Why Did the Puritans Really Leave England for the New World?
The Puritans First Arrive in America
Thanksgiving is one of the big holidays celebrated in the United States, a time where families across the country traditionally come together to have a huge turkey dinner and give thanks for all of the blessings and abundance that 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 started coming to America in the 17th century and setting up colonies in what would come to be known as New England.
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 brand new society for the free.
A free society where everyone would be able to live they way they chose with no fear of repression. But although this is the prevailing myth, is it really the whole story behind the Puritans move to the New World or does this story even hold any truth at all?
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 and the Inquisition never gained any ground in the country, 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 into the country in the early 16th century, when rather more fingers than usual started to be pointed at the excessive riches and carnality of the Catholic clergy and monasteries. Demands were being made by people for the bible to be translated, so that they could read the scriptures in English rather than Latin, and a desire for a simpler way to worship the deity and a move away from ostentatious Catholic ritual was beginning to be expressed.
Growth of the Protestant Church
The break from the Catholic Church came when King Henry VIII came into conflict with the Pope over the matter of the divorce that he wanted from his first wife Catherine of Aragon, who had failed in her duty of producing a male heir to the throne. Now 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.
These included 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 benefits of being able to ditch his wife Catherine so that he could marry Anne Boleyn and boosting his treasury by siphoning off the money that was liberated 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 and 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, with several shifts of power 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, and who resented and wanted to eliminate any religious practices that in any way still resembled the Catholicism from which this new church had sprung from.
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 worshipping in a simple manner without the rituals, crosses and ornate church decorations that 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 having to defer to the Pope, were none too keen on having to moderate their rule and control of the church in order to please the deity.
Still, King James I tried to find a way to accommodate the religious practices of the new Puritan clergy with that of the more conservative members of the Church of England who were in the majority, but the sense of alienation the Puritans felt from the established Church just 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, with the Catholic cause not being helped by the Guy Fawkes plot of 1605 and the Puritans remaining strongly opposed to mainstream royal ecclesiastical policy. Things came to a head when King Charles I came to the throne in 1625 and 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 in 1629. 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 of these Puritan immigrants headed for the area now known as New England, and they founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629. In fact the decade 1630-1640 became known as the Great Migration and some 80,000 Puritans left England and Europe during this time.
Most of these migrants came from the Eastern counties of England and they tended to be tradesmen or skilled craftsmen rather than farmers, who were more highly educated than was usual for the time.
They were affluent enough to be able to afford to pay for their own passages and migrated in small, nuclear families rather than in larger family groupings, with more men than women making the long sea voyage. The Winthrop Fleet in 1630 was one of the first to leave with eleven ships taking seven hundred Puritan souls to the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
This mass exodus continued until 1640 when the English Parliament was reconvened and when the 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 then throughout the Protectorate that followed, the Puritans had no need to leave the shores of England, as although 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.
Freedom of Religion in the New World
So did this group of people who bravely crossed an ocean in order to start a new life and build communities where they were free to live and practice their religion as they chose, then offer this same freedom to other migrants when they got there? The answer, unfortunately, is no, as once settled in New England the Puritan communities demanded complete unity of thought and behaviour from their members.
However, there was dissent even among this very close, deeply religious community. The majority of the Puritans who settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and then founded the Connecticut Colony in 1636 were non-separating, which means that although they wished to purify and reform the established Church of England, they still wanted to remain a part of it. However, when you turned up at the Massachusetts Bay Colony with your family, seeking to find a new home with like-minded folks, you were assessed and if your religious beliefs and practices were found wanting in any way then you were not allowed in.
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.
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. Roger Williams had originally arrived in Massachusetts in 1631. He was initially offered a position to become a Teacher in the church there, but declined it because he regarded it as a ‘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 a more to his liking as it was separatist, but this was blocked by the leaders in Boston, and Williams moved on to New Plymouth towards the end of 1631. However, he soon came to view the Plymouth Colony as being not sufficiently reformed or separated from the corruption of the Church of England and he also espoused the view, which was highly unusual at that time, that the Colonial Charters were not valid because the land had not been purchased from the Native Americans who were the original inhabitants of the region.
He 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 that enraged the leaders of the Massachusetts colony, and when he returned to preach in Salem he was summoned to appear before the General Court in December 1633.
Although he promised to keep quiet and not advertise his opposition to the colonial charters, he was unable to stop and also started to insist that the Salem church separate. He became so troublesome to the powers that be that he was hauled before the General Court again in October1635 charged with sedition and heresy and was banished from the colony. However, as long as he did not stir up any further trouble he was not required to leave immediately due to his ill health and the fact that the harsh winter weather was imminent.
Yet again he was unable to remain silent about his views and was forced to flee from the colony in January 1636 before he was taken up by the sheriff. He had to walk over a hundred miles through the severe winter weather, before he was saved by members of the Wampanoag tribe and brought to the camp of their chief Massasoit. He 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, and so was forced to cross the Seekonk River and found Providence on land he gained from the Narragansett.
Expulsions and Puritan Beliefs
Another who was expelled along with her followers from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for what were regarded as her unorthodox religious beliefs was Anne Hutchinson. She had arrived in New England in 1634 with her husband and large family of children in the wake of a man called John Cotton, who had mesmerised her with his charismatic preaching back in the old country. She worked as a midwife and also held religious meetings for women at her home, where she was very vocal in expressing her not very favourable opinions of the local ministers.
These meetings became so popular that the men of the colony also started to attend, including the governor Harry Vane. To the Puritan mind the fate of all men was predestined, and so whether it was your fate to be saved or sent to suffer the torments of hell for all eternity had been decided at the time of your birth by God. Therefore, leading a good life and strict religious observance could not help you if you were not one of the chosen.
The problem was that the Puritans also believed that only someone who had been saved should be able to take communion and be a church member, but how did you determine who was saved? Of necessity they had to base their judgement on a person’s actions and professed beliefs known as the ‘covenant of works’, but Anne Hutchinson and her follower rocked the boat by stating that somebody needed to have had a direct experience of God before they could determine whether or not they were saved.
And if somebody knew that they had already been saved, then why did they need to be bound by the strict religious rules and practices of the colony?The crisis that 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 and he was instrumental in persuading her to set up the settlement of Portsmouth in the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.
The Quakers in New England
Another group who were not allowed to practice their religion in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were the Quakers, who had been founded by George Fox in the 1640s after he began to receive direct revelation from an inner voice that he believed to be that of the Holy Spirit. This belief of the Quakers in a personal, inner communication with the deity 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 called Ann Austin and Mary Fisher arrived in the colony from Barbados in 1656 on a ship called the Swallow. However, they were not even allowed to set foot on dry land before their possessions were searched and many of their books deemed heretical and taken away from them. They were taken to prison where they were treated like witches and had to endure being stripped searched, as their jailers searched for the physical signs that were thought to identify someone 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 in Massachusetts that fined any ship’s captain bringing a Quaker into the colony £100, fined any colonist caught in possession of a Quaker book £5, and any Quaker unwise enough to try to settle in the colony was ordered to be arrested, whipped and thrown straight back out again.
However, this did not deter the Quakers from arriving in Massachusetts and trying to spread their faith, even though many were whipped and then turned out. It was decided by the authorities that an much greater deterrent was now required and an even more draconian law was introduced in 1658 that allowed for capital punishment and 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, it was the restoration to the throne of King Charles II in 1660, after the death of Oliver Cromwell, which restored the Church of England back to its former pre-eminence and led to the Puritans once more feeling alienated and oppressed. Around 2,400 of the Puritan clergy left the church in 1662 in what became known at the ‘Great Ejection. They became included in a group known as the Dissenters as they rejected the Book of Common Prayer produced in 1662.
They formed their own separatist churches during the following two decades, which the government tried to suppress with the Clarendon Code and when this did not work they tried to introduce schemes of ‘comprehension’ designed to encourage them back into the fold of the Church of England, without much success.
Somewhat ironically, during the years of Oliver Cromwell’s protectorate it was many royalist supporters, staunch members of the Church of England, who had felt obliged to flee what they regarded as religious persecution from the Puritans and migrated to the American colonies in Virginia. And, of course, the poor Catholics were not tolerated by any of them, and even King James II himself was forced off the throne and exiled to the continent when he embraced the Catholicism of his wife Mary of Modena and a bill was passed in Parliament that prohibited future monarchs from being Catholics or even marrying a Catholic.
So we are left wondering just who the persecutor was and who was being persecuted? The Puritans in England and Europe certainly came into conflict with the established Church of England, as they were deeply intolerant of the practices of this Church and wished to reform and purify it.
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 insisted that their new land for saints 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 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.
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