Pilgrims or Puritans?

1 year ago

Pilgrims. Puritans. Did your ancestors number among them and is there a difference? Even Henry Louis Gates on Finding Your Roots once told a Mayflower descendant they had Puritan ancestors. 

But they’re not the same. Let’s explore the differences.

When Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church to marry Anne Boleyn, he remained Catholic in every sense except acknowledging the supremacy of the pope. The monarch assumed the role of supreme head of the English church and remains so to this day. At the same time, England was awash with various illegal Protestant sects who were forced to meet in secret. These Protestants risked charges of treason, imprisonment, torture and burning at the stake. 

The so-called Pilgrims arrived here in 1620, landing in Plymouth, Massachusetts. They called themselves Pilgrims, but they were actually “Brownists” or separatists because they wanted to separate from the Church of England. After persecution and failed attempts to escape, they eventually fled to Holland and later secured permission to form a royal colony in Virginia. Navigation being what it was at that time, they mistakenly ended up in what is now Massachusetts aboard the iconic Mayflower. 

The Mayflower carried others besides the Pilgrims. To make a profit from the voyage, passages were sold to “strangers” — that is, other Protestants who were not members of the separatist movement. I’m descended from both groups.

In 1630 other English settlers arrived in what is now Boston, Massachusetts, on the Winthrop Fleet. Their colony, Massachusetts Bay, grew quickly with more settlers arriving each year. Eventually it would swallow all other colonies in the area, including Plymouth. Massachusetts Bay’s Protestants were known as Puritans. Puritans didn’t want to separate from the official Anglican Church, they wanted to “purify” it of its Catholic elements such as music, robes, stained glass, Masses, statues, and titles.  Many of my ancestors were Puritans. 

These were the two major English colonies in Massachusetts. In general, the Pilgrims were slightly more tolerant of other Protestants if they followed the separatist religion. The Pilgrims believed only the chosen would go to heaven, which means they would never accept the “strangers” in their midst.

The Puritans weren’t kind to dissenters.  They drove them into exile by the threat of death if they refused to conform. The Puritans imposed their “purified” church onto the residents of their colony. Dissent was considered treason and Puritans hanged Quakers as heretics and were responsible for the Great Witch Hunt of 1692. The word puritan today is associated with repression and narrow-mindedness.

The first Thanksgiving is traditionally credited to the Pilgrims. This brings us to the greatest myth about the Pilgrims: that they came to the New World seeking religious freedom for people of all beliefs.  While not as harsh as their Puritan cousins, the Pilgrims came here so they could enjoy religious freedom themselves, not others, and they actively shunned contact with other Protestants whenever possible. 

Religious freedom only came to America when our forefathers added freedom of religion to our Constitution.

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft.  Nancy holds an MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at nbattick@roadrunner.com.