Why Did the Puritans Really Leave England for the New World?
Thanksgiving is one of the biggest holidays celebrated in the United States. It is a time when families across the country traditionally come together to have a huge turkey dinner and give thanks for all the blessings and abundance they have received during the year.
While it is a kind of harvest festival, this national holiday also looks back to the time when the Puritans first came to America in the 17th century to set up colonies in what would come to be known as New England.
Why Did the Puritans Come to America?
The accepted wisdom is that the Puritans were forced to flee England and Europe because they were being persecuted for their religious beliefs, and that they arrived in the Americas (which they regarded as an empty, previously untrodden land, despite the presence of the Native Americans) with ideas of creating a new society built on the ideal of freedom.
While this is the prevailing history, is it really the whole story behind the Puritans' move to the new world? This article examines the true reason for the Puritans' move to America.
Religious Reformation in England
For many hundreds of years during the medieval period, England was a religiously homogenous country practising the Catholic faith. Yes, some medieval English monarchs, notably King John, regularly fell from grace with the Pope, but on the whole English kings were good servants of the Church and heretics were burned (at times with the characteristic Catholic zeal and enthusiasm).
Protestant beliefs and ideas began to enter the country during the early 16th century, when more fingers than usual began to point at the excessiveness and carnality of the Catholic clergy and monasteries.
Demands were made for the bible to be translated so people could read the scriptures in English rather than Latin. Also, many expressed a desire for a simpler way to worship the deity that was different from the ostentatious Catholic rituals that were the norm.
Growth of the Protestant Church
The break from the Catholic Church came when King Henry VIII came into conflict with the Pope. King Henry wanted to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, who had failed in her duty of producing a male heir to the throne. Granting a divorce was well within the Pope’s power, and happened rather more frequently than you may think in medieval Europe, but Queen Catherine had powerful relatives on the continent which made this procedure harder to execute than usual.
One of Catherine's relatives was Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, who was one of the major opponents of the Protestant Reformation. So, after several years of bickering with the Papacy, Henry VIII eventually broke away from the Church of Rome to form the Church of England, with the ensuing benefit of being able to ditch his wife Catherine so he could marry Anne Boleyn, boosting his treasury by taking the money that came from the dissolution of the monasteries.
But this new entity, the Church of England, was essentially the Catholic Church without the Pope and the monasteries. It was essentially a conservative institution with the king as its head. For the rest of the reign of Henry VIII, and that of subsequent Tudor monarchs, there would be fierce competition between the new Protestants and Catholics for supremacy. Several shifts of power would take place over the years that would see many innocent people caught in the political crossfire and executed for their religious beliefs.
Dissension Among the Protestant Factions
But there was also dissension among the Protestants themselves over how far the reform of the Church should go, and over the years a split began to form between the members of the Church of England.
A new group began to emerge who would become known as the Puritans, who were virulently opposed to the elaborate ritual and liturgy of the Catholic Church that they believed was still too prevalent in the Church of England. They resented and wanted to eliminate any religious practices that in any way resembled the Catholicism from which this new church had sprung.
The Puritans were adherents of the reformed theology of Calvin, and their beliefs attached great importance to preaching, the supremacy of God, a literal belief in scripture, and minimalistic worship without the rituals, crosses and ornate church decorations they so despised in the Catholic Church.
Of course, this belief in the supremacy of God put them on a collision course with the rulers of the day who, having managed to wriggle free from the power of the Pope, were none too keen on having to moderate their rule in order to please a strict god.
Still, King James I tried to find a way to reconcile the religious practices of the new Puritan clergy with those of the more conservative members of the Church of England, but the sense of alienation the Puritans felt from the established church continued to grow.
King Charles I and the Puritans
The religious and political climate in England became even more febrile at the start of the 17th century. The Catholic cause was not helped by the Guy Fawkes plot of 1605, and the Puritans remained strongly opposed to mainstream royal ecclesiastical policy. Things came to a head when King Charles I came to the throne in 1625. In the first few years of his reign, the Puritans in parliament strongly opposed his royal authority.
In order to maintain his royal power base and rid himself of those he viewed as his enemies, including many Puritans, Charles I took the unprecedented step of dissolving parliament altogether. The Puritans, probably quite rightly, interpreted this as a hostile act towards themselves and their religious practices, and so many decided to leave England and settle in the Americas, where they could develop their own communities based on their own beliefs.
The Puritans Flee to New England
Most Puritans headed for the area now known as New England, where they founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629. In fact, the decade 1630-1640 became known as the "Great Migration," when some 80,000 Puritans left England and Europe for the New World.
Most of these migrants came from the eastern counties of England, and they tended to be tradesmen or skilled craftsmen rather than farmers, as tradesmen and craftsmen tended to be more highly educated than was usual for the time.
They were also affluent enough to be able to afford to pay for their own passage, and migrated in small, nuclear families. More men than women made the long sea voyage, the first of which was the Winthrop Fleet in 1630, which consisted of 11 ships and seven hundred Puritan souls heading in the direction of Massachusetts Bay.
This mass exodus continued until 1640 when the English parliament was reconvened and the English Civil War erupted. In 1641, some of the new colonists returned to fight on the side of parliament and Oliver Cromwell. During the years of the civil war and throughout the protectorate that followed, the Puritans in England had no need to leave its shores. Oliver Cromwell was tolerant of an individual’s right to private worship, he embraced the Puritan way of life, and was intent on bringing about a moral and spiritual regeneration in the country he now ruled.
Did the Puritans Tolerate Other Religions?
The answer, unfortunately, is no. Once settled in New England, the Puritan communities demanded complete unity of thought and behaviour from their members, and neglected those who did not meet their religious standards.
Still, there was dissent even among this very close, deeply religious community. The majority of the Puritans who settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony went on to found the Connecticut Colony in 1636. These Puritans were non-separating, which meant that although they wished to purify and reform the established Church of England, they still wanted to remain a part of it. But if a new family turned up at the Massachusetts Bay Colony seeking to find a new home with like-minded folks, they were assessed and tested. If their religious beliefs and practices were found wanting in any way, they would be turned away.
There were also groups of migrants known as separating Puritans, or separatists, who believed that the Church of England was so corrupt and resistant to reform that they needed to form their own congregations. One of the most famous of these separatist groups was the one hundred Pilgrim fathers who sailed to New England on the Mayflower in 1620, landing at a place that that became known as New Plymouth. This group is commonly called the Pilgrims.
Many of those expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony moved on to help establish the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, which had been founded by a separatist preacher called Roger Williams.
Who Was Roger Williams?
Roger Williams had originally arrived in Massachusetts in 1631. He was initially offered a position as a teacher in the church there, but declined because he regarded it as an "un-separated" church. He also believed in freedom of religion for all, and was vocal in his condemnation of the civil magistrates in the colony punishing religious offenses such not observing the Sabbath or idolatry.
He was extended an offer to preach at the church in Salem, which was more to his liking as a separatist colony, but this assignment was blocked by the leaders in Boston, and Williams moved on to New Plymouth towards the end of 1631.
He soon came to view Plymouth Colony as not being sufficiently reformed or separated from the corruption of the Church of England, and he also espoused the view that the Colonial Charters were not valid because the land had not been purchased from the Native Americans, the original inhabitants of the region.
Williams wrote an extensive tract in 1632 that attacked King James’s assertion that he had been the first king to discover the land of New England. This enraged the leaders of the Massachusetts colony, and when he returned to preach in Salem, he was summoned to appear before the General Court.
Although he promised to keep quiet and not advertise his opposition to the colonial charters, he was unable to stop and began to insist that the Salem church separate.
He became so troublesome to the powers that be that he was dragged before the General Court again in October 1635, charged with sedition and heresy and banished from the colony. Because he was ill and a harsh winter was coming, he was allowed to stay until the end of winter, but unable to remain silent about his views, he was forced to flee from the colony in January 1636. As a result, he had to walk over a hundred miles through the severe winter weather until he was saved by members of the Wampanoag tribe and brought to chief Massasoit.
Williams sought to establish a new colony by buying land from Massasoit, but was told by the Plymouth colony that he was still within their land grant. He was forced to cross the Seekonk River and found Providence on land he gained from the Narragansett.
The Expulsion of Anne Hutchinson
Anne Hutchinson was another who was expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for what were regarded as unorthodox religious beliefs.
Hutchinson arrived in New England in 1634 with her husband and a large family of children. She followed a man named John Cotton, who had mesmerised her with his charismatic preaching back in England. For work, she served as midwife and held religious meetings for women at her home.
These meetings became so popular that the men of the colony also started to attend, including the governor Harry Vane.
What Did the Puritans Believe?
To the Puritan mind, the fate of all men was predestined, so whether you would be saved or sent to suffer the torments of hell was decided at the time of your birth by God. Thus, leading a good life according to strict religious rules could not help you if you were not one of the chosen.
The Puritans also believed that only someone who had been saved should be able to take communion and be a church member. The problem was determining who was saved and who was not.
Out of necessity, they had to base their judgement on a person’s actions and professed beliefs, which were known as the "covenant of works." Anne Hutchinson and her followers rocked the boat by stating that somebody needed to have had a direct experience with God before they could determine whether or not they were saved.
Also, if somebody knew that they had already been saved, why did they need to be bound by the strict religious rules and practices of the colony?
The crisis this divergence in beliefs stirred up was called the Antinomian Controversy, and led to Anne Hutchinson being tried and banished from the colony in 1637. She received a warm welcome from Roger Williams, who was instrumental in persuading her to set up the settlement of Portsmouth in the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.
Did the Puritans Persecute the Quakers for Their Religion?
Another group that was not allowed to practice their religion in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were the Quakers, who were led by George Fox after he began to receive direct revelation from an inner voice that he believed to be that of the Holy Spirit.
The Quakers' belief of a personal, inner communication with God put them at odds with the religious beliefs of the Puritans, who placed paramount importance on the scriptures as being the only true source of God’s word.
Two Quaker women who were persecuted by the Puritans were named Ann Austin and Mary Fisher. When they arrived in a Puritan colony from Barbados in 1656 on a ship called the Swallow, their possessions were searched and many of their books deemed heretical were taken away from them before they were even allowed to set foot on land. They were then taken to prison, where they were treated like witches and stripped searched as their jailers searched for physical signs that were thought to identify a person as a witch.
Five weeks later, the captain of the Swallow was forced under duress to take them back to Barbados, and another eight Quakers were also forcibly repatriated to England after being imprisoned for eleven weeks. This influx of Quakers was considered to be so undesirable that a new law was created that imposed a £100 fine on any captain who brought a Quaker into the colony. Also, any colonist caught in possession of a Quaker book was fined £5. Finally, any Quaker unwise enough to try to settle in the colony was ordered to be arrested, whipped and expelled.
This did not deter the Quakers from arriving in Massachusetts and trying to spread their faith. It was decided by the authorities that a much greater deterrent was now required: capital punishment. Four Quakers who refused to renounce their faith and stop preaching were hung between the years 1659 and 1661. King Charles II eventually intervened and ordered that all Quakers be sent back to England to be tried, which put an end to the executions, but not the banishments.
Restoration of Charles II
Back in England, King Charles II was restored to the throne after the death of Oliver Cromwell. As a result, the Church of England achieved its former pre-eminence, causing the Puritans to again feel alienated and repressed.
Now, around 2,400 of the Puritan clergy left the Church of England in what became known as the "Great Ejection."
These Puritans formed their own separatist churches during the following two decades, which the government tried to suppress with the Clarendon Code. When this did not work, they tried to introduce schemes of "comprehension" that were designed to encourage them to return to the Church of England. This, also, was a failure.
Somewhat ironically, during the years of Oliver Cromwell’s protectorate, there were many royalist supporters and staunch members of the Church of England who felt obliged to flee what they regarded as religious persecution from the Puritans. To get away from this Puritan nuisance, they migrated to the American colonies in Virginia.
Of course, the poor Catholics were not tolerated by either the Puritans or the members of the Church of England, and even King James II himself was forced off the throne and exiled from the continent when he embraced Catholicism. Thereafter, a bill was passed in Parliament that prohibited future monarchs from being Catholics or marrying a Catholic.
Why Did the Puritans Really Leave England for the Americas?
Through this lens, it becomes hard to determine the difference between the persecuted and the persecutor.
The Puritans in England and Europe certainly came into conflict with the established Church of England, which was deeply intolerant of their practices.
The Church of England pushed back against these proposed reforms, which they regarded as attacks, and there was a continual fight for supremacy of belief and practice where neither party was prepared to back down or compromise.
When the Puritans migrated to America and formed their own communities, despite the persecution they felt they were fleeing from, they did not extend religious tolerance to others, but instead insisted their new land was one of total unity of thought and practice.
So, when you are enjoying your turkey next Thanksgiving and smiling at the holiday images of the pilgrims, just spare a thought for the poor souls who were not embraced by this brave new world, and who suffered banishment or even death because their religious beliefs did not match those of the people who had the greatest influence in the new colonies.
Questions & Answers
Weren't a lot of the early settlers in America Jews who were fleeing Spain? I read that they were forced to either submit to the Church of England or be killed or expelled, so they fled to America. Some of the early settlers wanted Hebrew to be their official language, and forbid celebrating Christmas because it is a pagan holiday.
This is not a subject I know a lot about, as this article is about the reasons why the Puritans left England for the New World.
The Church of England had no jurisdiction in Spain, which was and is a Catholic country, so would not be able to force the Spanish Jews to submit to anything. I have done a bit of research, and it seems that the first Jewish settlers in what is now the US arrived from Brazil in the mid-17th century. The Spanish Crown expelled the Jews in 1492, and many migrated to northern Europe and then joined expeditions to settle in Latin America and the Caribbean. The Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and were not welcomed back until 1656 when Oliver Cromwell favoured religious tolerance (unless you were Catholic or Church of England) and no centralised state religion.Helpful 11
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