Why America? The Puritan Persecuted Complex

The modern evangelical persecution complex is not a new phenomenon: the Puritans before them fled England because they could not get their way they believed they were being persecuted for their religious views. In the early-to-mid seventeenth century, the Puritans (a name given to Calvinistic believers who sought to "purify" the Church of England from any semblance of Roman Catholicism and, later, Arminianism) enjoyed religious and governmental success, under the leading of Cromwell. They later, under the reign of Charles II (and Archbishop Laud), lost that success. "Their efforts to transform the nation," noted in the Encyclopædia Britannica, "contributed both to civil war in England and to the founding of colonies in America as working models of the Puritan way of life." (link) The Puritans, however, were their own worst enemy.

Presbyterian by Calvinistic design (as John Calvin taught Presbyterianism proper), the Puritans also opposed the Monarchy of England and vied instead for a Presbyterian model, not only of church government, but also of the state. But the Church of England was already well established as comprising elements of Roman Catholicism (and hence an episcopacy) and, eventually, Dutch-Reformed Arminian Christianity, an English or Anglican Christian church that was episcopal ecclesiologically, and Arminian theologically:
Many of the bishops and divines who returned to power with the restoration of Charles II [reigned England, Scotland, and Ireland 1660-1685] desired to create an intellectual bulwark that would once and for all protect their church from any assault [i.e., assault by the Purtians] upon either its Arminianism or its polity. To this end they often elevated the normative importance of the early church -- particularly the eastern branch, where they could have their episcopacy untroubled by those gnawing questions of grace and free will found in the western Augustine, and in which they saw the seeds of the noxious Calvinism.1
Because the ideas and wishes of the Puritans were opposed by the Church and the State, they separated themselves from the Church of England, gaining for themselves the title Separatists: "These 'Separatists' repudiated the state church and formed voluntary congregations based on a covenant with God and among themselves." (link) The Puritans were not intent on or content with merely religious freedom: they sought to reform and conform the Church of England to its socio-religio views. What the Puritans desired was power, authority, control.

That the Puritans were granted the privilege to worship in their separatist congregations should have been sufficient -- that is, if religious freedom was all they truly desired. However, as we have learned from history, uniformity of religious views must exist in any given society in the mind of the Puritans (and others): "This conviction rested on the belief that there was one true religion and that it was the duty of the civil authorities to impose it, forcibly if necessary, in the interest of saving the souls of all citizens." (link) But who is granted the privilege to decide which religious expression rightly represents the "one true religion"? The Puritans assumed themselves as God's chosen, "pure," righteous agents for reformation and the ushering in of the kingdom of God.

When all hope was lost for the Puritan cause in England, many fled for the New World, intent on worshiping God as they deemed biblical, establishing their own government, insisting that they fled because they were unjustly persecuted. I suppose, then, that their "persecution" gave them license in New England to later persecute the Quakers. (link) The Puritan persecutions of the Quakers was about power, authority, control. Had the Puritans relegated themselves to their own churches in England, ministering their beliefs and theology within their own context instead of vying to gain power, authority, and control of the Anglican churches then they would have avoided being suppressed and "persecuted."2 They were their own worst enemy. They created persecution for themselves.

That same persecution mentality is alive in conservative evangelicalism today (as will be outlined and examined in an upcoming post). From my perspective, conservative evangelicals suffer the same fate as did the Puritans before them, creating their own problems through their political agendas and then crying "Persecution!" when they are challenged or opposed by their detractors. Evangelicals want the State to abstain from meddling in affairs of the Church even though the Church, in the form of conservative evangelicals, conveniently yet hypocritically privileges itself with informing affairs of State.

Moreover, American evangelicals envision themselves the same as did the Puritans, as God's chosen people to bring about reform and righteousness. Evangelicals in the late 1820s attempted to create "a truly Christian America," as evinced by Ezra Stiles Ely's call "during the election of 1828 for 'a new sort of union . . . a Christian party in politics' as a blatant example of the [evangelical] churches trying to interfere in political concerns."3 So much for the separation of Church and State! If evangelicals want the State not to interfere with the Church then what is the Church doing trying to interfere in matters of State? Senator Richard M. Johnson stated: "Our government is a civil and not a religious institution."4 Once politics are deemed strictly religious, then which religious expression is granted privilege, except perhaps the religious expression vying for power, authority, and control? Three hundred years and what have we learned?

The Puritans imagined themselves as God's ambassadors to the New World: "No aspect of antebellum Protestantism has attracted so much interest as has its social ramifications, and in particular the attempt by evangelical Protestants to forge a truly Christian nation."5 The Puritans and their progeny conceived of themselves and "the millennial vision of America as God's new Israel."6 This same notion is alive today in many conservative evangelicals. They think that this nation was a purely Christian nation at its founding, a farce at best, and that we have today strayed from this rose-colored-glasses view of a Christian America founded by God's people the Puritans. Until evangelicals relieve themselves of such a deception, we can expect them to continue their religious Republicanism, and their fanciful notions that they are a persecuted minority in this country.


1 Robert Bruce Mullin, Episcopal Vision/American Reality: High Church Theology and Social Thought in Evangelical America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 14.

2 Clayton Roberts and David Roberts, A History of England, Volume 1: Prehistory to 1714, Third Edition (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1991), 344-46.

3 Mullin, 105.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid., 85.

6 Ibid.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.