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“The Puritan Dilemma’ by Edmund S. Morgan Essay

Puritanism, superficially thought to be a belief in which the Church of England should be removed from Catholicism and its hierarchy, demands more of the individual than the church. It demanded the faith, strength, and determination to please God. The Puritan Dilemma, by Edmund S. Morgan, is the biography of John Winthrop, a Puritan who departs from England in order to create a haven and an example of a community where the laws of God were followed diligently. As a man with power and as a Puritan, Winthrop must face difficult decisions and at the same time make sure they are justified by God. The dilemmas, specifically paradoxes, which Puritans encountered in everyday life, were anything but simple; nevertheless, Puritans made their best effort to try and resolve them.

One paradox in Puritanism involved the relationship between man and sin. “Puritanism required that a man devote his life to seeking salvation but told him he was helpless to do anything but evil. Puritanism required that he rest his whole hope in Christ but taught him that Christ would utterly reject him unless before he was born God had foreordained his salvation. Puritanism required that man refrain from sin but told him, “he would sin anyhow” (5). This states that people were predestined to go to heaven or be damned in hell for eternity. God chooses the future, whether they live a life of good or that of evil.

The idea of predestination made its believers have various reactions. Some did their best to be good, while others lived a more carefree life. Winthrop accepted human nature. He recognized that “all men were brothers in sin” (27), yet he “must do what he could to prevent and punish evil” (27). As governor and as a person, he dissuaded from sin and at the same time he accepted that he was part of it. “No Puritan could be a Puritan and remain untouched by it, for it arose out of the central Puritan dilemma, the problem of doing right in a world that does wrong” (182). Nevertheless, Winthrop is an example of what faith and determination can do to one’s perspective.

Puritans have been thought of being severely strict and reserved. Contrary to popular belief, they did have enjoyable lives- at least to moderation. To young Winthrop, Puritanism meant, “the problem of living in this world without taking his mind off God” (6). He wanted to enter the ministry, but¬†decided that he wanted another life. “He liked his wife…He liked to smoke a pipe. He liked to tinker with gadgets. He liked all the things that God had given to him, and he knew it was right to like them, because they were God-given. But how has one to keep from liking them too much? How love the world with moderation and God without?” (6).

This states that Puritans were careful about becoming too attached to the pleasures of the world. Winthrop, “tried one way after another to keep his exuberant worldly spirit within bounds and gradually denied himself many of the things that he liked most”(6). Even in his marriages, he made sure that his love for his wives did not affect his love for God because ” the Puritan loved his God with all the sensual abandon he denied himself in dealing with the world”(9) Winthrop, through the years, never let material things get in the way of God.

Winthrop faced several challenges when he was the governor of Massachusetts. Leaving England itself was a challenge since Winthrop had doubts about the migration to America hence, “the move to New England would be wrong unless there was a good chance that the colony would be an economic success” (35). Yet, he longed to use his talents in the cause of God because a “man’s duty to God was to work at his calling and improve his talents like a good and faithful servant. If he could do it better in New England than in old, that was a good reason for moving. God was the overwhelming reality, indeed the only reality.

Success and failure were relevant only as indications and not always reliable ones…” (35). Winthrop had more problems with Separatism. Separatists sought to separate completely from the Anglican Church and ” looked for perfection in this world and had come to New England to be right while the rest of the world went wrong”(65). Their viewpoint contradicted the Puritan belief that evil was everywhere and that trying to escape was futile. Separatists also threatened relations with England, which would have cause problems with the king and overall trade. For these reasons, Winthrop was against it. Winthrop genuinely wanted what was best for the colony.

In summary, Puritanism is a religion that requires strong devotion from its believers. Puritans had to change their behavior, way of thinking, and overall way of life in order to accommodate God’s laws. Winthrop was a strong believer of God and never let his love for him stop. He successfully¬†combined his leadership skills with religion to create a community like no other, one that fully abides God. Winthrop did his best to try and resolve problems in the best way possible. He lived a life of devotion and when he died he “reached what in life he had never sought, a separation from his sinful fellow men” (184).


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