History of the Puritans in North America

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Puritan history
Narrative History
History of the Puritans under Elizabeth I
History of the Puritans under James I
History of the Puritans under Charles I
History of the Puritans from 1649
History of the Puritans in North America
Definitions of Puritanism
Troubles at Frankfurt
Puritan choir
Vestments controversy
Martin Marprelate
Millenary Petition
Arminianism in the Church of England
Providence Island Company
Puritan Sabbatarianism
Scrooby Congregation
Trial of Archbishop Laud

In the early 17th century, thousands of English Puritans settled in North America, mainly in New England. Puritans were generally members of the Church of England who believed that the Church of England was insufficiently reformed, retaining too much of its Roman Catholic doctrinal roots, and who therefore opposed royal ecclesiastical policy under Elizabeth I of England, James I of England, and Charles I of England. Most Puritans were "non-separating Puritans", meaning that they did not advocate setting up separate congregations distinct from the Church of England; a small minority of Puritans were "separating Puritans" who advocated setting up congregations outside the Church. The Pilgrims were a Separatist group, and they established the Plymouth Colony in 1620. Non-separating Puritans played leading roles in establishing the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629, the Saybrook Colony in 1635, the Connecticut Colony in 1636, and the New Haven Colony in 1638. The Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations was established by settlers expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony because of their unorthodox religious opinions. Puritans were also active in New Hampshire before it became a crown colony in 1691.

Most Puritans who migrated to North America came in the decade 1630-1640 in what is known as the Great Migration. See the main articles on each of the colonies for information on their political and social history; this article focuses on the religious history of the Puritans in North America.

Puritanism in England (1533–1630)[edit]

Puritanism was a Protestant movement that emerged in 16th–century England with the goal of transforming it into a godly society by reforming or purifying the Church of England of all remaining Roman Catholic teachings and practices.[1] During the reign of Elizabeth I, Puritans were for the most part tolerated within the established church. Like Puritans, most English Protestants at the time were Calvinist in their theology, and many bishops and Privy Council members were sympathetic to Puritan objectives. The major point of controversy between Puritans and church authorities was over liturgical ceremonies Puritans thought too Catholic, such as wearing clerical vestments, kneeling to receive Holy Communion, and making the sign of the cross during baptism.[2]

During the reign of James I, some Puritans were no longer willing to wait for further church reforms. These Separatists left the national church and began holding their own religious meetings, with many migrating to the Netherlands in order to escape persecution and worship freely. Nevertheless, most Puritans remained within the Church of England.[3]

Under Charles I, Calvinist teachings were undermined and bishops became less tolerant of Puritan views and more willing to enforce the use of controversial ceremonies. New controls were placed on Puritan preaching, and some ministers were suspended or removed from their livings. Increasingly, many Puritans concluded that they had no choice but to emigrate.[4]

Migration to America (1620–1640)[edit]

Fictional drawing of William Brewster (c1566-1644), one of the leaders of the Pilgrims who helped found the Plymouth Colony in 1620.

In 1620, a group of Separatists known as the Pilgrims settled in New England and established the Plymouth Colony. The Pilgrims originated as a dissenting congregation in Scrooby led by William Brewster, Richard Clyfton and John Robinson. This congregation was subject to ecclesiastical investigation, and its members faced social hostility from conforming church members. Fearing increasing persecution, the group left England and settled in the Dutch city of Leiden. In 1620, after receiving a patent from the London Company, the Pilgrims left for New England on board the Mayflower, landing at Plymouth Rock.

Two of the Pilgrim settlers in Plymouth Colony - Robert Cushman and Edward Winslow - believed that Cape Ann would be a profitable location for a settlement. They therefore organized a company which they named the Dorchester Company and in 1622 sailed to England seeking a patent from the London Company giving them permission to settle there. They were successful and were granted the Sheffield Patent (named after Edmond, Lord Sheffield, the member of the Plymouth Company who granted the patent). On the basis of this patent, Roger Conant led a group of fishermen to found Salem in 1626, being replaced as governor by John Endecott in 1627.

Other Puritans were convinced that New England could provide a religious refuge, and the enterprise was reorganized as the Massachusetts Bay Company. In March 1629, it succeeded in obtaining from King Charles a royal charter for the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1630, the first ships of the Great Puritan Migration sailed to the New World, led by John Winthrop.[5]

John Winthrop (1587/8-1649), Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who led the Puritans in the Great Migration, beginning in 1630.

During the crossing, Winthrop preached a sermon entitled "A Model of Christian Charity", in which he told his followers that they had entered a covenant with God according to which he would cause them to prosper if they maintained their commitment to God. In doing so, their new colony would become a "City upon a Hill", meaning that they would be a model to all the nations of Europe as to what a properly reformed Christian commonwealth should look like.[6]

Most of the Puritans who emigrated settled in the New England area. However, the Great Migration of Puritans was relatively short-lived and not as large as is often believed. It began in earnest in 1629 with the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and ended in 1642 with the start of the English Civil War, when King Charles I effectively shut off emigration to the colonies. Emigration was officially restricted to conforming churchmen in December 1634 by his Privy Council.[7] From 1629 through 1643, approximately 21,000 Puritans immigrated to New England.

The Great Migration of Puritans to New England was primarily an exodus of families. Between 1630 and 1640, over 13,000 men, women, and children sailed to Massachusetts. The religious and political factors behind the Great Migration influenced the demographics of the emigrants. Groups of young men seeking economic success predominated the Virginia colonies, whereas Puritan ships were laden with “ordinary” people, old and young, families as well as individuals. Just a quarter of the emigrants were in their twenties when they boarded ship in the 1630s, making young adults a minority in New England settlements. The New World Puritan population was more of a cross section in age of English population than those of other colonies. This meant that the Massachusetts Bay Colony retained a relatively normal population composition. In the colony of Virginia, the ratio of colonist men to women was 4:1 in early decades and at least 2:1 in later decades, and only limited intermarriage took place with Indian women. By contrast, nearly half of the Puritan immigrants to the New World were women, and there was very little intermarriage with Indians. The majority of families who traveled to Massachusetts Bay were families in progress, with parents who were not yet through with their reproductive years and whose continued fertility made New England’s population growth possible. The women who emigrated were critical agents in the success of the establishment and maintenance of the Puritan colonies in North America. Success in the early colonial economy depended largely on labor, which was conducted by members of Puritan families.

The struggle between the assertive Church of England and various Presbyterian and Puritan groups extended throughout the English realm in the 17th Century, prompting not only the re-emigration of British Protestants from Ireland to North America (the so-called Scotch-Irish), but prompting emigration from Bermuda, England's second-oldest overseas territory. Roughly 10,000 Bermudians emigrated before US Independence. Most of these went to the American colonies, founding, or contributing to settlements throughout the South, especially. Many had also gone to the Bahamas, where a number of Bermudian Independent Puritan families, under the leadership of William Sayle, had established the colony of Eleuthera in 1648.

Some Puritans also migrated to colonies in Central America and the Caribbean, see Providence Island Company, Mosquito Coast and Providencia Island.

New England theological controversies, 1632-1642[edit]

As noted earlier, the vast majority of Puritans who settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were non-separating Puritans. They deeply abhorred many of the practices of the Church of England, but they refused to separate from the Church of England because they placed an extremely high value on the doctrine of the unity of the Church. They viewed the Separating Puritans as schismatics. Thus, the Puritans in Massachusetts erected their church along Presbyterian-Congregational lines, but they technically remained in full communion with the Church of England. This position led to two major theological controversies in the course of the 1630s: the Roger Williams controversy, and the Anne Hutchinson controversy.

Engraving of a statue of Roger Williams (1603-1683), Puritan minister who was expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636 for his views and who advocated religious liberty. Williams founded the city of Providence, Rhode Island.

The Roger Williams controversy[edit]

Roger Williams, a Separating Puritan minister, arrived in Boston in 1631. He was almost immediately invited to become the pastor of the local congregation, but he refused the invitation on the grounds that the congregation had not separated from the Church of England. He then was invited to become pastor of the church at Salem, but was blocked by Boston political leaders, who objected to his separatism. He thus spent two years with his fellow Separatists in the Plymouth Colony, but ultimately came into conflict with them and returned to Salem, where he became pastor in May 1635, against the objection of the Boston authorities. Williams set forth a manifesto in which he declared that 1) the Church of England was apostate and fellowship with it was a grievous sin; 2) the Massachusetts Colony's charter falsely said that King Charles was a Christian; 3) the colony should not be allowed to impose oaths on its citizens, because that was forbidden by Matthew 5:33-37

Williams' actions so outraged the Puritan leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony that they expelled him from the colony. In 1636, the exiled Williams founded the colony of Providence Plantation. He was one of the first Puritans to advocate separation of church and state, and Providence Plantation was one of the first places in the Christian world to recognize freedom of religion.

The Anne Hutchinson controversy[edit]

Anne Hutchinson and her family moved from Boston, Lincolnshire to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634, following their Puritan minister John Cotton. Cotton began pastoring a congregation in Boston, Massachusetts, and Hutchinson joined his congregation. Following the Puritan practice of conventicling, Hutchinson set up a conventicle in her home. At the conventicle, a group would meet during the week to discuss John Cotton's sermon from the previous Sunday. Hutchinson proved to be extremely charismatic at propounding on Cotton's ideas during these conventicles, and eventually the size of her conventicle swelled to 80 people and had to be moved from her home to the church building.

Cotton had long denounced Arminianism in his sermons. Hutchinson took up the anti-Arminian cause in strong language, propounding an extreme form of double predestination (a view popularized among English Puritans by William Perkins), which held that God chose those who would go to heaven (the elect) and those who would go to hell (the reprobate), and that His decision inevitably and infallibly came to pass. Applying this framework to the Arminian controversy, Hutchinson argued that people were either under a covenant of works (they were relying on good works for their salvation, and therefore were really damned) or else a covenant of grace (in which case they were dependent only on God's grace, and were therefore really saved).

Nineteenth-century painting depicting Anne Hutchinson's (1591-1643) trial before the Massachusetts General Court in 1637, which led to her banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

By 1637, Hutchinson's teachings had grown controversial within the colony for a number of reasons. First, some Puritans objected to a woman occupying such a prominent role as a teacher in the church. Second, Hutchinson began denouncing various Puritan ministers in the colony as really preaching a "covenant of works" and sometimes spoke as if John Cotton were the only minister in the entire colony who was preaching a "covenant of grace" correctly. Thirdly, some of Hutchinson's views on the "covenant of grace" seemed indistinguishable from the heresy of antinomianism, the view that the elect did not have to follow the laws of God or morality.

Hutchinson was called before the Massachusetts General Court to explain herself. She sparred verbally with the magistrates successfully on a number of issues, but was ultimately undone when she said that she had determined that she would be persecuted when she came to New England. When the magistrates asked her how she had determined this, she responded "by an immediate revelation" i.e. God had spoken to her and told her so. The Puritans generally followed the principle of sola scriptura and believed that God communicated with individuals only through the medium of scripture. As such, for the magistrates of the General Court, who were already suspicious of Hutchinson's orthodoxy, the claim that God was speaking directly to her was the final straw. They therefore voted to banish her from the colony. As a result, in 1638, Hutchinson and several of her followers left the Massachusetts Bay Colony and founded the town of Pocasset, which today is Portsmouth, Rhode Island.

Historiography of Puritan Involvement in Witchcraft[edit]

As time passes and new evidence presents itself in the field of witchcraft and its involvement in Puritan New England, many scholars have stepped forth to contribute to what we know in regards to this subject. For instance, different perspectives involving the witch trials have been argued involving gender, class, and race that explain in a more in-depth way how Puritanism contributed to the trials and executions. Puritan fears, beliefs and institutions were the perfect storm that fueled the witch craze in towns such as Salem from an interdisciplinary and anthropological approach. [8] From a gendered approach, offered by Carol Karlsen and Elizabeth Reis, the question of why witches were primarily women did not fully surface until after the second wave of feminism in the 80s. Some believe that women who were gaining economic or social power, specifically in the form of land inheritance, were at a higher risk of being tried as witches. [9] Others maintain that females were more susceptible to being witches as the Puritans believed that the weak body was a pathway to the soul which both God and the Devil fought for. Due to the Puritan belief that female bodies "lacked the strength and vitality" compared to male bodies, females were more susceptible to make a choice to enter a convenant with Satan as their fragile bodies could not protect their souls. [10] From a racial perspective, Puritans believed that African Americans living within the colonies were viewed as "true witches" from an anthropological sense as Blacks were "inherently evil creatures, unable to control their connection to Satanic wickedness." [11] As more perspectives from different scholars add to the knowledge of the Puritan involvement in the witch trials, a more complete picture and history will form.

Life in the New World[edit]

New England society rested on the rock of the Puritan family, economically and religiously. Women were thus entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring that children grew into virtuous Puritan adults. This new moral and religious significance given to everyday life, marriage, and family brought women’s activities into the spotlight. Although the patriarch directed work and devotion within the family, the proof of success in the New World was in a harmonious marriage and godly children—both of which fell under the jurisdiction of the Puritan woman. The success of The Great Migration and establishment of successful Puritan colonies in the New World thus depended heavily on the role of women within the settlement.

In the 1660s the Puritan settlements in the New World were confronted with the challenge posed by an aging first generation. Those who created the colonies were the most fervent in their religious beliefs, and as their numbers began to decline, so did the membership of churches. The demographics of the churches changed because fewer men were joining. The resulting decrease in male religious participation was a problem for the established church (that is, the colony’s official church for which people were taxed and which they were expected to attend), since men were the ones with secular power. If the men who wielded secular power in the colony were absent from the church, its legitimacy would be undermined. As early as 1660, women constituted the great majority of church members. However, since Anne Hutchinson’s banishment, they were not allowed to talk in church (for more information, see below under "Beliefs"). Puritan ministers, concerned for the continued existence and power of their churches in the colonies, pushed for a solution to declining church membership. This effort led to the creation of the Halfway Covenant, in order to boost participation in the Puritan church.

Emigration resumed under the rule of Cromwell, but not in large numbers as there was no longer any need to "escape persecution" in England. In fact, many Puritans returned to England during the war. "In 1641, when the English Civil War began, some immigrants returned to fight on the Puritan side, and when the Puritans won, many resumed English life under Oliver Cromwell's more congenial Puritan sway."[1]

Decline of power and influence[edit]

Puritan oppression led to the voluntary or involuntary banishment of many religious leaders and their followers from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This led or contributed to the founding of new colonies as religious havens for those who wanted to live outside of the existing theocracy.[12]


  1. ^ Bremer 2009, pp. 2–3.
  2. ^ Bremer 2009, pp. 7,10.
  3. ^ Bremer 2009, p. 12.
  4. ^ Bremer 2009, p. 15.
  5. ^ Bremer 2009, pp. 17–18.
  6. ^ Bremer 2009, p. 18.
  7. ^ Gardiner, History of England from the Accession of James I to the Outbreak of the Civil War, Longmans, Green, 1884 page 167, page 172 (Volume 8).
  8. ^ Reed, Isaac. "Why Salem Made Sense: Culture, Gender, and the Puritan Persecution of Witchcraft." Cultural Sociology. 1, no. 2 (2007): 209-234.
  9. ^ Karlsen, Carol F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. New York, NY: Norton, 1987.
  10. ^ Reis, Elizabeth. "The Devil, the Body, and the Feminine Soul in Puritan New England." The Journal of American History 82, no. 1 (1995): 15-36.
  11. ^ McMillan, Timothy J. "Black Magic: Witchcraft, Race, and Resistance in Colonial New England." Journal of Black Studies 25, no. 1 (1994): 99-117.
  12. ^ Quaqua Society--Massachusetts Bay Colony.