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 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 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. One Separatist group, the Pilgrims, established the Plymouth Colony in 1620. Non-separating Puritans played leading roles in establishing the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629, 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.

Precursors to the Great Migration, 1618-1630[edit]

Puritan settlement in Virginia Colony (1618)[edit]

One small group of Puritans had already settled in Warrascoyack County in the Virginia Colony, beginning in 1618 with Christopher Lawne who established a plantation at Lawne's Creek. He died the following year, but several other prominent Puritan merchants soon immigrated there, including the Bennett family of Somerset. Under the leadership of Richard Bennett, the community moved from Warrascoyack to neighboring Nansemond beginning in 1635, then sought temporary refuge in Maryland in 1648. They returned to Virginia when the "Roundheads" appointed Bennett as governor there in 1652; later, in 1672, all of them, including Bennett, converted to the Quaker faith upon meeting its founder, George Fox.

The Pilgrims (1620)[edit]

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

A more famous group of these early Puritans had also settled in New England in 1620: the Pilgrims.

The Pilgrims were Separatists who held views similar to those proclaimed by Robert Browne, John Greenwood, and Henry Barrowe. The Pilgrims emerged in Elizabethan England at roughly the same time as the Brownists.

The Pilgrims trace their lineage to Richard Clyfton, minister of Babworth, Nottinghamshire. Beginning in the 1580s, Clyfton advocated separation from the Church of England. Clyfton's movement attracted William Brewster, the postmaster of Scrooby. Tobias Matthew, the Bishop of Durham, who had been part of Archbishop Whitgift's delegation at the Hampton Court Conference, was selected by James to become Archbishop of York in 1606. He led an anti-Separatist crackdown and Clyfton was removed from his ministry. In response, Brewster offered to organize a dissenting congregation in the manor house in which he lived in Scrooby. Clyfton served as the congregation's pastor, John Robinson as its teacher, and William Brewster as its chief elder. This congregation was subject to ecclesiastical investigation, and its members faced social hostility from conforming church members, but was not actively persecuted. Nevertheless, disliking the social hostility, and fearing future persecution, the group decided to leave England.

150 members of the congregation made it to Amsterdam, where they met up with a group of Separatist exiles led by John Smyth, which had joined the congregation of English exiles led by Francis Johnson. After a year at Amsterdam, tensions between Smyth and Johnson grew so high, that the Pilgrims decided to move to Leiden. While there, many worked at Leiden University or in the textile, printing and brewing trades. John Robinson participated in the Calvinist-Arminian Controversy while at Leiden University, arguing on behalf of the Gomarists.

19th-century painting depicting the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620.

By 1617, many members of the congregation had grown disillusioned with Leiden and wanted to move somewhere where they could retain their English identity, while also worshipping God in the way they believed was required. As such, the congregation voted to leave Leiden and to found a colony. The group ultimately decided to move to New England. In 1620, after receiving a patent from the London Company, the Pilgrims left for New England on board the Mayflower, landing at Plymouth Rock. The colony founded by the Pilgrims, called Plymouth Colony, also had tensions between the Indians and New England colonists turned into a deadly conflict called King Philip's War.

The Great Migration, 1630-1640[edit]

Background: The Religious and Political Situation in England, 1625-1629[edit]

The controversy over Richard Montagu's A New Gag for an old Goose was still on parliamentarians' minds when Parliament met in May 1625. Furthermore, shortly before the opening of the parliament, Charles was married by proxy to Henrietta Maria of France, the Catholic daughter of Henry IV of France (thus cementing an alliance with France in preparation for war against Spain). As such, at this parliament, Puritan MPs openly worried that Charles was preparing to restrict the recusancy laws (which Charles was, in fact, planning on doing, having agreed to do so in the secret marriage treaty he negotiated with Louis XIII of France).

John Pym (1584-1643), Puritan MP who spoke out against Richard Montagu in 1625.

Puritan MP John Pym launched an attack on Richard Montagu in the House of Commons. As a response, Montagu wrote a pamphlet entitled Caesarem appello (Latin "I Appeal to Caesar") (a reference to Acts 25:10-12), in which he appealed to Charles to protect him against the Puritans. Charles responded by making Montagu royal chaplain, signaling that he was willing to defend Montagu against Puritan opposition.

In this atmosphere, Puritan suspicions that Charles was secretly planning to restore Roman Catholicism in England mounted. As such, the Parliament, heavily influenced by its Puritan members, was reluctant to grant Charles revenue, since they feared that any revenue granted might be used to support an army that would re-impose Catholicism on England. For example, since 1414, every English monarch had been authorized by their first Parliament to collect the customs duties of Tonnage and Poundage for the duration of their reign; the 1625 Parliament, however, voted to allow Charles to collect Tonnage and Poundage for only one year. Furthermore, when Charles wanted to intervene in the Thirty Years' War by declaring war on Spain, Parliament granted him only £140,000, a totally insufficient sum to pursue the war.

The war with Spain went ahead (partially funded by tonnage and poundage collected by Charles even after he was no longer authorized to do so). Buckingham was put in charge of the war effort, and failed miserably. As such, in 1628, Parliament called for Buckingham's replacement, but Charles stuck by Buckingham. Parliament went on to pass the Petition of Right, a declaration of Parliament's rights. Charles accepted the Petition, though this did not lead to a change in his behavior.

In August 1628, Buckingham was assassinated by a disillusioned soldier, John Felton. The nation responded with spontaneous celebration, which angered Charles.

When Parliament resumed sitting in January 1629, Charles was met with outrage over the case of John Rolle, an MP who had been prosecuted for failing to pay Tonnage and Poundage even though Charles had agreed to "no taxation without representation" (to use a slogan from a later era) in the Petition of Right. John Finch, the Speaker of the House of Commons, was famously held down in the Speaker's Chair in order to allow the House to pass a resolution condemning the king.

Charles was so outraged by Parliament's opposition to his policies that he determined to rule without ever calling a parliament again, thus initiating the period known as his Personal Rule (1629–1640), which his enemies termed the Eleven Years' Tyranny. This period also saw the ascendancy of Laudianism in England (see previous section), which led Puritan critics to term this period the Caroline Captivity of the Church (a reference to the so-called Babylonian Captivity of the Church, which was itself a reference to the Babylonian Captivity).

The "Great Migration" and the foundation of Puritan New England, 1630-1642[edit]

The events of 1629 convinced many Puritans that King Charles was an ardent foe of further church reforms who would enforce Laudianism on the Church of England throughout his reign. Since King Charles was only 29 years old in 1629, they were thus faced with the prospect of countless decades without reforms and with their proposals being suppressed. Given this situation, some Puritans began considering founding their own colony where they could worship in a fully reformed church, far from the prying eyes of King Charles and the bishops. This was a far different view of the church than that held by the Separatists of Plymouth Colony.

John Winthrop and the foundation of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1630[edit]

The early seventeenth century saw the foundation of many joint stock companies, which were commercial ventures designed to profit from trade or the foundation of colonial settlements. The most famous of the joint stock companies was the Honourable East India Company, chartered in 1600. In 1606, King James had issued a royal charter to two companies referred to collectively as the Virginia Company: the London Company (which successfully established the Colony of Virginia in 1608) and the Plymouth Company (which was unsuccessful at establishing settlements, which explains why they were eager to grant a patent to the Pilgrims in 1620).

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.

During their time in England, Cushman and Winslow had convinced many Puritan members of the landed gentry to invest in the Dorchester Company. In 1627, the Dorchester Company went bankrupt, but was succeeded by the New England Company (the membership of the Dorchester and New England Companies overlapped). The New England Company sought clearer title to the New England land of the proposed settlement than provided by the Sheffield Patent and in March 1629 succeeded in obtaining from King Charles a royal charter changing the name of the company to the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England and granting them the land to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It is unclear why Charles agreed to this, but it would appear that he did not realize that the group was dominated by Puritans and believed that it was a purely commercial company.

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

As the Puritans' relationship with the new king soured, Puritan John Winthrop, a lawyer who had practiced in the Court of Wards, began to explore the idea of creating a Puritan colony in New England. After all, the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony had proven that such a colony was viable. Instead of living in England under the rule of a king hostile to their interests, the Puritans could establish a colony in New England far from the king's interference. Throughout 1628 and 1629, Puritans in Winthrop's social circle discussed the possibility of moving to New England. It was noted that the royal charter establishing the Massachusetts Bay Company had not specified where the company's annual meeting should be held; this raised the possibility that the governor of the company could move to the new colony and serve as governor of the colony, while the general court of the company could be transformed into the colony's legislative assembly. John Winthrop participated in these discussions and in March 1629, signed the Cambridge Agreement, by which the non-emigrating shareholders of the company agreed to turn over control of the company to the emigrating shareholders. As Winthrop was the wealthiest of the emigrating shareholders, the company decided to make him governor, and entrusted him with the company charter.

Winthrop sailed for New England in 1630 along with 700 colonists on board eleven ships known collectively as the Winthrop Fleet. Winthrop himself sailed on board the Arbella. During the crossing, he preached a sermon entitled "A Model of Christian Charity", in which he called on his fellow settlers to make their new colony a City upon a Hill (a reference to Matthew 5:14-16), meaning that they would be a model to all the nations of Europe as to what a properly reformed Christian commonwealth should look like. (This was particularly poignant in 1630, since the Thirty Years' War was going bad for the Protestants and Catholicism was being restored in lands previously reformed — e.g. by the 1629 Edict of Restitution.)

Logistics of the Great Migration[edit]

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.[citation needed] 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[citation needed]. Emigration was officially restricted to conforming churchmen in December 1634 by his Privy Council.[1] From 1629 through 1643 approximately 21,000 Puritans immigrated to New England[citation needed] 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. Rather than groups of young men seeking economic success (as predominated Virginia colonies), 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 contrast to the colony in Virginia – where the ratio of colonist men to women was 4:1 in early decades and at least 2:1 in later decades, and where limited intermarriage with native women took place – nearly half of the Puritan immigrants to the New World were women, and there was little intermarriage with natives. 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 would make 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.

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. This meant that, while they deeply abhorred many of the practices of the Church of England, 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 denounced the Separating Puritans as schismatics. Thus, although the Puritans in Massachusetts erected their church along Presbyterian-Congregational lines, they technically remained in full communion with the Church of England. This position led to two major theological controversies with Separating Puritans 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 extremist 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. Williams refused the invitation on the grounds that the congregation had not separated from the Church of England. He then attempted 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. There, 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) that 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 city of Providence, Rhode Island. Williams was one of the first Puritans to advocate separation of church and state and Rhode Island 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.

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.

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.

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]

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

Praying Towns and John Eliot[edit]

Beginning in 1651, Puritan Reverend John Eliot preached to the native tribes of Massachusetts. His goal was to convert as many American Indians as possible. His plan was to move the converted into Praying Towns, where they could be brought into Puritan society but at a distance from the colonial villages. Many Europeans did not believe that the Natives had a civilized culture because they used oral traditions to pass on their heritage as opposed to the written history of Europe. John Eliot was quoted as saying “As for these poore Indians, they have no principles of their own, nor yet wisdom of their own.”[2] A missionary criticized Eliot’s attitude by saying, “He did not so unto Indians, but brought them into his towns, civilizing them that they might be Christianized.”[2]

Conflicts arose between the Native Americans and English during the time of these praying towns, the greatest of these being King Philip's War. After this war many of the towns were disbanded as a way to protect the Puritans living in the area. According to William Wood[disambiguation needed], tribes were seen as “scumme of the country...if not for the English.” Warfare was not the only “war” raging between the peoples of Massachusetts, disease was on a rise as well. Plagues of diseases and parasites thrived in the new land and on the Indians. Tribes such as the Pequots, Massachusetts, Pawtuckets and others were destroyed because of these plagues.

Not all relations were negative however. The English introduced tools such as hoes, spades, fences, iron kettles and fishing lines. Some smaller tribes found protection in the colonists and the relationships were prosperous for both sides.

Decline of power and influence[edit]

Puritan oppression, including torture and imprisonment of many leaders of non-Puritan Christian sects, led to the (voluntary or involuntary) "banishment" of many Christian leaders and their followers from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This impact of Puritanism on many new colonists led or contributed to the founding of new colonies—Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, New Hampshire, and others—as religious havens that were created for those who wanted to live outside the oppressive reach of the existing theocracy.[3] The power and influence of Puritan leaders in New England declined further after the Salem Witch Trials in Salem, Massachusetts, in the 1690s. The trials ended with a number of innocent people being falsely accused, found guilty, and executed. Most of the magistrates never admitted fault in the matter, though Samuel Sewall, publicly apologized in later life.

Related Religions and Churches[edit]

Most colonial Puritan congregations were absorbed into either the National Council of the Congregational Churches of the United States,[4] or the American Unitarian Association.[5] The Congregationalists merged with the General Convention of the Christian Church, and later with the Evangelical and Reformed Church in 1957, forming the United Church of Christ, while the Unitarians consolidated with the Universalist Church of America in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association.


  1. ^ 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).
  2. ^ a b "That Art of Coyning Christians:" John Eliot and the Praying Indians of Massachusetts, John Eliot; Kenneth M. Morrison. Ethnohistory, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Winter, 1974), pp. 77-92
  3. ^ Quaqua Society--Massachusetts Bay Colony.
  4. ^ Gunnemann, Louis H. (1977). The Shaping of the United Church of Christ. United Church Press. p. 160. ISBN 0829813454. 
  5. ^ George Ellis A Half-century of the Unitarian Controversy Boston 1857