The seventeenth century colonists all respected the Bible. Both Puritans and Deists believed in God. However, the way in which they perceived God in their own lives differed. While Puritans believed God to be all encompassing taking the inevitably evilness of human nature and saving them through his grace; the Deist belief deems that humans are inherently good and the decisions they make ultimately effect their own fate. As shown in the writings of John Winthrop, Michael Wigglesworth, John Dane and Mary Rowlandson, Puritans believed in predestination and that God played an active role in their lives; whereas, Deist Benjamin Franklin believed that God played an inactive role in their daily lives and their fate was consequently left up to their own decisions.
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Contradictory to the Deist belief, Puritans believe that God has already chosen a path for them through predestination and they have no ability to alter this path. As Wigglesworth discusses Gods grace for those he chooses to save he quotes a New England minister, Thomas Shepard, who believed “your best duties are tainted, poisoned, and mingled with some sin, and therefore are most odious in the eyes of a holy God. Your good duties can not save you, yet your bad works will damn you” (Wigglesworth, 4). Wigglesworth, following Puritan ideals, believed that “good deeds cannot get anyone into heaven” (Wigglesworth, 4). Although God had predetermined the people who would go to Heaven and who would go to Hell, it was impossible to know whether one was actually damned to Hell or not. This triggered the question of whether or not to do good things if one was already damned to Hell. As a Puritan ideal, everyone was to live life by doing as much good as possible. While Deists determined their own fate and could change it based upon decisions they made, Puritans accepted the fact that people were either chosen to be saved and go to Heaven or damned to Hell. In Puritanism “saved mothers, fathers, husbands and siblings will be satisfied with the damnation of their relations” (Wigglesworth, 4). The Puritans were content in the fact that their God had chosen a path for them that they were not able to alter and accepted that even some of their family members will be damned to Hell.
An obvious difference between Puritan and Deist beliefs is the purpose that God takes in one’s life. The Puritans believe in an all encompassing God. All good and bad things are acts of God and are not of a person’s doing. In this belief both good and bad things are seen in a positive way; times of hardship are just as rewarding as times of benevolence. The majority of Mary Rowlandson’s early life was lived in prosperity, everything in perfect harmony while others lived through “many trials and afflictions, in sickness, weakness, poverty, losses, crosses, and cares of the World” (Rowlandson, 8). During these times of bliss she sometimes wished that she would have her own trials and tribulations so that she would know God was thinking of her. Then, as she had wished for, Mary Rowlandson went through times of hardship. When she was captured and imprisoned for years by the Indians, she thought of these times as beneficial to her. These struggles proved Rowlandson to believe “when God calls a person to any thing, and through never so many difficulties, he is fully able to carry them through, and make them see and say they have been gainers thereby” (Rowlandson, 8). Instead of dreading times of adversity, Rowlandson saw them as a sense of caring. God cared enough to test her, using her times of struggling to bring her closer to him. In recollection of being captured by the Indians and her imprisonment, Rowlandson says, “it is good for me that I have been afflicted” (Rowlandson, 8). Without this vital event, she may have never begun to truly rely on God as she did throughout these times. The Puritans believed that good and bad events in their lives were “taken by the providence of God” or as his punishment (Dane, 9). Dane thinks of the intervention God takes in his life and speaks of how there were many “wonderful, unspeakable, unsearchable mercies of a God that taketh care of us when we take no care of ourselves” (Dane, 8). Dane viewed the event where he was stung by a wasp as punishment from God because he did not regularly attend church on Sundays. Puritan belief is that everything is an act of God, meaning our actions are solely based on God’s decisions, not of our own ability to choose what is believed to be the best choice. If God chooses to save someone, he will save them because humans have no ability to save themselves.
The Deist Franklin’s opinion of God’s role in one’s life is quite contradictory of that of the Puritans. Deism beliefs are that of God’s inactive role with man. According to Franklin, God is the creator of man but he does not interfere with everyday decisions of humans. God grants man free will and the ability to change one’s fate based upon his or her decisions. Deist Franklin believed that one works towards moral perfection through virtuous acts. Consequently, he came up with thirteen virtues that “at that time occurr’d to [him] as necessary or desirable” to achieve moral perfection (Franklin, 12). Where Puritans looked to the Bible as a work of God with specific examples of events that God created in different people’s lives, the Deists believed the Bible to be “mostly fables”, a collection of stories created to teach lessons and help others achieve this moral excellence (Franklin, 6). To them the Bible was used as a guideline of ideals that are morally acceptable and how the choices one made affected the outcome of his or her situation. Franklin attributed any bad or good event in his life to his own doing. He gauged his closeness to God based upon his degree of success. He believed that he had become successful because he had kept his lifestyle close to that of the thirteen virtues. In Deist beliefs, God was not thought of as one who made the ultimate decisions for a person but more so led people in the direction in which was honorably acceptable.
Deists believe that humans had the ability to change their own fate. They have free will to make their own decisions and every action and good and bad situation was of their own doing. The process of achieving moral perfection is represented through the idea of self-improvement. People have the ability to choose to better oneself by attempting to imitate that of God. Franklin stated that in an effort to better oneself one should “always be employ’d in something useful [and] cut off all unnecessary actions” (Franklin, 13). With the creation of Franklin’s thirteen virtues(temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity and humility), Franklin had created his own path and as long as he strove to achieve these virtues, good would happen to him. Franklin, as well as most Deists, believed that one is taught right and wrong and then they are to make decisions based upon these ideals to ultimately decide his or her own fate. When Franklin speaks of his attempt at moral perfection he says that “I knewâ€¦ what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other” (Franklin, 12). In Deist Franklin’s belief of self-improvement it is unacceptable for one to be lethargic; when one is unproductive he or she is not at his or her best. The lack of motivation or desire to be improving oneself decreases their chances of going to Heaven.
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Rowlandson, Dane, Winthrop, Wigglesworth and Franklin use their first hand experiences to explain the Puritan and Deist beliefs of the 17th century. While the Puritans believed in predestination and every event that occurred in one’s life was simply an act of God, the Deists believed in the ability for one to make his or her own decisions and decide his or her fate. God was involved in the everyday life of Puritans; whereas, in Deism God is the creator not and prevalent in the everyday actions of man; he teaches right from wrong but leaves the ultimate decision of one’s actions up too him or herself.
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