore plain black and white clothes.

The iconic image of the Puritan, a man or woman dressed in simple black and white, instantly establishes a sense of plainness and austerity. This plainness, commonly referred to as “simplicity” in Puritan literature, lies at the very core of the belief system. Essentially, this move toward simplicity was thought to bring believers closer to God in a “pure” fashion, unobstructed by the excess of formalities.

Origins

Puritanism came into being as a Protestant movement in the 16th and 17th centuries. This belief system began as a reaction to the Church of England's man-made doctrines and what the Puritans viewed as over-politicized and corrupt operations. In contrast, the Puritans wished to simplify their way of life in both societal and spiritual realms, achieving this chiefly by deviating from the secular world.

Relationship with God

Puritans believed in a direct relationship between the individual and God, and they sought to exercise this relationship via plainness and simplicity. Followers viewed the Bible as God's law, stripping away church authority in an attempt to follow this law more purely. Puritans believed that each person was responsible for his own relationship with God, just as each congregation operated as a self-sufficient entity.

Worship

In an effort to purify the experience of worship, Puritan worship stripped away the intricate formalities and traditions practiced by many Christian churches -- such as Roman Catholic and Anglican churches -- at the time. Instead, studying the Bible itself was at the core of the Puritan tradition. Biblical text was conveyed in a plain style usually free of flourish, relying instead on the text itself. For this reason, Puritans typically preferred the straightforward Geneva Bible to the richly written King James version. Puritan churches, unlike the ornate structures of other denominations, did not typically focus on architecture or ornamentation. Christian theologian J. I. Packer notes that, to the Puritans, “simplicity was...a safeguard of inwardness”; in a way, this plainness helped “protect” Puritans from the sins of external society.

Societal Plainness

Outside of worship, Puritans led a life that can be viewed as monastic. In general, the plainness of Puritan life can be attributed to a rejection of secular “worldliness,” which was often viewed as dangerous or the product of the devil. New England Puritans outlawed drama, erotic poetry and religious music as distractions that potentially led to immoral actions. Plainness manifested in everything from clothing to behavior, as ornamentation was considered excess. Puritans viewed simple hard labor as honorable in God's eyes, and often looked down upon deviations from the norm.