History of the Puritans in North America
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In the early 17th century, thousands of English Puritans settled in North America, mainly in New England. Puritans were generally members of the Church of England who believed that the Church of England was insufficiently reformed, retaining too much of its Roman Catholic doctrinal roots, and who therefore opposed royal ecclesiastical policy under Elizabeth I of England, James I of England, and Charles I of England. Most Puritans were "non-separating Puritans", meaning that they did not advocate setting up separate congregations distinct from the Church of England; a small minority of Puritans were "separating Puritans" who advocated setting up congregations outside the Church. The Pilgrims were a Separatist group, and they established the Plymouth Colony in 1620. Non-separating Puritans played leading roles in establishing the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629, the Saybrook Colony in 1635, the Connecticut Colony in 1636, and the New Haven Colony in 1638. The Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations was established by settlers expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony because of their unorthodox religious opinions. Puritans were also active in New Hampshire before it became a crown colony in 1691.
Most Puritans who migrated to North America came in the decade 1630-1640 in what is known as the Great Migration. See the main articles on each of the colonies for information on their political and social history; this article focuses on the religious history of the Puritans in North America.
The Puritans of New England evolved into the Congregationalist churches.
- 1 Puritanism in England (1533–1630)
- 2 Migration to America (1620–1640)
- 3 Life in the New World
- 4 Controversies
- 5 Decline of power and influence
- 6 Notes
- 7 Bibliography
Puritanism in England (1533–1630)
Puritanism was a Protestant movement that emerged in 16th-century England with the goal of transforming it into a godly society by reforming or purifying the Church of England of all remaining Roman Catholic teachings and practices. During the reign of Elizabeth I, Puritans were for the most part tolerated within the established church. Like Puritans, most English Protestants at the time were Calvinist in their theology, and many bishops and Privy Council members were sympathetic to Puritan objectives. The major point of controversy between Puritans and church authorities was over liturgical ceremonies Puritans thought too Catholic, such as wearing clerical vestments, kneeling to receive Holy Communion, and making the sign of the cross during baptism.
During the reign of James I, some Puritans were no longer willing to wait for further church reforms. These Separatists left the national church and began holding their own religious meetings, with many migrating to the Netherlands in order to escape persecution and worship freely. Nevertheless, most Puritans remained within the Church of England.
Under Charles I, Calvinist teachings were undermined and bishops became less tolerant of Puritan views and more willing to enforce the use of controversial ceremonies. New controls were placed on Puritan preaching, and some ministers were suspended or removed from their livings. Increasingly, many Puritans concluded that they had no choice but to emigrate.
Migration to America (1620–1640)
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In 1620, a group of Separatists known as the Pilgrims settled in New England and established the Plymouth Colony. The Pilgrims originated as a dissenting congregation in Scrooby led by William Brewster, Richard Clyfton and John Robinson. This congregation was subject to ecclesiastical investigation, and its members faced social hostility from conforming church members. Fearing increasing persecution, the group left England and settled in the Dutch city of Leiden. In 1620, after receiving a patent from the London Company, the Pilgrims left for New England on board the Mayflower, landing at Plymouth Rock.
Two of the Pilgrim settlers in Plymouth Colony - Robert Cushman and Edward Winslow - believed that Cape Ann would be a profitable location for a settlement. They therefore organized a company which they named the Dorchester Company and in 1622 sailed to England seeking a patent from the London Company giving them permission to settle there. They were successful and were granted the Sheffield Patent (named after Edmond, Lord Sheffield, the member of the Plymouth Company who granted the patent). On the basis of this patent, Roger Conant led a group of fishermen to found Salem in 1626, being replaced as governor by John Endecott in 1627.
Other Puritans were convinced that New England could provide a religious refuge, and the enterprise was reorganized as the Massachusetts Bay Company. In March 1629, it succeeded in obtaining from King Charles a royal charter for the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1630, the first ships of the Great Puritan Migration sailed to the New World, led by John Winthrop.
During the crossing, Winthrop preached a sermon entitled "A Model of Christian Charity", in which he told his followers that they had entered a covenant with God according to which he would cause them to prosper if they maintained their commitment to God. In doing so, their new colony would become a "City upon a Hill", meaning that they would be a model to all the nations of Europe as to what a properly reformed Christian commonwealth should look like.
Most of the Puritans who emigrated settled in the New England area. However, the Great Migration of Puritans was relatively short-lived and not as large as is often believed. It began in earnest in 1629 with the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and ended in 1642 with the start of the English Civil War, when King Charles I effectively shut off emigration to the colonies. Emigration was officially restricted to conforming churchmen in December 1634 by his Privy Council. From 1629 through 1643, approximately 21,000 Puritans immigrated to New England.
The Great Migration of Puritans to New England was primarily an exodus of families. Between 1630 and 1640, over 13,000 men, women, and children sailed to Massachusetts. The religious and political factors behind the Great Migration influenced the demographics of the emigrants. Groups of young men seeking economic success predominated the Virginia colonies, whereas Puritan ships were laden with “ordinary” people, old and young, families as well as individuals. Just a quarter of the emigrants were in their twenties when they boarded ship in the 1630s, making young adults a minority in New England settlements. The New World Puritan population was more of a cross section in age of English population than those of other colonies. This meant that the Massachusetts Bay Colony retained a relatively normal population composition. In the colony of Virginia, the ratio of colonist men to women was 4:1 in early decades and at least 2:1 in later decades, and only limited intermarriage took place with Indian women. By contrast, nearly half of the Puritan immigrants to the New World were women, and there was very little intermarriage with Indians. The majority of families who traveled to Massachusetts Bay were families in progress, with parents who were not yet through with their reproductive years and whose continued fertility made New England’s population growth possible. The women who emigrated were critical agents in the success of the establishment and maintenance of the Puritan colonies in North America. Success in the early colonial economy depended largely on labor, which was conducted by members of Puritan families.
The struggle between the assertive Church of England and various Presbyterian and Puritan groups extended throughout the English realm in the 17th Century, prompting not only the re-emigration of British Protestants from Ireland to North America (the so-called Scotch-Irish), but prompting emigration from Bermuda, England's second-oldest overseas territory. Roughly 10,000 Bermudians emigrated before US Independence. Most of these went to the American colonies, founding, or contributing to settlements throughout the South, especially. Many had also gone to the Bahamas, where a number of Bermudian Independent Puritan families, under the leadership of William Sayle, had established the colony of Eleuthera in 1648.
Emigration resumed under the rule of Cromwell, but not in large numbers as there was no longer any need to "escape persecution" in England. In fact, many Puritans returned to England during the war. "In 1641, when the English Civil War began, some immigrants returned to fight on the Puritan side, and when the Puritans won, many resumed English life under Oliver Cromwell's more congenial Puritan sway."
Life in the New World
Once in New England, the Puritans established Congregational churches that subscribed to Reformed theology. The Savoy Declaration, a modification of the Westminster Confession of Faith, was adopted as a confessional statement by the churches in Massachusetts in 1680 and the churches of Connecticut in 1708.
The Cambridge Platform describes congregationalist polity as practiced by Puritans in the 17th century. Every congregation was founded upon a church covenant, a written agreement signed by all members in which they agreed to uphold congregational principles, to be guided by sola scriptura in their decision making, and to submit to church discipline. The right of each congregation to elect its own officers and manage its own affairs was upheld. For church offices, Puritans imitated the model developed in Calvinist Geneva. There were two major offices: elder (or presbyter) and deacon. There were two types of elders. Ministers, whose responsibilities included preaching and administering the sacraments, were referred to as teaching elders. Large churches would have two ministers, one to serve as pastor and the other to serve as teacher. Prominent laymen would be elected for life as ruling elders. Ruling elders governed the church alongside teaching elders, and, while they could not administer the sacraments, they could preach. The duties of deacons largely revolved around financial matters. Other than elders and deacons, congregations also elected messengers to represent them in synods (church councils) for the purpose of offering non-binding advisory opinions.
The essential Puritan belief was that people are saved by grace alone and not by any merit from doing good works. At the same time, Puritans also believed that men and women "could labor to make themselves appropriate vessels of saving grace" [emphasis in original]. They could accomplish this through Bible reading, prayer and doing good works. This doctrine was called preparationism, and nearly all Puritans were preparationists to some extent. The process of conversion was described in different ways, but most ministers agreed that there were three essential stages. The first stage was humiliation or sorrow for having sinned against God. The second stage was justification or adoption characterized by a sense of having been forgiven and accepted by God through Christ's mercy. The third stage was sanctification, the ability to live a holy life out of gladness toward God.
Puritans believed churches should be composed of "visible saints" or the elect. To ensure that only regenerated persons were admitted as full members, New England churches required prospective members to provide a conversion narrative describing their personal conversion experience. All settlers were required to attend church services and were subject to church discipline. The Lord's Supper, however, was reserved to full members only. Puritans practiced infant baptism, but only church members in full communion could present their children for baptism. Members' children were considered part of the church and covenant by birth and were entitled to baptism. Nevertheless, these children would not enjoy the full privileges of church membership until they provided a public account of conversion.
Church services were held in the morning and afternoon on Sunday, and there was usually a mid-week service. The ruling elders and deacons sat facing the congregation on a raised seat. Men and women sat on opposites sides of the meeting house, and children sat in their own section under the oversight of a tithingman, who corrected unruly children (or sleeping adults) with a long staff. The pastor opened the service with prayer for about 15 minutes, the teacher then read and explained the selected Bible passage, and a ruling elder then led in singing a Psalm, usually from the Bay Psalm Book. The pastor then preached for an hour or more, and the teacher ended the service with prayer and benediction. In churches with only one minister, the morning sermon was devoted to the argument (interpreting the biblical text and justifying that interpretation) and the afternoon sermon to its application (the lessons that could be drawn from the text for the individual or for the collective community).
For Puritans, the family was the "locus of spiritual and civic development and protection", and marriage was the foundation of the family and, therefore, society. Unlike in England, where people were married by ministers in church according to the Book of Common Prayer, Puritans saw no biblical justification for church weddings or the exchange of wedding rings. While marriage held great religious significance for Puritans—they saw it as a covenant relationship freely entered into by both man and wife—the wedding was viewed as a private, contractual event officiated by a civil magistrate either in the home of the magistrate or a member of the bridal party. Massachusetts ministers were not legally permitted to solemnize marriages until 1686, after the colony had been placed under royal control, but by 1726 it had become the accepted tradition.
According to scholars Gerald Moran and Maris Vinovskis, some historians argue that Puritan child-rearing was repressive. Central to this argument are the views of John Robinson, the Pilgrims' first pastor, who wrote in a 1625 treatise "Of Children and Their Education", "And surely there is in all children, though not alike, a stubborness, and stoutness of mind arising from natural pride, which must, in the first place, be broken and beaten down." Moran and Vinovskis, however, argue that Robinson's views were not representative of 17th-century Puritans. They write that Puritan parents "exercised an authoritative, not an authoritarian, mode of child rearing" that aimed to cultivate godly affections and reason, with corporal punishment used as a last resort.
According to historian Bruce C. Daniels, the Puritans were "[o]ne of the most literate groups in the early modern world", with about 60 percent of New England able to read. At a time when the literacy rate in England was less than 30 percent, the Puritan leaders of colonial New England believed children should be educated for both religious and civil reasons, and they worked to achieve universal literacy. In 1642, Massachusetts required heads of households to teach their wives, children and servants basic reading and writing so that they could read the Bible and understand colonial laws. In 1647, the government required all towns with 50 or more households to hire a teacher and towns of 100 or more households to hire a grammar school instructor to prepare promising boys for college. Boys interested in the ministry were often sent to colleges such as Harvard (founded in 1636) or Yale (founded in 1707).
The Puritans anticipated the educational theories of John Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers. Like Locke's blank slate, Puritans believed that a child's mind was "an empty receptacle, one that had to be infused with the knowledge gained from careful instruction and education."
Recreation and leisure
Puritans did not celebrate traditional holidays such as Christmas, Easter or May Day. They also did not observe personal annual holidays, such as birthdays or anniversaries. They did, however, celebrate special occasions such as military victories, harvests, ordinations, weddings and births. These celebrations consisted of food and conversation. Beyond special occasions, the tavern was an important place for people to gather for fellowship on a regular basis.
Increase Mather wrote that dancing was "a natural expression of joy; so that there is no more sin in it, than in laughter." Puritans generally discouraged mixed or "promiscuous" dancing between men and women, which according to Mather would lead to "unchaste touches and gesticulations. .. [that] have a palpable tendency to that which is evil." Some ministers, including John Cotton, thought that mixed dancing was appropriate under special circumstances, but all agreed it was a practice not to be encouraged. Dancing was also discouraged at weddings or on holidays (especially dancing around the Maypole) and was illegal in taverns.
Puritans had no theological objections to sports and games as long as they did not involve gambling (which eliminated activities such as billiards, shuffleboard, horse racing, bowling and cards). They also opposed blood sports, such as cockfighting, cudgel-fighting and bear-baiting. Team sports, such as football, were problematic because "they encouraged idleness, produced injuries, and created bitter rivalries." Hunting and fishing were approved because they were productive. Other sports were encouraged for promoting civic virtue, such as competitions of marksmanship, running, and wrestling held within militia companies.
Only a few activities were completely condemned by Puritans. They were most opposed to the theater. According to historian Bruce Daniels, plays were seen as "false recreations because they exhausted rather than relaxed the audience and actors" and also "wasted labor, led to wantonness and homosexuality, and invariably were represented by Puritans as a foreign—particularly French or Italian—disease of a similar enervating nature as syphilis." All forms of gambling were illegal. Not only were card playing, dice throwing and other forms of gambling seen as contrary to the values of "family, work, and honesty", they were religiously offensive because gamblers implicitly asked God to intervene in trivial matters, violating the Third Commandment against taking the Lord's name in vain.
Church and state
For Puritans, the people of a society were bound together by a social covenant (such as Plymouth's Mayflower Compact, Connecticut's Fundamental Orders, New Haven's Fundamental Agreement, and Massachusetts' colonial charter). Having entered into such a covenant, eligible voters were responsible for choosing qualified men to govern and to obey such rulers, who ultimately received their authority from God and were responsible for using it to promote the common good. If the ruler was evil, however, the people were justified in opposing and rebelling against him. Such notions helped New Englanders justify the English Puritan Revolution of the 1640s, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the American Revolution of 1775.
The Puritans also believed they were in a national covenant with God. They believed they were chosen by God to help redeem the world by their total obedience to his will. If they were true to the covenant, they would be blessed; if not, they would fail. Within this worldview, it was the government's responsibility to enforce moral standards and ensure true religious worship was established and maintained. In the Puritan colonies, the Congregational church functioned as a state religion. In Massachusetts, no new church could be established without the permission of the colony's existing Congregational churches and the government. Likewise, Connecticut allowed only one church per town or parish, which had to be Congregational. All residents in Massachusetts and Connecticut were required to pay taxes for the support of the Congregational churches, even if they were religious dissenters. The franchise was limited to Congregational church members in Massachusetts and New Haven, but voting rights were more extensive in Connecticut and Plymouth. In Connecticut, church attendance on Sundays was mandatory (for both church members and non-members), and those who failed to attend were fined.
There was a greater separation of church and state in the Puritan commonwealths than existed anywhere in Europe at the time. In England, the king was head of both church and state, bishops sat in Parliament and the Privy Council, and church officials exercised many secular functions. In New England, secular matters were handled only by civil authorities, and those who held offices in the church were barred from holding positions in the civil government.
When dealing with unorthodox persons, Puritans believed that the church, as a spiritual organization, was limited to "attempting to persuade the individual of his error, to warn him of the dangers he faced if he publicly persisted in it, and—as a last resort—to expel him from the spiritual society by excommunication." Citizens who lost church membership by excommunication retained the right to vote in civil affairs.
The Puritans did not come to America to establish a theocracy, but neither did they institute religious freedom. Puritans believed that the state was obligated to protect society from heresy, and it was empowered to use corporal punishment, banishment and execution. New England magistrates did not investigate private views, but they did take action against public dissent from the religious establishment. Puritan sentiments were expressed by Nathaniel Ward in The Simple Cobbler of Agawam: "all Familists, Antinomians, Anabaptists, and other Enthusiasts shall have free Liberty to keep away from us, and such as will come [shall have liberty] to be gone as fast as they can, the sooner the better."
The period 1658–1692 saw the execution of Quakers and the imprisonment of Baptists. Quakers were initially banished by colonial courts, but they often returned in defiance of authorities. Historian Daniel Boorstin stated, "the Puritans had not sought out the Quakers in order to punish them; the Quakers had come in quest of punishment."
Roger Williams, a Separating Puritan minister, arrived in Boston in 1631. He was almost immediately invited to become the teacher at the Boston church, but he refused the invitation on the grounds that the congregation had not separated from the Church of England. He then was invited to become the teacher of the church at Salem but was blocked by Boston political leaders, who objected to his separatism. He thus spent two years with his fellow Separatists in the Plymouth Colony but ultimately came into conflict with them and returned to Salem, where he became the unofficial assistant pastor to Samuel Skelton.
Williams held many controversial views that irritated the colony's political and religious leaders. He criticized the Puritan clergy's practice of meeting regularly for consultation, seeing in this a drift toward Presbyterianism. William's concern for the purity of the church led him to oppose the mixing of the elect and the unregenerate for worship and prayer, even when the unregenerate were family members of the elect. He also believed that Massachusetts rightfully belonged to the Native Americans and that the king had no authority to give it to the Puritans. Because he feared that government interference in religion would corrupt the church, Williams rejected the government's authority to punish violations of the first four Ten Commandments and believed that magistrates should not tender oaths to unconverted persons, which would have effectively abolished civil oaths.
In 1634, Skelton died, and the Salem congregation called Williams to be its pastor. In July 1635, however, he was brought before the General Court to answer for his views on oaths. Williams refused to back down, and the General Court warned Salem not to install him in any official position. In response, Williams decided that he could not maintain communion with the other churches in the colony nor with the Salem church unless they joined him in severing ties with the other churches. Caught between Williams and the General Court, the Salem congregation rejected Williams's extreme views.
In October, Williams was once again called before the General Court and refused to change his opinions. Williams was ordered to leave the colony and given until spring to do so, provided he ceased spreading his views. Unwilling to do so, the government issued orders for his immediate return to England in January 1636, but John Winthrop warned Williams, allowing him to escape. In 1636, the exiled Williams founded the colony of Providence Plantation. He was one of the first Puritans to advocate separation of church and state, and Providence Plantation was one of the first places in the Christian world to recognize freedom of religion.
Anne Hutchinson and her family moved from Boston, Lincolnshire, to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634, following their Puritan minister John Cotton. Cotton became the teacher of the Boston church, working alongside its pastor John Wilson, and Hutchinson joined the congregation. In 1635, Hutchinson began holding meetings in her home to summarize the previous week's sermons for women who had been absent. Such gatherings were not unusual.
In October 1635, Wilson returned from a trip to England, and his preaching began to concern Hutchinson. Like most of the clergy in Massachusetts, Wilson taught preparationism, the belief that human actions were "a means of preparation for God’s grant of saving grace and ... evidence of sanctification." Cotton's preaching, however, emphasized the inevitability of God's will rather than human preparatory action. These two positions were a matter of emphases, as neither Cotton nor Wilson believed that good works could save a person. For Hutchinson, however, the difference was significant, and she began to criticize Wilson in her private meetings.
In the summer of 1636, Hutchinson's meetings were attracting powerful men such as William Aspinwall, William Coddington, John Coggeshall, and the colony's governor, Henry Vane. The group's credibility was increased due to the perceived support of Cotton and the definite support of Hutchinson's brother-in-law, the minister John Wheelwright. By this time, Hutchinson was criticizing all the ministers in the colony, with the exception of Cotton and Wheelwright, for teaching legalism and preaching a "covenant of works" rather than a "covenant of grace". While denouncing the Puritan clergy as Arminians, Hutchinson maintained "that assurance of salvation was conveyed not by action but by an essentially mystical experience of grace—an inward conviction of the coming of the Spirit to the individual that bore no relationship to moral conduct." By rejecting adherence to the moral law, Hutchinson was teaching Antinomianism, according to her clerical opponents.
Tensions continued to increase in the Boston church between Wilson and Hutchinson's followers, who formed a majority of the members. In January 1637, they were nearly successful in censuring him, and in the months that followed, they left the meeting house whenever Wilson began to preach. The General Court ordered a day of fasting and prayer to help calm tensions, but Wheelwright preached a sermon on that day that further inflamed tensions, for which he was found guilty of sedition. Because Governor Vane was one of Hutchinson's followers, the general election of 1637 became a battlefront in the controversy, and Winthrop was elected to replace Vane.
A synod of New England clergy was held in August 1637. The ministers defined 82 errors attributed to Hutchinson and her followers. It also discouraged private religious meetings and criticizing the clergy. In November, Wheelwright was banished from the colony. Hutchinson herself was called before the General Court where she ably defended herself. Nevertheless, she was ultimately convicted and sentenced to banishment from the colony due in part to her claims of receiving direct personal revelations from God. Other supporters were disenfranchised or forbidden from bearing arms unless they admitted their errors. Hutchinson received a church trial in March 1638 in which the Boston congregation switched sides and unanimously voted for Hutchinson's excommunication. This effectively ended the controversy.
While often described as a struggle for religious liberty, historian Francis Bremer states that this is a misunderstanding. Bremer writes, "Anne Hutchinson was every bit as intolerant as her enemies. The struggle was over which of two competing views would be crowned and enforced as New England orthodoxy. As a consequence of the crisis she precipitated, the range of views that were tolerated in the Bay actually narrowed."
In the aftermath of the crisis, ministers realized the need for greater communication between churches and standardization of preaching. As a consequence, nonbinding ministerial conferences to discuss theological questions and address conflicts became more frequent in the following years. A more substantial innovation was the implementation of the "third way of communion", a method of isolating a dissident or heretical church from neighboring churches. Members of an offending church would be unable to worship or receive the Lord's Supper in other churches.
Historiography of Puritan Involvement with Witchcraft in Colonial America
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As time passes and different perspectives arise within the scholarship of witchcraft and its involvement in Puritan New England, many scholars have stepped forth to contribute to what we know in regards to this subject. For instance, diverse perspectives involving the witch trials have been argued involving gender, race, economics, religion, and the social oppression that Puritans lived through that explain in a more in-depth way how Puritanism contributed to the trials and executions. Puritan fears, beliefs and institutions were the perfect storm that fueled the witch craze in towns such as Salem from an interdisciplinary and anthropological approach. From a gendered approach, offered by Carol Karlsen and Elizabeth Reis, the question of why witches were primarily women did not fully surface until after the second wave of feminism in the 1980s. Some believe that women who were gaining economic or social power, specifically in the form of land inheritance, were at a higher risk of being tried as witches. Others maintain that females were more susceptible to being witches as the Puritans believed that the weak body was a pathway to the soul which both God and the Devil fought for. Due to the Puritan belief that female bodies "lacked the strength and vitality" compared to male bodies, females were more susceptible to make a choice to enter a covenant with Satan as their fragile bodies could not protect their souls. From a racial perspective, Puritans believed that African Americans and Native Americans living within the colonies were viewed as "true witches" from an anthropological sense as Blacks were considered "inherently evil creatures, unable to control their connection to Satanic wickedness." Another contribution made to scholarship includes the religious perspective that historians attempt to understand its effect on the witch trials. John Demos, a major scholar in the field of Puritan witchcraft studies, maintains that the intense and oppressive nature of Puritan religion can be viewed as the main culprit in the Colonial witch trials. While many scholars provide different arguments to Puritanism and witchcraft, all of the various camps mentioned rely on each other in numerous ways in order to build on our understanding of the witch craze in early American History. As more perspectives from different scholars add to the knowledge of the Puritan involvement in the witch trials, a more complete picture and history will form.
Decline of power and influence
The decline of the Puritans and the Congregational churches was brought about first through practices such as the Half-Way Covenant and second through the rise of dissenting Baptists, Quakers, Anglicans and Presbyterians in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
There is no consensus on when the Puritan era ended, though it is agreed that it was over by 1740. Historian Thomas S. Kidd argues that after 1689 and the success of the Glorious Revolution, "[New Englanders'] religious and political agenda had so fundamentally changed that it doesn't make sense to call them Puritans any longer." Denominations that are directly descended from the Puritan churches of New England include the United Church of Christ, the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches, the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference and the Unitarian Universalist Association.
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