Were the Pilgrims Puritans?

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (oil on canvas, 1914), by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1850–1936)

"The First Thanksgiving" (1915), by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris (American painter, 1863-1930).



In other words, the Pilgrims who settled Plymouth were puritans seeking to reform their church, and the Puritans who settled Massachusetts Bay were pilgrims (with that lower-case "p") who moved to a whole new land because of their religious convictions. Now you know why I call it a "delicate distinction!"
The Pilgrims and Puritans


The Boston and Plymouth colonies were distinct political and religious entities (at least until the English government combined them in the late 1680's) and, while relations between them were generally friendly, members of both groups were crystal clear on the differences between them.

"Puritans" wanted to remain as part of the English establishment, working for biblical reform from within. Even as they emigrated to New England, they affirmed their "Englishness" and saw the main purpose of their new colony as being that of a biblical witness, a "city on a hill" which would set an example of biblical righteousness in church and state for Old England and the entire world to see. As deeply committed covenant theologians, they emphasized especially strongly the corporate righteousness of their entire community before God.

"Pilgrims" wanted to achieve "reformation without tarrying," even if it meant separating from their church and their nation. While they continued to think of themselves as English, their emphasis was on their new political identity and spiritual identity. Because of their passionate commitment to the necessity of reformation immediate and without compromise, they emphasized especially strongly individual righteousness before God.

What united Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth, what united both Puritans and Pilgrims was far more significant than what distinguished them. All children of the Reformation, they knew that salvation was by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. And they knew this because they took, as their authority, Scripture alone. They all knew that to God alone must be the glory and, in their different ways, they sought to bring every thought and every action-religious, political, social-captive to the Lordship of Jesus.
Pilgrims V. Puritans: Who Landed In Plymouth?


Puritans began as a group within the Anglican church that wanted to purify it of lingering Catholic influences. But some Puritans lost faith in the Anglican church. Deciding it could never be purified, they abandoned it, separating themselves from it. These became known as Separatists. The majority of Puritans, who remained within the Anglican church, were known as nonseparating Puritans. The two groups grew increasingly hostile as the 17th century wore on. It was the Separatists who took the Mayflower for America. Forced to leave England because it was treason to leave the Anglican church, small groups of Separatists left for Holland and other Protestant European countries. The group that we know as the Pilgrims went to Leiden in Holland. Americans often learn that they decided not to stay there because their children were becoming Dutch, but this is not true. They left because Holland’s truce with Catholic Spain was near its end, and the Protestant Separatists would have been wiped out if Spain had taken control once again of Holland. So the Separatists received permission from the English government to go to America. Why? They were funded by financiers in London, and the crown figured that if the colonists made a go of it, the crown would seize the colony and enjoy the profits. The religion of the colonists was secondary to the financial potential they represented. Not all the people on board the Mayflower were Separatists. Stories of the horrors suffered by colonists at Jamestown, in Virginia, were well-circulated in England. The feeling in England was that the Jamestown colonists had gone to America grossly unprepared. The Separatists vowed not to repeat those colonists’ mistakes. They recruited 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 really think about religion too much, who just wanted a chance 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 keeping control of the colony from the majority.

Now, the nonseparating Puritans in England came under real persecution starting in 1630, with the election of Archbishop Laud, who dedicated himself to wiping Puritanism out and bringing the Anglican church as far back toward Catholicism as he could. Tens of thousands of Puritans would emigrate to Massachusetts in the 1630s. But they didn’t go to Plymouth. They weren’t about to miss their chance to found an untrammeled, unchallenged, all-powerful Puritan state by moving in with a bunch of crazy Separatists and, worse yet, blasphemous, Catholic-tinged Anglicans. The Puritans instead founded Boston, north of Plymouth.

And as the Puritan colony centered there—the Massachusetts Bay Colony—grew, it quickly outstripped Plymouth. Bay colonists ruthlessly confiscated land, including lands owned by Plymouth. By the 1640s, Plymouth was reduced to a backwater, and its Separatist quality was fairly diluted, even as the Puritanism of the Bay Colony grew and strengthened.


Pilgrims and Puritans were Protestants who differed in degree. While both followed the teaching of John Calvin, a cardinal difference distinguished one group from the other: Pilgrims were Puritans who had abandoned local parishes and formed small congregations of their own because the Church of England was not holy enough to meet their standards. They were labeled Separatists. Their desertion was an ecclesiastical insult to the king as head of the Anglican Church and a crime punishable by jail or death. Around a hundred Separatists left England in 1607-08 in search of religious freedom in the Netherlands; many of them later migrated to America in 1620 aboard Mayflower.

The far larger group, those we know as Puritans or Nonseparating Episcopalians, reluctantly retained attachment to the English Church but were determined to cleanse it of remnants of Roman Catholicism. These Puritans remained at home during the 1620s and, through participation in Parliament, tried to prod the Stuart kings toward toleration. They failed. In 1630, John Winthrop led some 1,000 English Puritans in the initial wave of the Great Migration to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, north of Plymouth. They were fleeing the royal wrath of King Charles I and Bishop William Laud, who were escalating persecution of dissidents. For those who believed in simple Sunday services based on the Bible, without the intrusion of Roman rituals, it was time to leave. Fear of further repression quickened decision-making and, by 1640, New England colonies would be home to nearly 20,000 mostly Puritan immigrants.

Despite doctrinal differences, the two communities were not hostile to one another because, with boatloads of the godly arriving, the Bay Colony was steadily becoming more Separatist (even though Winthrop denied it) by the year. The Pilgrims’ basic tenets prevailed. Nevertheless, Puritans were infinitely more influential in providing the pitch and tenor for the colonies than the Pilgrims: more numerous, more literate, more controlling. Intent on creating a City upon a Hill and a New Jerusalem in North America, Bay Colony leaders demanded strict conformity in religious belief and practice. That was just the beginning. Massachusetts Puritans set the intellectual tone of the country for three centuries. They branded the land with the Protestant Ethic. They introduced New England to a lingering burden of guilt and existential angst.
Pilgrims & Puritans: 


The most obvious difference between the Pilgrims and the Puritans is that the Puritans had no intention of breaking with the Anglican church. The Puritans were nonconformists as were the Pilgrims, both of which refusing to accept an authority beyond that of the revealed word. But where with the Pilgrims this had translated into something closer to an egalitarian mode, the "Puritans considered religion a very complex, subtle, and highly intellectual affair," and its leaders thus were highly trained scholars, whose education tended to translate into positions that were often authoritarian. There was a built-in hierarchism in this sense, but one which mostly reflected the age: "Very few Englishmen had yet broached the notion that a lackey was as good as a lord, or that any Tom, Dick, or Harry...could understand the Sermon on the Mount as well as a Master of Arts from Oxford, Cambridge, or Harvard" (Miller, I: 4, 14). Of course, while the Puritan emphasis on scholarship did foster such class distinction, it nevertheless encouraged education among the whole of its group, and in fact demanded a level of learning and understanding in terms of salvation. Thomas Hooker stated in The Application of Redemption, "Its with an ignorant sinner in the midst of all means as with a sick man remaining in the Apothecaries shop, ful of choycest Medicines in the darkest night: ...because he cannot see what he takes, and how to use them, he may kill himself or encrease his distempers, but never cure any disease" (qtd. in Miller, I: 13).

Knowledge of Scripture and divinity, for the Puritans, was essential. This was an uncompromising attitude that characterized the Puritans' entry into New England, according to Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson, whose thematic anthology, The Puritans (1932, 1963), became a key text of revisionist historicism, standing as an influential corrective against the extreme anti-Puritanism of the early twentieth century. Following Samuel Eliot Morison, they noted that the emphasis on education saw the establishment, survival, and flourishing of Harvard College--which survived only because the entire community was willing to support it, so that even the poor yeoman farmers "contributed their pecks of wheat" for the continued promise of a "literate ministry" (Miller, I: 14). And again, to their credit, Puritan leaders did not bolster the knowledge of its ministry simply to perpetuate the level of power of the ruling elite. A continuing goal was to further education among the laity, and so ensure that not only were the right and righteous ideas and understandings being held and expressed, but that the expressions were in fact messages received by a comprehending audience. An Act passed in Massachusetts in 1647 required "that every town of one hundred families or more should provide free common and grammar school instruction." Indeed, the first "Free Grammar School" was established in Boston in 1635, only five years after the Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded (Miller, II: 695-97). For all the accusations of superstition and narrow-mindedness, the Puritans could at least be said to have provided their own antidote in their system of schools. As John Cotton wrote in Christ the Fountaine of Life, "zeale is but a wilde-fire without knowledge" (qtd. in Miller, I: 22).

The Puritans who, in the 1560s, first began to be (contemptuously) referred to as such, were ardent reformers, seeking to bring the Church to a state of purity that would match Christianity as it had been in the time of Christ. This reform was to involve, depending upon which Puritan one asked, varying degrees of stripping away practices seen as residual "popery"--vestments, ceremony, and the like. But many of the ideas later associated strictly with the Puritans were not held only by them. The Calvinist doctrine of predestination, with which Puritanism agreed, was held by the Pilgrims as well: both believed that the human state was one of sin and depravity; that after the Fall all but an elect group were irrevocably bound for hell; that, because God's knowledge and power was not limited by space or time, this group had always been elect. In other words, there was nothing one could do about the condition of one's soul but try to act as one would expect a heaven-bound soul to act.

As Perry Miller points out, they inherited Renaissance humanism just as they inherited the Reformation, and so held an interesting place for reason in their overall beliefs. The Puritan idea of "Covenant Theology" describes how "after the fall of man, God voluntarily condescended...to draw up a covenant or contract with His creature in which He laid down the terms and conditions of salvation, and pledged Himself to abide by them" (Miller, I: 58). The doctrine was not so much one of prescription as it was of explanation: it reasoned why certain people were saved and others were not, it gave the conditions against which one might measure up one's soul, and it ensured that God would abide by "human conceptions of right and justice"--"not in all aspects, but in the main" (Miller, I: 58). The religious agency for the individual Puritan was then located in intense introspection, in the attempt to come to an awareness of one's own spiritual state. As with the Pilgrims, the world, history, everything for the Puritan became a text to be interpreted. One could not expect all of God's actions to be limited by one's ideas of reason and justice, but one at least had a general sense, John Cotton's "essentiall wisdome," as guidance. And of course, one had the key, the basis of spiritual understanding, the foundational text and all-encompassing code, the Bible.
Comment: Images above from . No bragging with this point, but I am a descendant of Puritan John Peat and Pilgrims William White and Stephen Hopkins

Update: Because of our annual celebration of Thanksgiving, and our hazy images of their 1621 meal with Native Americans, the Pilgrims have become the emblematic colonists in America’s national memory

Although people often refer to the Pilgrims as “Puritans,” they technically were English Separatists, Christians who had decided that the state-sponsored Anglican Church was fatally corrupt, and that they should found their own churches. (The Puritans, who would establish Massachusetts in 1630, believed in reforming the Anglican Church from within.) Establishing independent churches, however, was illegal. Under heavy persecution, some Separatists decided to move to Leiden in the Netherlands around the same time that the Virginia Company founded Jamestown in 1607. The Netherlands offered the Separatists religious liberty, but the Pilgrims also became concerned about the negative influences of living in such a culturally diverse society. So in 1620, 102 settlers sailed to America on board the Mayflower. Their final Old World port was Plymouth, England, which supplied the name for their new settlement in what became southeastern Massachusetts.
The Desolate Wilderness (WSJ)

Being now passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before them in expectations, they had now no friends to welcome them, no inns to entertain or refresh them, no houses, or much less towns, to repair unto to seek for succour; and for the season it was winter, and they that know the winters of the country know them to be sharp and violent, subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search unknown coasts.

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