Both the Pilgrims and the Puritans found the Church of England so corrupt that they believed it was necessary to seek a new land to practice their religion freely and without persecution. Under the rule of King James, an enemy of reformers, the Pilgrims first left England for the Netherlands, but because they felt isolated by their language, were unable to farm, and feared being swallowed up in Dutch culture, the Pilgrims petitioned for the right to settle in America. In 1620, they travelled on the Mayflower to the New World, landing in Plymouth, Massachusetts in November. That winter became known as the “Starving Time” and they only survived due to help from the Wampanoag Indians and their leader, Massosoit. This history story of the Pilgrim’s journey to America, along with other rich details such as the first Thanksgiving, was articulated in William Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation”. In it, he also includes a copy of the Mayflower Compact, a document that served as the first attempt at creating a government in America and provided for social, economic, and religious freedom.1
The Puritans travelled to America under similar circumstances. When Charles I became king of England in 1625, the Puritans began to face even tougher persecution and felt there was no other option but to travel to the New World and create a new settlement, which they did in 1630. John Winthrop, leader and governor of this Puritan group, gave his famous sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” either on board the ship Arbella or just before departing. His intent was to prepare his people for planting a new society in a perilous environment. He uses many biblical quotations and references and refers to their capital city of Boston as a “city on a hill”, meaning that their community would serve as a shining example for all to see. The Puritans settled north of the Pilgrims in what came to be known as the Massachusetts Bay Colony.2
The differences between the Pilgrims and the Puritans lay in their ties to the Church of England. The Pilgrims, or “separatists”, rejected the Church of England and the remnants of Catholicism that it represented. Puritan “non-separatists”, on the other hand, while equally fervent in their religious convictions, were committed to reformation of the Church of England and wished to “purify” it from its corrupt ways. Though they had their differences, both groups shared similar beliefs and eventually joined their colonies together. Included in these shared convictions was the concept of Original Sin, which meant that after the fall of Adam, all men are born sinful. They also believed that God saved those he wished to save, known as Predestination. Another idea they believed in, among others, was that God’s grace was freely given and could not be earned (such as it can be in Catholicism) or denied.
Religion was the foremost principle of their society and their spiritual beliefs held over into their community laws and customs. They believed that God was in control of every aspect of their lives. This premise worked both for them and against them. On the positive side, their shared beliefs created a strong and tightly-knitted community, and the concept of Predestination kept them working hard. On the other hand, the ideas put into their minds by ministers such as Cotton Mather (and later Jonathan Edwards) of hellfire and brimstone made them believe that the devil lurked in every corner. These ideas eventually led to the Salem Witch Trials, which Mather writes about in his book The Wonders of the Invisible World. In this book, he sets up the various testimonies of witchcraft as historical fact in the point of view of an unbiased informer, leaving out the defenses that were presented. He described how the devil was out to “overturn this poor plantation”3 and believed that prosecution of the witches was the only way to secure it.
Less extreme examples of the Puritan way of life can be seen in both Anne Bradstreet and Mary Rowlandson. Bradstreet was a poet known for expressing the hard existence of life in the New World, Puritan ideals such as the examination of the conscience, and more intimate poems which reflected her concern for her family and everyday life. She was the first in a long line of poets who was convinced of God’s works not by a close study of theology, but from the evidence she could see in the world around her of his “wondrous works”. Mary Rowlandson was a Puritan who became a victim of King Phillip’s war, a series of attacks on colonial settlements by the American Indians. Rowlandson was the wife of the Puritan minister in the town of Lancaster who was taken captive by the Indians for 11 weeks. Her narrative entitled “A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson” is an account of the time she spent in captivity.