Most Americans know the terms “Puritan” and “Pilgrim,” but many don’t recognize them as two different groups. This confusion is part of our tendency to oversimplify. Renaming the English Separatists “Pilgrims”—a gentle, sober group of truth-seekers—is one obvious example of this tradition of reducing the first English settlers to stereotypes. Picturing the Puritans as harsh, tyrannical people who outlawed everything from dancing to sneezing is another. When we take a look at the two groups who colonized what we call New England—the modern-day states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut—we see that the Pilgrims and Puritans were two very different groups. They had polarized missions who experienced a difficult and even hostile relationship with each other in America as in England.
The Origins of the Puritans
These two branches of English settlers diverged from a common trunk: the English Reformation. Protestantism had experienced difficulty establishing itself in sixteenth-century England. Henry VIII, king at the beginning of the Reformation, was a committed Catholic. Despite his reputation today as the monarch who introduced Protestantism to England, Henry did not reject the Catholic Church when he defied Pope Clement VII in 1533—he simply replaced the pope as the head of the Catholic Church in England. This made rejection of Catholicism not only heresy but treason, as it was a rejection of the king’s authority. English Protestants laid low during Henry’s reign and were rewarded during the reign of Henry’s radical Protestant son, Edward VI. At just six years, however, Edward’s religious reforms were violently reversed by his half-sister Mary I, who reigned from 1553-8. Mary had a single focus as queen: to return England to the Catholic Church and the authority of the pope. When some English Protestants would not return to the fold, Mary began the infamous burnings, which garnered her nickname “Bloody Mary.” While some Protestants gladly offered themselves up to martyrdom, most others fled to wait out the persecution, taking hope in the fact that Mary was older and in ill health while her half-sister, Elizabeth, was young, popular, and, crucially, Protestant.
When Mary died in 1558, and Elizabeth succeeded her to the throne, those English refugees flooded back into London, ready to complete the reformation of the Church of England (or Anglican Church). They longed to remove the lingering Catholic elements from the Anglican service, thus improving religion in the kingdom and English society by wiping out illiteracy, poverty, and vice. This drive to purity the Anglican Church and English society gave these reformers the derogatory nickname “Puritans.”
Puritans strove to be honest and godly in every aspect of their lives, from conducting their business in the city to running their country estates. They thrived on constant community with other Puritans, with two sermons on Sunday and multiple weekday meetings where they could parse sermons, pray, debate and discuss passages from the Bible. Puritans believed in predestination, which meant that eons before the world was created, God decided the fate of every person who would ever live on Earth, whether they would be saved by his grace or damned by their sin. Nothing could be done to change this judgment. The work of the Puritan was to read the Bible, listen to learned ministers, pray, and consult with one another until s/he was opened up enough to God’s grace to be able to perceive whether s/he had been granted God’s grace or left to damnation.
This led to considerable anxiety, as one might imagine, among the faithful. According to historian Edmund Morgan, “Puritanism… did great things for England and for America, but only by creating in the men and women it affected a tension which was at best painful and at worst unbearable.”1 Terrified that they might discover they were damned, Puritans had no choice but to seek God’s will and hope for the best. It is a tribute to the humanity of this serious sect that they very rarely believed someone was damned. A handful of Puritans might suddenly feel that God revealed their state of grace to them, and would go on to live as “visible saints,” assured of salvation after death. The vast majority toiled on their whole lives, never finding that blessed assurance, but always exhorting each other to seek on, and encouraging each other to be optimistic. It was their certainty that they were practicing the only true religion that drove them on, and attracted new members to the Puritan faith. The energy and commitment of the Puritans were bracing and new in English religion. Their reforming faith made them political and social activists whose belief in improving life on Earth contrasted with the traditional Catholic focus on the afterlife.
The Puritans consistently pushed their agenda in Parliament and from the pulpit. Many powerful men became Puritans, and indeed most Puritans were “full-fledged members of the class of the well endowed and well connected.”2 This meant that most Puritans in England at this time were either urban professionals (often lawyers) based primarily in London, where Protestantism had its strongest support, or country noblemen, like John Winthrop, future governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (the MBC). These Puritans believed that England’s refusal to reform its church and its society was bringing God’s wrath down on the kingdom. Every country, they believed, had a commission from God to do his will; countries that failed to do so were, like ancient Israel, destroyed, and their people scattered. To the English Puritans, it was only a matter of time before God realized that England had failed in its commission and literally destroyed it. After the start of the Thirty Years’ War on the continent in 1618, during the reign of James I, the manner of England’s destruction was clear: the war would come to England, and it would be conquered by Catholic Spain, and subjected to its cruel, popish authority.
There was a real sense of urgency amongst Puritans in the early seventeenth century. Apocalypse seemed immediate. Two paths lay open to the Puritans: work even harder to reform the church and save the kingdom, or remove from England entirely and thus avoid God’s wrath.
By the reign of Charles I, Puritans were a persecuted minority, and Puritan ministers were few. Charles sought to douse the embers of religious revolt in by banning secret religious meetings and worship, and mandated church attendance on Sunday.3 This meant that everyone was required to go to their local Anglican parish church, and this meant that you had to accept whoever was preaching in your parish. After more than a century of religious upheaval and the dissolution of the monasteries, the average English pastor was a sorry specimen. One Puritan described the clergy as “some having been shoemakers, barbers, tailors, even water-bearers, shepherds, and horse keepers.”4 Even worse, to the Puritans, everyone who attended church was required to take communion. This anguished Puritans, who reported people stumbling drunk to the rail to receive the body of Christ. Known sinners—self-acknowledged liars, cheaters, and blasphemers—sat side-by-side with the faithful and made a mockery of the service and especially the sacrament of communion. Feeling they had no other choice, Puritans broke the law by removing themselves from their assigned parishes to hear sermons from Puritan ministers in other towns.
The Birth of the Pilgrims Separatists: the Puritans Split
Their sense of persecution for their faith energized the Puritans. It also split them.
While the majority of Puritans saw their persecution as a test from God that required redoubled efforts at reform, some lost faith in the Anglican Church. Deciding it could never be purified, and that their continued membership in a false church only doomed their own souls, they abandoned it. These people became known as Separatists. The majority of Puritans, who remained within the Anglican Church, were known as non-separating Puritans. The Separatists saw the non-separating Puritans as compromisers who practiced their faith halfway, which was as bad as not practicing it at all: “no Puritan within the Church of England could pursue the implications of his principles the way the Separatists did.”5
It was the Separatists who took the Mayflower for America, led by William Bradford.
We are going to call them Separatists here rather than Pilgrims because that name, bestowed on them in the nineteenth century, is a romantic idealization and simplification meant to gloss over the Separatists’ radical religious identity. Couple this with the fact that the Separatists had no less a religious purpose than the non-separating Puritans who followed them and the name “Pilgrims” loses all meaning. So Separatists they were, and Separatists they will be here.
Forced to leave England because it was treason to reject the Anglican Church, small groups of Separatists sought temporary refuge in Holland and other Protestant European countries. Americans often learn that Separatists decided not to stay there because their children were becoming Dutch, but this is not the case. Instead, they left because Holland’s truce with Catholic Spain would expire in 1621, and the Protestant Separatists would have been relentlessly persecuted by the Inquisition if Spain had taken control once again of Holland. Not everyone on the Mayflower was a Separatist. Bradford and his group knew how badly things had gone at Jamestown Colony in Virginia, in part because it was settled by gentlemen who didn’t know how to feed, house, or protect themselves. The Separatists, as lawyers and merchants, deliberately recruited farmers and tradespeople from London whose talents would be essential to building a new society—carpenters, blacksmiths, etc. Those recruits were not Puritans or Separatists. They were Anglicans. But mostly, they were people who didn’t care about religion, and wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to go to America. The Separatists, then, were in the minority as the Mayflower set sail. Fights between the two groups broke out almost immediately. The Separatists got on the others’ nerves with their religion, which permeated all aspects of their lives, and the Anglicans got on the Separatists’ nerves with their deliberate sacrilege and mockery of religion. When they landed in America, the Separatists had a hard time controling their Plimoth Colony over the majority.6
Puritans v. Separatists in Maine
The non-separating Puritans in England came under real persecution in 1630, with the election of Puritan-hater William Laud as Archbishop of Canterbury, who happily dedicated himself to wiping out Puritanism and bringing the Anglican Church as far back toward Catholicism as he could. In reaction to Laud’s election, John Winthrop led the 1630 exodus to America and founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He would serve as its governor, with a few exceptions, for the rest of his life.
Lori Stokes is a Ph.D. and independent scholar whose specialty is the Massachusetts Bay Colony from its founding in 1630 to the rescinding of its patent and its change to a royal colony in 1691.
For more information:
- Visit the U.S. History Scene reading list for Colonial America
- Edmund S. Morgan, The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop, ed. Mark C. Carnes
- Stephen Foster, The Long Argument: English Puritanism and the shaping of New England Culture, 1570-1700 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 5 [↩]
- ibid, 12 [↩]
- Morgan, 7 [↩]
- ibid, 20 [↩]
- See William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647 (New York: Random House, 1981). Governor Bradford describes many run-ins with the non-separating Anglicans in the colony; one example is the refusal of those colonists to work on Christmas. The Separatists, like the Puritans, did not celebrate any holidays, as all days given by God were holy, and because English Christmas celebrations in particular included heavy drinking, sports, and gambling. When the unreformed colonists at Plimoth refused to work because “it went against their consciences to work on that day”, the governor was forced to say that “if they made it a matter of [religious] conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed.” He returned later to find them “in the street at play, openly; some pitching the bar, and some at stool-ball and suck like sports. So he went to them and took away their implements and told them that was against his conscience, that they should play and other work.” (107) [↩]
- Richard S. Dunn and Laetitia Yeandle, eds., The Journal of John Winthrop 1630-1649 (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The Belknap Press, 1996), 59 [↩]
- Alfred A. Cave, The Pequot War (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996), 77-8 [↩]
- ibid, 79 [↩]
- Project Gutenberg eBook, Bradford’s History of ‘Plimoth Plantation’, by William Bradford, accessed February 27, 2013, 422, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/24950/24950-h/24950-h.htm#Footnote_DW_127 [↩]
- Cave, 80-1 [↩]
- ibid, 87-88 [↩]
- ibid [↩]
- Dunn and Yeandle, 118-120. [↩]
- Curtiss C. Gardiner, ed, Lion Gardener and his Descendants, 1509-1800 (St. Louis: A. Whipple, 1890), accessed February 27, 2013, http://www.archive.org/stream/liongardinerhisd00gard/liongardinerhisd00gard_djvu.txt [↩]
- Cave, 138 [↩]
- Allyn Bailey Forbes, ed., The Winthrop Papers, Vol. III (Boston: The Massachusetts Historical Society, 1945), 418-9 [↩]
- William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647 (New York: The Modern Library, 1981), 330 [↩]