Confusion is common about the similarities and differences between the Pilgrims and the Puritans, who both immigrated to America in the 1600s seeking religious freedom because of England’s rigid ideas about religious conformity.
The Pilgrims were about 100 English people, primarily working-class, who quit the Church of England in 1605 to form separatist religious communities. Due to persecution in England, in 1607 they moved to the Netherlands, primarily Leiden. Through Ancestry.com I learned that, like millions of Americans, I am descended from one of these Pilgrims. Their story: Leiden, Netherlands: Pilgrims’ Base For About 15 Years Before Boarding Mayflower.
In 1618, English authorities came to Leiden to arrest one of the Puritans’ leaders, William Brewster, for publishing a tract highly critical of English King James and the Anglican church. Subsequent oppression caused the separatists to plan their escape. They raised money for two ships to transport them to the New World. The Speedwell gathered passengers in the Netherlands and transported them to southwest England, notably Dartmouth, Southhampton, Cornwall, and Plymouth, England.
In November 1620, the first of their ships, called the Mayflower, was bound for Virginia, to join the Jamestown Colony established in 1607. But storms and winds were harsh, and they landed at Plymouth Rock, now Massachusetts, instead and established Plymouth Colony.
Some of the non-Puritan passengers decided that since they had not landed in Virginia as anticipated, they would not obey Puritan rules and establish their own community. Bradford and others objected. They wrote and about 40 male passengers signed the first governing document of the colony, called the Mayflower Compact based on voting and majority rule, one of the world’s first written constitutions. “It was, in essence, a social contract in which the settlers consented to follow the community’s rules and regulations for the sake of order and survival,” according to Wikipedia. Historian Nathaniel Philbrick described it as “a civil covenant…(providing) the basis for a secular government in America.”
Despite Bradford’s earlier criticism of King James, the compact pledged loyalty to “our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith.”
The Pilgrim community, based on gentleness, tolerance, and open-mindedness, continued to grow for the next 10 years. Women had more rights than they did in England. They could make and sign contracts, own property and bring cases to court.
With a much longer history in England back to the early Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, the Puritans sought to “purify” the Church of England of Catholic practices. Frustrated by the limitations of the English Reformation, they were persecuted for their strict religious beliefs. In 1629, they established the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This was a much larger group than the pilgrim separatists, not struggling working-class but upper-middle class with some wealth. They did not wish to separate from the Church of England, but to simply reform it. They were not small d “democrats” who believed in voting and majority rule, but theocrats who believed that authorities were appointed by God, with obedience a key virtue. They had airs of superiority and judgmentalness, were strict, inflexible, authoritarian, and deeply superstitious.
By 1836, they were in a two-year war with Native Americans, and by 1675 engaged in a three-year war with Native Americans. Charges of heresy and witchcraft were common in the intolerant Massachusetts Bay Colony in the late 1600s.
Historian Philbrick reimagines, through meticulous historical research, how America began in “Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War.” It is not a European-bad, Native American-good narrative, but quite nuanced. The real story of Plymouth Colony is “new, rich, troubling and complex. Instead of the story we already know, it becomes the story we need to know,” he writes.