The Role of the Sermon in Puritan America

Puritan spiritual leader John Bunyon
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The Puritans were a group of religious separatists who emerged in England during the early 1600s. They were influenced by John Calvin, who argued that religious hierarchy and ritual of the Anglican church were corrupting influences. The Puritans sought to “purify” religious doctrine. To escape persecution and pursue religious freedom, they migrated to the Netherlands in 1608 and to North America in 1620. The Puritan period in America lasted until the mid-1700s and culminated in a Puritan revival period known as The Great Awakening. The role of the sermon in Puritan America was to encourage people to live better lives according to God’s wishes.

1 Puritan Beliefs

The Puritans believed in the idea of original sin. In other words, just as Adam, the original man, sinned against God, all humans are condemned to be sinners. Thus, a person must work hard during the course of a lifetime to avoid the natural human inclination to sin. The Puritans also believed in predestination, which meant that all events in the world have already been decided by God, including salvation. The purpose of the sermon in Puritan America was to provide guidance and often to threaten churchgoers to adhere to a strict moral code of good behavior.

2 Purpose

The Puritans valued education as a means of helping people avoid falling from grace and suffering eternal damnation. Satan was believed to be a continual lurking presence prepared to snare anyone who misbehaved. For this reason, sermons served to frighten churchgoers into good behavior by teaching them to fear God’s displeasure. Another purpose of sermons was to glorify God and to remind people that their role as humans was to fight against depravity and praise God. Sermons reminded churchgoers that God was mysterious and but that they must be constantly aware of God.

3 Themes

Puritan sermons stressed the importance of good behavior in daily affairs, such as reverence for the Bible, abstaining from drinking and swearing and avoiding excess. On a more philosophical level, sermons were concerned with the idea of a spiritual covenant between man and God. They often alluded to the presence of God and Satan and how to recognize the conflict in worldly and spiritual matters.

4 The Great Awakening

By the mid-1700s Puritanism was dying out and being replaced by other ideologies. As an attempt to revive Puritanism, the erudite theologian Jonathan Edwards inspired people to return to Puritanism through a series of “fire and brimstone” sermons. In these highly dramatic and often frightening homilies, Edwards challenged churchgoers to either repent or suffer horrendous damnation. Edwards' most famous sermon was titled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." The movement he started was called “The Great Awakening” The first wave began shortly after the arrival of European settlers in the early 1700s and resulted in the growth of the Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist churches.

Meg English has been an education professional for more than 25 years. She has taught elementary, middle and high school students in both inner-city and rural schools. She also publishes a weekly newspaper column titled "Education Matters." English holds a doctorate in educational administration from the University of South Dakota.