In the mid to late 17th century, New England settlers were attempting to break away from Britain and begin a new society. They wanted to reinvent their own culture, govern themselves, and begin what they hoped would one day become a prosperous nation. One thing they wanted to have the liberty of practicing was religion, and having the choice of which particular religions they wished to follow. Puritanism and Deism were two different religions that were practiced in 17th century New England, and the differences between them sometimes were grounds for confrontations and conflict. The Puritan standpoint depicted in the works of John Winthrop, Michael Wigglesworth, John Dane, and Mary Rowlandson, and the Deist views of Benjamin Franklin differed in how they viewed their respective Gods, the way in which He created human beings, the view of life after death, and how God interacted in their everyday lives, while also holding the similar belief that God created everything in the universe with a purpose.
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The first difference between Puritanism and Franklin’s Deist views can be analyzed through their various views on how God created each individual human being. Puritans held the belief that all humans were inherently evil, so to speak, and that no one was worthy of eternal salvation from God. This view can also be called original sin, and the only way that Puritans could begin to fathom being rewarded through salvation was by living for the glory of God and serving Him in everything they do. In a word, Puritans held the belief that humans were not created equal, and certain individuals were “destined” for heaven, while others were not to be as fortunate. On the other hand, Deists were strong believers in the concept that every individual was created equal. In Benjamin Franklin’s piece entitled A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain he writes, “If He is all-powerful, there can be nothing either existing or acting in the Universe against or without his Consent; and what He consents to must be good, because He is good; therefore Evil doth not exist” (Franklin, 26). This statement shows Franklin’s view of our Creator, which is the belief that no evil existed in the world, so humans were not created with the notion that they are unworthy and undeserving of God’s grace. Franklin goes on to say, “And therefore every Creature must be equally esteem’d by the Creator” (Franklin, 27). According to Deists, their God was not a biased God, and every human was created equal, with no one having a better chance to make it to heaven than others.
The Puritan and Deist views on afterlife are also an area where these two religions are not in sync with one another. Puritans believed in the concept of predestination, meaning that it was determined whether one was going to spend afterlife in heaven or hell at the time of their creation. In Day of Doom, Michael Wigglesworth, a minister in Massachusetts during the 17th century, explains how there will come a day when Christ returns to earth to judge who will be “destined” for heaven or “doomed” to hell. He writes that Christ explains to those who are being sent to hell deserve their eternal punishment, despite the fact that it was a foregone conclusion due to the fact that it had been predetermined. He also explains that in order to accept the offer of God’s salvation, one must be able to comprehend the meaning of such an offer. This puts certain members of society at an obvious advantage over others. For example, a middle-aged white male who has had some degree of education would surely have a greater understanding of the Bible than a new born baby would. A baby lacks the mental capacity to understand simple terms such as “Mommy” and “Daddy,” so attempting to gain an understanding of something as complex and powerful as the Bible would be far outside the realm of possibility. Due to this fact, babies fall into the category of those who are “predestined” to hell, an assumption that is sickening to think about. Deism is based on the grounds that the concept of afterlife does not exist. This view is mainly based on another belief that the Deist Franklin holds, which is pain and pleasure are always in perfect balance with each other throughout one’s life. Every pleasure someone experiences will be followed by a pain of the same magnitude, and vice versa. Since there is no possibility of experiencing an excess of either pain or pleasure, then an afterlife would have no effect on a person because they would not be able to experience the immense joys of heaven or the pain and suffering that is to be experienced in hell.
Another difference among these two religions is the ways in how they view God interacting in everyday life. Both religions have stances on the role God plays in each person’s life, however, they are quite different. On the Puritan side, their stands the belief that God tests individuals through trials and tribulations. By doing this, Puritans believe that God is showing that he loves them and cares for them. In a piece entitled A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, Rowlandson writes, “Affliction I wanted, and Affliction I had, full measure, (I thought) pressed down and running over; yet I see when God calls a person to any thing, and through never so many difficulties, yet he is fully able to carry them through, and make them see and say they have been gainers thereby” (Rowlandson, 20). Rowlandson experienced many hardships in her life, such as enduring a raid by a group of Indians, and even having to deal with the deaths of her children. However, Rowlandson knew that this was only happening because her “tough love” God was only testing her ability to cope with these tragic events. She believes if she puts all her trust in God, then she will have the strength to overcome these obstacles and be a stronger person by it. On the other side of the spectrum, Deists believe that no evil actions can be done by God, and that because of this, God will not test humans by making them suffer through pain and sorrow. An all-powerful God is also an all-good God, and whatever is done by Him must be good. Franklin writes, “For whatever an infinitely good God hath wise Ends in suffering to be, must be good, is thereby made good, and cannot be otherwise” (Franklin, 26-27). According to Franklin, it is not possible for God to put one through pain and suffering, because these are evil things, and whatever God does must be good. This point relates back to the pain versus pleasure concept. Since pain and pleasure are always in balance throughout one’s life, there is no way that one would suffer through these so called “trials and tribulations” that the Puritans believe in. The excess of pain that is surely to result from this is something that the Deists simply do not believe in.
One of the few similarities between Puritanism and Franklin’s Deism was the belief they shared in that God created the world and universe, and that everything that He put on this earth was here for a reason. Puritans believed that God created the universe, and he held a more active role in the day-to-day lives of humans. Franklin also believed God indeed created the universe and everything it encompasses, but God was more distant from his creatures and that He did not intervene with people’s lives. Both Puritans and Deists also believed God had a reason for creating everything and everyone that is on this earth. They learned not to question the actions of God, because they knew Him to be an all-powerful and all-knowing God.
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Puritanism and Deism were two of the main religions practiced in 17th century New England, yet they clearly had their differences in beliefs in how God interacted with His world. The Puritan views captured by the works of Winthrop, Wigglesworth, Dane, and Rowlandson emphasized a strict following of the Bible and serving Him in everything you do. On the other hand, Franklin’s Deist belief was that God was more distant from the goings on of the everyday lives of human beings. He held a more loosely interpreted understanding of the Bible, yet still believed that as humans, you were still dependent upon God. One belief that was common to Puritanism and Deism was that God had an intended purpose behind everything he put on earth, and followers of both of these religions learned not to question His actions. The freedom to practice religion was one of the principles this country was founded on, and the practice of Puritanism and Deism during 17th century New England was an influential period that eventually helped lead to declaring independence from Great Britain.
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