19 November 2012

Pilgrims and Puritans find religious freedom in the New World

When we think of the Pilgrims and Puritans who first settled Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies, we often picture them as austere people who dressed in black with nary a smile or laughter between them. They suffered greatly for not conforming to the religious dictates of their English monarchs, being fined for not attending the Church of England, imprisoned for holding their own religious meetings, exiled for their outspoken beliefs, and even martyred for their faith.

The Pilgrims and Puritans were two distinct groups who shared much in common. They both were English Protestants who wanted religion to focus on the Scriptures themselves, not the Catholic rituals, symbols, and hierarchies in the church. Part of this process meant translating the Bible into English for the common people to read and understand. Their religious meetings centered upon readings and sermons from the Bible.

The Pilgrims and Puritans believed in original sin and the inherent badness of human beings. They believed God, through his son Jesus Christ, offered grace—the gift of forgiveness for original sin and salvation—to the chosen few, the elect. The elect were predestined to be saved. Good works, keeping the commandments, and following the laws could not change their status. However, the elect needed to be faithful and obedient to the word of God. To become a full church member, each person must have a testimony of their conversion experience, which meant they were justified and cleansed of their sins.

Although the Pilgrims and Puritans both left England, they had different reasons for doing so. English Puritans wanted to “purify” the Church of England of its Catholic practices and liturgy. Separatists believed the church was beyond reform and wanted to physically separate themselves from the Church of England. The Pilgrims, some of whom settled for years in the Netherlands before landing at Plymouth Rock, were true Separatists with no intention of returning to England. The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay wished to create a “city on the hill” as an example of a true Puritan community. They maintained ties with England and some even chose to return there.

The Voyages

Sponsored by the Virginia Company of London, 102 Separatists and Strangers set sail on the Mayflower in 1620. During the first winter, more than half of these Pilgrims, as we call them today, perished in Plymouth Colony. Other Separatists joined them over the next few years. However, the colony did not expand much beyond their borders like their Massachusetts Bay neighbors to the north.

In contrast, the Puritans came in droves, particularly during the Great Migration years from the mid 1620s to 1640. Some fishing communities existed on Cape Ann in the early 1620s. In 1626, Roger Conant and part of the Dorchester Company settled Naumkeag, which became Salem. They were called the Old Planters. In 1628, more people arrived in Salem with Governor John Endicott. They were the Massachusetts Bay Company vanguard, the so-called New Planters. In 1630, 700 people arrived in the 11 ships that made up the Winthrop Fleet to settle Boston and surrounding communities. The Winthrop Fleet held the Royal Charter for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Since it was not uncommon for Puritan ministers and their congregations to migrate together, the colony grew quickly. 

The Pilgrims created the Mayflower Compact onboard ship, “for the general good of the Colony unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.” Governing issues were determined by majority rule. The Puritans were governed by freemen, men who owned property and were full church members. They believed in order and education, and enacted laws to provide schoolmasters for children to learn how to read and write.

Oddly enough, neither the Pilgrims nor the Puritans believed in religious freedom; hence the persecution, eviction, and hangings of various people not of their faith, such as the Quakers and Baptists.

Under the new English charter of 1691, Plymouth Colony lost its status as a separate colony and was joined with the much larger Massachusetts Bay Colony to become the Province of Massachusetts Bay.

Select Sources:

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick

Daily Life During the Salem Witch Trials by K. David Goss

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