The word Puritan is now applied unevenly to a number of Protestant churches from the late 16th century to the early 18th century. However, Puritans did not, by and large, use the term for themselves. It was a term of abuse that first surfaced in the 1560s. "Recusants", "Precisemen", and "Precisions" were other early antagonistic terms for Puritans who preferred to call themselves "the godly." The word "Puritan" was thus always a descriptor of a type of religious belief, rather than a particular form of church order.
That said, the single theological movement most consistently self-described by the term "Puritan" was Reformed or Calvinistic and led to the establishment of the Presbyterian Church. The term was used by the group itself mainly in the sixteenth century, though it seems to have been used often and in its earliest recorded instances as a term of abuse. By the middle of the 17th century the group had become so divided that "Puritan" was most often used by opponents and detractors of the group, rather than by the practitioners themselves. The practitioners knew themselves as members of particular churches or movements, and not by the simple and nebulous term "Puritan."
The central tenet of Puritanism was God's supreme authority over human affairs, particularly in the church, and especially as expressed in the Bible. This view led them to seek both individual and corporate conformance to the teaching of the Bible, and it led them to pursue both moral purity down to the smallest detail as well as ecclesiastical purity to the highest level.
On the individual level, the Puritans emphasized that each person should be continually reformed by the grace of God to fight against indwelling sin and do what is right before God. Every Christian, , a humble and obedient life would arise.
The Puritans tended to admire the early church fathers and quoted them liberally in their works. In addition to arming the Puritans to fight against later developments of the Roman Catholic tradition, these studies also led to the rediscovery of some ancient scruples. Chrysostom, a favorite of the Puritans, spoke eloquently against drama and other worldly endeavors, and the Puritans adopted his view when decrying what they saw as the decadent culture of England, famous at that time for its plays and bawdy London. The Pilgrims (the separatist, congregationalist Puritans who went to America) are likewise famous for banning from their New England colonies many secular entertainments, such as games of chance, maypoles, and drama, all of which were perceived as kinds of immorality.
At the level of the church body, the Puritans believed that the worship of the church ought to be strictly regulated by what is commanded in the Bible (known as the regulative principle). The Puritans condemned as idolatry many worship practices regardless of the practices' antiquity or widespread adoption among Christians, which their opponents defended with tradition,. Like some of Reformed churches on the European continent, Puritan reforms were typified by a minimum of ritual and decoration and by an unambiguous emphasis on preaching. Like the early church fathers they eliminated the use of musical instruments in their worship services, for various theological and practical reasons.^[citations\ needed]^
Another important distinction was the Puritan approach to church-state relations. They opposed the Anglican idea of the supremacy of the monarch in the church (Erastianism), and following Calvin they argued that the only head of the Church in heaven or earth is Christ (not the Pope or Archbishop of Canterbury). However, they believed that secular governors are accountable to God (not through the church, but alongside it) to protect and reward virtue, including "true religion", and to punish wrongdoers a policy that is best described as non-interference rather than separation of church and state. The separating Congregationalists, a segment of the Puritan movement more radical than the Anglican Puritans, believed the Divine Right of Kings was heresy, a belief that became more pronounced during the reign of Charles I of England.^[citations\ needed]^
Other notable beliefs included:
In addition to promoting lay education, it was important to the Puritans to have knowledgeable, educated pastors, who could read the Bible in its original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, as well as ancient and modern church tradition and scholarly works, which were most commonly written in Latin, and so most of their divines undertook rigorous studies at the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge before seeking ordination. Diversions for the educated included discussing the Bible and its practical applications as well as reading the classics such as Cicero, Virgil, and Ovid. They also encouraged the composition of poetry that was religious nature, though they eschewed religious-erotic poetry except for the Song of Solomon, which they considered magnificent poetry, without error, regulative for their sexual pleasure, and, especially, as an allegory of Christ and the Church.
In modern usage, the word puritan is often used as an informal pejorative for someone who has strict views on sexual morality, disapproves of recreation, and wishes to impose these beliefs on others. None of these qualities were unique to Puritanism or universally characteristic of the Puritans themselves, whose moral views and ascetic tendencies were no more extreme than many other Protestant reformers of their time, and who were relatively tolerant of other faiths at least in England. The popular image is slightly more accurate as a description of Puritans in colonial America, who were among the most radical Puritans and whose social experiment took the form of a Calvinist theocracy.