The Pilgrims and The Puritans



There is certainly some confusion in our history text books about who the Pilgrims were and the Spirit of God has been setting the record straight recently. As has been shared, there is a distinct difference between Pilgrims and Puritans. The Pilgrims were originally called Separatists and it was years later they were referred to as Pilgrims.


The Puritans weren't Pilgrims. They came to New England in the 1630's, and one of the largest groups was led by John Winthrop on the Arabella along with eleven other vessels. At least seventeen ships made port in Salem and brought roughly 1000 settlers to the Massachusetts Bay area. When the Mayflower came to Plymouth there were 102 passengers on board and nearly half of them died in the first winter. By 1640 the Plymouth Colony had grown to about 2500 inhabitants, the Massachusetts Bay Colony had a population around 20,000.


What the two groups had most in common was Puritanism. Bradford Smith wrote in his biography of William Bradford, Bradford of Plymouth:


"Puritanism in England was essentially a movement within the established church for the purifying of that church - for ministers godly and able to teach, for a simplifying of ritual, for a return to the virtues of primitive Christianity. There was nothing revolutionary about the main body of its doctrine.Its innovating principle was in the idea that the Bible, rather than any established religious hierarchy, was the final authority. Therefore every man, every individual, had direct access to the word of God. It was the Puritan's aim to reconstruct and purify not only the church, but individual conduct and all the institutions men live by."


The group we know as Puritans wanted to change the church from within and this was the group that came to Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Separatists had given up on any real reform within the Anglican Church and sought to separate from it and start their own churches and it was from this group that some chose to move to Holland and ended up in Leiden.


There were other differences in the economic and social class of the two groups. The Pilgrims at Plymouth were basically working class people. None had the title of Gent added to their name. Their spiritual leader, William Brewster was not an ordained minister. He had been to Cambridge but never finished. He was an Elder of the Leiden group during their exile in Holland and an assistant to the Rev. John Robinson.While in Leiden he taught English and ran a printing press. William Bradford, who became Governor of the group, whose leadership guided the little colony, was a fustian (corduroy-like cloth) worker, self-educated and well versed in the scriptures. Bradford's counterpart in Massachusetts, John Winthrop was a trained lawyer who had worked in the English government service.


The Mayflower Compact was a document written and signed by every adult male as a governing document before they ever disembarked at Plymouth and the colony was bound by that document as members of the community, making them all in a sense, equal. The elected officers' powers were by the consent of the people and within the terms of the Compact.


The Massachusetts Bay colony had a more "English" philosophy". The Governor, Deputy Governor, Assistants and other officer were chosen by the people, however they understood themselves to be ruling with divine authority. Their authority was from God, not from the people, and they were accountable to God and not to the people. Because of that, the clergy being the most educated men in the community, were often consulted and played a significant, though unofficial role in the making of government decisions. When a difficult decision had to be made, the magistrates would often turn to the minister to wield their influence and help them convince the populace. This left the back door open for them to influence state policy. Edmund Morgan, historian, described the Puritans as having "an unabashed assumption of superiority which was to carry English rule around the world."


English historian Robert Bartlett described the difference in attitude of the two groups with an incident that occurred in 1635:


"Members of Pastor John Warham's church in Dorchester decided to move to the Connecticut River. They visited the Plimoth trading post at Windsor that was in charge of Jonathan Brewster. He extended them hospitality and helped them secure canoes and guides to explore the area. He was shocked when they announced that they were taking over Plimoth's land and building on it. Brewster pointed out that the Pilgrims had bought the land from the Indians in order to establish their fur trade, and that thousands of acres were available for their Dorchester colony. But the newcomers stuck to their purpose, assured that providence had so willed it. During these confrontations two shallops of Dorchester settlers set out from Boston for the Connecticut post. Their boats were wrecked on Brown's Island in Plimoth Bay. Plimothians rushed to the scene and gathered in the victims and their possessions. A third boat that was carrying cargo to the Windsor site for the migrants was blown ashore off Sandwich. Once again the people of Plimoth salvaged the goods and turned them over to the owners. Obviously the Dorchester colonists must have been somewhat chagrined by these demonstrations of brotherliness. In due time, as they reflected upon their haste and avarice, they decided to forego their claim on the Pilgrims' land and to move on into the wilderness."


The posting of Samuel Gorton gives examples of the Puritans governing practices. Plymouth Colony was absorbed into the Massachusetts Bay Colony jurisdiction in 1691.

Sources: Pilgrim Hall Museum, Pilgrim Society (Pilgrim and Puritan by Richard Howland Maxwell)

Contributed by Kathryn Currier

posted February 8, 2010



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