Hugh Fogelman



A Puritan is a name often misunderstood. During the 17th century English Civil War (known as the Puritan Revolution), the Puritans were Protestant fundamentalists who wished to “purify” the Church of England. Some of the Puritans, known as Separatists “separated,” forming their own church. The Puritans felt that Parliament, and not the King, should have the final say and that the moral guidance for all legal decision should come from the Jewish Bible which they considered to be the highest authority in all matters.

The Puritans were obsessed with the Bible and came to identify their political struggle against England with that of the ancient Hebrews against Pharaoh or the King of Babylon. Because they identified so strongly with ancient Israel, they chose to identify with the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible). (World Book Encyclopedia & Encyclopaedia Judaica)  In 1620, the “Separatists” sailed for America on the Mayflower. The Separatists/Puritans who settled at Plymouth Colony called themselves “Pilgrims” because of their wanderings in search of religious freedom. The Puritan culture of New England was marked from the outset by a deep association with Jewish themes. No Christian community in history identified more with the Israelites of the Bible than did the first generations of settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who believed their own lives to be a literal reenactment of the biblical drama of the chosen people―they were the children of Israel and the ordinances of God’s Holy covenant by which they lived were His divine law. Since they viewed themselves as the persecuted victims of the sinful Christian establishment of the Old World (England), the Puritans also had a natural sympathy for the Jews of their own time. The Protestant Puritan leader Cotton Mather repeatedly referred to the Jews in his prayer for their conversion as God's "Beloved People.” The New Israel―The influence of the Hebrew Bible marks every step of the Puritan exodus to their Zion in the wilderness of the New World. The Jewish Bible formed their minds and dominated their characters; its conceptions were their conceptions.

The "Separatists,” ready to depart from England for the new land, fasted in a manner reminiscent of the fasts held by the Israelites before any new undertaking. Their Pastor Robertson read I Samuel 23:3-4 and then they sailed to the New Canaan in America. The biblical basis for this procedure is manifest; just as the ancient Israelites prayed and fasted before undertaking an uncertain venture, so did the Puritans. And once settled in America, the custom was retained and frequently renewed. Early in 1620, the very year of the Pilgrims' landing in the new Plymouth, a solemn day of prayer was observed; Pastor Robinson spoke, again quoting from I Samuel 23:3-4, by which he strove to ease their fears and strengthen their determination. This custom, combining prayer and fasting with biblical readings on momentous occasions, persisted and as late as 1800, President Adams likewise called a national day of prayer and fasting.

The next major group of Puritan settlers to arrive in New England (1630) was headed by John Winthrop (1588–1649) and founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony. They were ruled initially by an elite of leading Puritan families  - since the colony itself was based on biblical principles and was moved by the Puritan spirit of the Scriptures—was the Holy Jewish Bible. The Puritans wholeheartedly believed that it was their special mission to establish in America a society precisely modeled on the precepts of Sacred Jewish Scriptures. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was at the very least a state inspired by and thoroughly devoted to the Jewish Bible. "If we keep this covenant," Governor John Winthrop assured his people, "we shall find that the God of Israel is among us, but if we deal falsely with our God... we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going." The Jewish covenant concept was thus the bedrock of all Puritan religious communities.

When the Puritans, a bitterly persecuted people by the English government, reached America, they drew clear analogies between themselves and the Jews of antiquity. They constantly referred to the Hebrew Bible, renewing the similarities to their own experience, so that its philosophy and spirit came to permeate their lives.  Also, like Israel of old, the Pilgrims (and their fellow Puritan counterparts) regarded them-selves as the elect of God, so that throughout the Revolutionary War they visualized their enemies as Amalekites or Philistines. And in a manner reminiscent of the traditional Jewish Passover night, the Pilgrims too memorialized their passage into freedom. In searching the Scriptures for readings pertinent to their own situation, the Puritans readily discovered the general similarity between themselves and the ancient Israelites, and proceeded to draw from it some very particular conclusions. They firmly believed that the Hebrew prophets were speaking to them as directly as they had spoken to the Israelites. Thus the history of the Israelites as related in the Bible served, according to the ministers of the day, as a mirror in which the Puritans could see their own activities reflected. Still considering themselves as Christian Protestants, the Puritans related to the Israelites and their Jewish belief for their fundamental “grounding.

In this respect they differed sharply from the majority of traditional Christian theologies. To the Puritans the primary lesson of the Old Testament was that a nation as well as an individual could enter into a covenant with God. The Puritans reasoned in America the concept of the covenant would assume new dimensions. Once they reached the colonies a new factor entered into the matter of the covenant. In this New Israel the Puritans established a completely new society based solely upon the Jewish concept of a covenant between God and man. Thus the Puritans made certain of the biblical system they wished to establish in the New World. When, during a convention of Puritan ministers at Boston on May 26, 1698, they confirmed the belief that "under the Old Testament, the Church was constituted by a covenant." Because of this concept, the Puritan Church was not ruled by a formal and rigid papal hierarchy but derived its direction immediately from God, ruled by His word as revealed in the sacred Jewish Scriptures.

The Bible was in all circumstances and for all occasions the ultimate source of knowledge and precedent. The Jewish Bible was the inspired word of God which was for them a matter of absolute conviction, and, hence, indisputable. Accordingly, failure to abide by the strict reading and literal interpretation of the Scriptures was severely punished: If any "Christian, so called,” spoke contemptuously of the Scripture, or the holy penmen thereof, they were to be punished by fine or whipping. Laws were also passed punishing those who violated the Sabbath.  Laws and regulations adopted by them, which, at the present day, are stigmatized as singularities, were in many instances, the legitimate fruits of their strict adherence to the teaching of the Bible.

Most of the official acts of the colonies were determined by the Jewish Scriptures. One of these, the Connecticut Code of 1650, adopted a near Mosaic form of government. Its fifteen Capital Laws, Pentateuchal citations and language are later found in the Massachusetts Code of 1660. The guide of early Connecticut was Thomas Hooker, a man deeply touched by the Bible and its spirit, and called by some "the founder of American democracy." He wrote in a letter (1648) to Governor Winthrop of Massachusetts on the subject of liberty under the law: Sit liber judex, as the lawyers speak. Deuteronomy 17:10–11: "Thou shalt observe to do according to all that they inform, according to the sentence of the law. Thou shalt seek that Law at his mouth: not ask what his discretion allows, but what the Law requires." The Puritans' incorporated the Mosaic code and injunctions from the Old Testament into their own legal framework. It is worthy of note that fully half of the statutes in the Code of 1655 for the New Haven colony contained references to or citations from the Old Testament, while only three percent referred to the New Testament.

Accordingly, the first settlers in New England called themselves "Christian Israel." Comparison of the Puritan leaders with the great leaders of ancient Israel—especially Moses and Joshua—were common. So the names of Daniel, Jonathan, Esther, Enoch, Ezra, Rachel and a host of others were in constant use among the Puritans. Interestingly enough, there was a conspicuous absence of the names of Christian saints.  Names of cities, towns and settlements likewise derived from Hebraic sources.  This widespread use of biblical names, however, was not confined to the naming of offspring, cities and towns - names of many biblical heights were eventually bestowed upon the great mountains of America. Mount Carmel and Mount Horeb, home of the Prophets, were popular names, as was Mount Nebo, the final resting place of Moses. Names like Mount Ephraim, Mount Gilead, Mount Hermon, Mount Moriah, Mount Pisgah, were all popular as well. Some mountains in the New World were even called  Mt. Sinai, Mount Zion and Mount Olive. .
Puritan obsession with the Bible led them to try and incorporate many aspects of the Jewish commandments into their lifestyle based on their literal interpretation of Hebraic laws. One of the most significant was the concept of the Sabbath as a day of rest and meditation. Puritan Sabbath observance began at sundown and no work of any kind, even household chores, was allowed for the next 24-hours. Sabbath observance was strictly monitored by local officials.

In summary: The majority of the earliest settlers were Puritans from England. Unlike their cousins back home, these American Puritans strongly identified with both the historical traditions and customs of the ancient Hebrews of the Old Testament. They viewed their emigration from England as a virtual re-enactment of the Jewish exodus from Egypt: England was Egypt, the English king was Pharaoh, the Atlantic Ocean their Red Sea, America was the Land of Israel, and the Indians were the ancient Canaanites. They were the new Israelites, entering into a new covenant with God in a new Promised Land.

These settlers found themselves in a New World which had no existing laws or govern-ment. Their first task, therefore, was to create a legal framework for their communities and the first place they looked for guidance was the Hebrew Bible. Thus most of the early legislation of the colonies of New England was determined by Scripture. The most extreme example was the Connecticut Code of 1650 which created a form of fundamentalist government based almost entirely on Jewish law using numerous citations from the Bible. The same held true for the code of New Haven and many other colonies.

At the first assembly of New Haven in 1639, John Davenport clearly declared the primacy of the Bible as the legal and moral foundation of the colony: "Scriptures do hold forth a perfect rule for the direction and government of all men in all duties which they are to perform to God and men as well as in the government of families and commonwealth as in matters of the church ... the Word of God shall be the only rule to be attended unto in organizing the affairs of government in this plantation."

 Thanksgiving which has evolved into a national day of feasting and celebration was initially conceived by the Pilgrims, in 1621, as a day similar to the Jewish Sukkot, the holiday of joy as told in Leviticus 23:40. It was for the Puritans and is for the Jews a day of  great joy  because it was the time of the year for the gathering grain and fruits from their fields into their homes. A time for introspection and prayer, because it was God, not man who allowed the first harvest.                                           





1. H. B. Alexander, "The Hebrew Contribution to the Americanism of the Future" in: The Menorah Journal, VI, no. 2 (1920), 65–66.

2. W. De-Loss Love, Jr., The Fast and Thanksgiving Days (1895), 61–62.

3. Cf. S. Morgan, "Responsibilities of a Puritan Parent," More Books: The Bulletin of the Boston Public Library, XVII, no. 4 (1942), 141–159.

4. S. Broches, Jews in New England (1942), 4–6.

5. J. Davis, New England's Memorial (1669), 36.

6. C. Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), III, 100; cf., Appendix, Bay Psalm Book.

7. P. Miller, The New England Mind (1939), 475.

8. Ibid., 477.

9. I. Mather, The Order of the Gospels (1700), 30.

10. P. Miller and T. H. Johnson, The Puritans (1938), 49, 54.

11. J. Banvard, Plymouth and the Pilgrims (1856), 204, 231–2.

12. R. Calef, More Wonders of the Invisible World (1700), 152.

13. P.M. Simms, The Bible in America (1936), 337–342.

14. L. I. Newman, Jewish Influence on Christian Reform Movements (1925), 641.

15. P. Masserman and M. Baker, The Jews Come to America (1932), 69.

16. C. Mather, op. cit. I, 109–110.

17. J. Davis, op. cit., 272.

18. G. R. Stewart, Names on the Land (1945), 123 ff.

19. C. E. Whiting, Studies in English Puritanism from the Restoration to the Revelation, 1600–1688 (1931), 445 ff.

20. C. Mather, op. cit. I, 63.

21. G. R. Stewart, loc. cit.

22. L. M. Friedman, Jewish Pioneers and Patriots (1942), 96.

23. Sivan, Gabriel, The Bible and Civilization, Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1973, p. 236.

24. Katsh, Abraham I., The Biblical Heritage of American Democracy, New York: p. 97. Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 1977, Chapter 3 & 5.