Puritans sailed to the New World, beginning in 1630, with the intention of providing an example of what England should be. They thought English society had become too corrupt. In America, the Puritans settled in towns throughout what they called New England; these towns were the basis of their lives, which they lived with the goal of achieving spiritual purity. The town meetings provide early examples of many principles of government that would become part of the American tradition. Puritans allowed a few qualified people to handle the day-to-day affairs of the town. Wide voter participation points to a burgeoning democratic spirit. Last, though founded by a religious denomination, Puritan towns maintained a separation between church and state, and allowed people their freedom of religion.
The American concept of democracy witnessed its first incarnation in Puritan New England. All male citizens participated in the town meetings that decided the rules for the community. Puritans wanted as many people as possible to participate in the civic process to encourage stability and respect for the law. The democratic town meeting also provided legitimacy to rules that some might otherwise have found unjust.
Though the town’s males met regularly to discuss civic matters, the administrative functions rested in the hands of a few members. Known as selectmen, these leaders collected taxes, paid town bills and managed the schools. The selectmen were predecessors to the city managers and city councils now prevalent in American society.
Separation of Church and State
One of the central reasons for the Puritan departure from Europe was the overbearing nature of the Church of England, the national religion. In New England, the Puritans sought to instill a degree of separation between the church and the government. To accomplish this objective, Puritans created the concept of an independent town. The town itself would be a self-ruling unit of government, outside the purview of church authorities. All male residents, regardless of religion, met in the meetinghouse to handle town business.
Freedom of Religion
In conjunction with the separation of church and state, Puritans also demonstrated freedom of religion. There was no officially sanctioned religion. Likewise, town officials did nothing to hamper the faithful in their practice of religion. For example, along with civic affairs, the town meetinghouse was also the site of Puritan religious services. The term “meetinghouse” signifies the non-denominational nature of the building. Puritans held religious services on the premises, yet refused to refer to the site as a church, avoiding any explicit religious affiliation that might deter non-church members from civic participation.
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