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What Is the Difference Between the Pilgrims and Puritans?


Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor by William Halsall (1882)

Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor by William Halsall (1882)


When most Americans think of Puritans, they tend to think of guys who wear black all day, every day.

They also think of people who were against anything that might result in fun. The caricature of the Puritans is actually far from correct.

The origins of the Puritans and Pilgrims both arose out of the English Reformation, in which Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church over the pope's denial of his intended divorce.

After a brief interlude of official Catholicism during the reign of Mary I (AKA Bloody Mary), the Thirty-nine Articles came to define Anglican religion during the reign of Elizabeth I.

Some of the leading Protestants during Mary's reign became known as the Marian Exiles, as they left England to avoid persecution over their beliefs. Some of these exiles ended up in Geneva and other leading areas of Reformed religious sentiments.

Many returned after Elizabeth's accession to the throne, strengthened in their adherence to the Reformed religion by their exile in the hometown of John Calvin.

Catholic or Protestant?

The major bone of contention between the Puritans and the Pilgrims and the Anglican Church that resulted from the Elizabethan Compromise had to do with vestiges of Roman Catholicism.

While the theology of the Thirty-nine Articles tended toward a Protestant understanding of Christianity, the ritual maintained much that reminded dissenters of Catholicism.

What resulted was a sort of hybrid church. The emphasis on the Eucharist rather than the sermon and the continued use of the surplice discouraged the more strict Calvinists as a remnant of popish superstitions. The exact attitude that dissenters took determined whether they were Puritans or Pilgrims.

Puritans vs. Pilgrims

While Puritans are generally considered very strict in their beliefs, the Pilgrims were probably more rigid than were the Puritans.

While the Puritans thought that the Church of England with its vestiges of Rome was corrupt, they did not think it was beyond any hope of redemption. The Puritans wanted to purify the Church of England from these remaining reminders of the old religion.

The Pilgrims also had a problem with the remaining vestiges of Catholicism. However, where the Puritans saw hope for the Church of England, the Pilgrims thought the Anglican Communion was beyond help.

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The Pilgrims are actually a group of radical dissenters known as Separatists. Where the Puritans wanted the purify the church, the Pilgrims (Separatists) desired a total break because they believed the Church of England beyond help and beyond hope.

The Pilgrims

"Embarkation of the Pilgrims," by Robert Walter Weir.

"Embarkation of the Pilgrims," by Robert Walter Weir.

Coming To America--Pilgrims

The Pilgrims actually made it to the New World before the Puritans did, although the latter are much more important to American history, despite the popular accounts of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving.

Before leaving for America, the Pilgrims got their name because they immigrated to Holland first. Much like today, the Netherlands was a very tolerant and liberal nation in the seventeenth century.

There was a great deal of religious freedom, so the Pilgrims thought making the trip to Holland would be a good idea. After a time in Leiden, however, the Pilgrims found that the liberality (and Dutchness) of their neighbors was tending to influence their children.

It was at this time that the Pilgrims decided to go to America. William Bradford and the rest of his group on the Mayflower made it over in the fall of 1620 and Plymouth Plantation would last until being absorbed into the larger Massachusetts Bay colony later in the seventeenth century.

John Wintrhop--Puritan Governor

Coming to America--Puritans

The Puritans also came to America because of religious persecution. While they came for religious freedom, this desire for religious freedom was not universal. Instead, they wanted religious freedom only for themselves.

The persecution of the Puritans intensified during the reign of Charles I. The Puritans believed that Charles was a closet Catholic, and he did little to alleviate their fears, going so far as to place the Arminian William Laud into the position of Archbishop of Canterbury.

During the Personal Rule of Charles I, a period in which Parliament was not called for over a decade, many Puritans decided to make the trip across the Atlantic.

The most famous group of these Puritans disembarked in the Massachusetts Bay colony. The first group, led by John Winthrop (the first governor of the colony who is now probably more famous for his sermon that mentioned the "city upon a hill"), began this new settlement.

Over 20,000 came to America in the decade of the Personal Rule. Even more left and went to the British West Indies in the same period. The history of the New World would never be the same after their arrival.

A Word of Clarification

The term puritan is quite amorphous. There were many groups that could be considered puritan. Some, including eminent scholar of the British Empire T. O. Lloyd, call the Separatists Puritans. While the theology between the two groups was very similar, the Separatists did not agree with the stance of the Puritans regarding the Church of England.

Puritans could also be broken into more groupings. Two of these "puritan" groups were the Presbyterians and the Independents. Even more dissenting groups fell outside the puritan rubric. These included such groups as the Levellers, the Ranters, the Diggers, and the Quakers. Regardless, it is difficult to argue that the Pilgrims and Puritans no longer influence American society.

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