Historical Backgrounds


(incl. "The Pilgrims")

in England & New England

"the First Thanksgiving"

How does American popular culture remember the Puritans and/or Pilgrims?

"the First Thanksgiving" (Pilgrims)

the Salem Witch Trials (small community of Puritans north of Boston) + Arthur Miller's The Crucible (1953)

Sexual repression, repression of women, repression of Indians (all only partly true)

The Protestant Work Ethic (which its chief theorist connects chiefly to the Puritans)

An old family with deep, prestigious roots may be said to have "come over on the Mayflower" (Pilgrims)

Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (written 1850, two centuries after setting of story in 1600s)

The Mayflower Compact written by Pilgrims studied in History & Political Science as prototype of later Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution

Biggest confusion or irony: Many Americans  dislike Puritans of the past for being so conservative, especially about private matters like sex, or for religious intensity now associated with fire-and-brimstone fundamentalism, but many Americans (esp. Texans) now dislike New England because it's more liberal than the rest of the USA. How to reconcile these conflicting images?

 What's the difference
b/w Puritans and Pilgrims?

1619-20 app. 100 "Pilgrims" arrive at Plymouth (Mayflower, Plymouth Rock, first Thanksgiving, small settlement led by Bradford)

1630s app. 5000 Puritans arrive at Boston (Great Migration of thousands led by Winthrop)


Both groups were members of the same Protestant movement dissenting from the English or Anglican Church, esp. when the Anglicans threatened to return to or imitate the Catholic Church (from which the Anglican Church separated in 1534 under leadership of Henry VIII).

The Pilgrims remained a separate community for a century or so, but eventually the Puritan community around Boston expanded and absorbed Plymouth. At such a great distance and time from their origins in England, theological differences between the two groups are mostly for specialists.


The Pilgrims are usually seen as more radical Protestants than the Puritans, and since they were smaller in number, in some regards they resembled something like what today we would call a cult or associate with other separational movements like the Amish or even the Mormons (in the 19c).

Theologically, the Pilgrims would be called "Separatists," indicating their desire to separate entirely from the Anglican Church, which they saw as beyond redemption. This "separational" identity expressed itself in their journeys to the Netherlands and North America to find a place of their own outside the English Church and its society.

In socio-economic class, most Pilgrims were working people—tradesmen like weavers, farmers, or merchants—though the learning of some of them, especially Governor Bradford, was profound.

The Puritans were more moderate and middle-class than the Pilgrims and could thus claim greater numbers—great enough in England, for instance, to have won the English Civil War of the 1840s.

Instead of separating from the Anglican Church, the Puritans wanted to reform it from within. (Which they largely succeeded in doing: most of our visions of the Anglican / Episcopalian Church are "High Church" in a way that can resemble the decor and ceremony of the Catholic Church, but most English parish churches are "Low Church" or plainly Protestant.)

Visual Aids

The Pilgrims had the famous "First Thanksgiving"
with local Indians

The Puritans (or a small community of them)
staged the Salem Witch Trials

Pilgrims settled in small-town Plymouth in 1620, Puritans settled in port city Boston in 1630

Cape Cod, Massachusetts (right), with Plymouth on western Bay
(Boston is further North)

This map locates Boston in the harbor north of Plymouth

New England Puritans overall for Americans

Not easy to like but essential to American identity, political organization, progressive movements, questions of community, and conservative reaction.

Modeled WASP visual plain style. (The Puritans are associated with the 17c Baroque era, but frontier conditions and middle-class life limited their extravagance.)

Literary connection: Puritans were highly literate (other immigrants hit-or-miss, but less so)

Puritans read, wrote, and documented their experiences—organized society through literacy, left far more written records than other European immigrant communities.

New England as center of American education and literature: Ivy League; Hawthorne, Emerson, Dickinson, James, Eliot, Frost, Cummings, Elizabeth Bishop, the Lowells, Thomas Pynchon, many more

Model of America as modern middle class nation with mutual responsibilities rather than rich / poor individualism (as modeled by Cavalier South).

Americans think (with some basis) they dislike Puritans b/c they're "too conservative" on account of repressing sex, not celebrating Christmas, and hanging supposed witches, but in fact New England, the home of the Puritans, is the modern center of American liberalism and the home (with the Progressive midwest) of most American reform movements, from Abolition of slavery and Woman's Suffrage to Temperance, Civil Rights, reproductive rights, and universal health insurance.

Historical context: The Puritans were a major social and religious movement in England and the United States, but the histories of Puritans in each country plays out very differently:

In North America, the Puritans start out comparatively small but maintain a long influence as a somewhat unique community and the lasting center of North American education and stable middle-class culture.

In England, the Puritans enact a major, nationwide revolution that lasts for about 20 years, after which the normal English monarchy is restored, but with important reforms.

Where are the Puritans now on the Church map?

From the beginnings until the 1960s, the Trinitarian churches descended from the Puritans were called "Congregationalist."

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, many Congregational churches became Unitarian churches.

In the 1960s the Congregational Church joined with the Reformed and Evangelical Church and two smaller denominations to form the United Church of Christ (of which former President Obama is a member).

These churches are low in numbers but comparatively influential because of high education levels.

Puritans in English History

Familiar figures and dates (These people weren't Puritans but lived in same time periods.)

Henry VIII 1509-47

Shakespeare 1564-1616

Queen Elizabeth I 1533-1603

Stuart Kings—James I 1566-1625

Charles I 1600-1649 (executed by Puritans during English Civil Wars)


English Civil Wars 1640s

Political battle b/w Parliament (Puritans, emerging middle class) & King (Royalists, aristocracy)


Commonwealth of England 1649-1660

Only period of English history w/o king

some millennial effort to restore “godly kingdom”

leadership problems > “Restoration” of Charles II to throne

But Parliament prevailed: “Constitutional Monarchy”

Consequences of Puritans for England: mostly political--parliament increasingly powerful, monarchy increasingly weak


In America, however, the Puritan effort remained strong both politically and culturally

Politically: Puritans as strong larger community rather than anti-government individualism

Culturally--2 diverse influences

Most progressive political movements like Abolition, Woman's Suffrage, progressive taxation, peace movements, health care reform, and public education have originated in or been supported by New England

Puritan attention to family love, patriarchal responsibility, monogamous covenant marriage, child discipline (which meant training, not hitting) have had strong influence on evangelical churches, cultural conservatives, and family values. 

American Puritan Generations

Regardless of modern people's indifference to or disdain for the Puritans, their abundant literature and carefully recorded history provides an important research base for analyzing historical and continuing trends in American culture and history.

The Puritans themselves were acutely aware of their own history, seeing it as a stage on which God's plan for the world played out.

1st Generation: Pilgrims (Bradford) and Puritans (Winthrop) represent original American community based on covenant of mutual support and obedience to God modeled on "primitive church" or Apostolic generation after Christ. (But that community is already disintegrating by end of Of Plymouth Plantation.)

2nd Generation: (Captivity of Mary Rowlandson) Frontiers of Puritan community under threat by outsiders (American Indians as terrorists), being tested. What is God's plan?

3rd Generation: Salem Witch Trials: Covenant community under threat from inside. Mather: "A Horrible PLOT against the Country by WITCHCRAFT." Religion becomes self-destructive, and people back off from religious passion and conflict.

4th Generation: Jonathan Edwards, (1st) Great Awakening as "revival" or attempt to restore earlier covenant community in increasingly secular world.


Overall pattern:

1. unity with God and each other (cf. Genesis, Garden of Eden, Adam & Eve)

2. persecution, corruption by external & internal enemies

3. revival or attempt to restore earlier community despite changing conditions or shakiness of original community (Edwards, to his credit, attempts to adapt religion to science, or absorb scientific learning into religion, but too great a challenge for others to imitate.) 



Recent rough analogies:

9/11 as invasion / conspiracy of outsiders > United We Stand! [> Tax cuts for rich, Afghan and Iraqi Wars]

"Make America Great Again" as revival of earlier, mythic time of white unity, resistance to tolerance, diversity, global consciousness


President Obama's return to Civil-Rights-Era rhetoric to recreate diverse but unified America.

Bernie Sanders's appeal to return to New Deal-era taxation on rich, support for middle class



The Puritan Influence: Conservative or Liberal?


·       Nuclear family as "household of God." (Think "family values.")

·       Image of Puritans as sexual prudes. ("Banned in Boston," "The Scarlet Letter")

·       Bible as record of God's movement in human history; America as part of continuing biblical story. (Think President Reagan on USA as "particularly blessed" and "special" nation in contrast to USSR's "evil empire.")

·       Many conservative religious movements branched off, descended from, or developed alongside Puritanism: Baptistry (Roger Williams of Rhode Island as "first American Baptist"); Mormonism (Joseph Smith); and others.

·       Capitalism grows especially well in Puritanism. (Think "Yankee ingenuity" and "Yankee peddlers" in American history. The Allen Brothers who originally developed Houston were from New England. See Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which emphasizes Puritanism.)


·       Yearning for tight-knit larger community, rather than pure individualism. (Think President Clinton's interpretation of "government" as "community.")

·       Limitations, regulations, and taxes on business. (Think "blue laws" deriving from Puritan emphasis on Sabbath.)

·       Priority of public education, with eventual availability to women as well as men. (Think of the "Ivy League" of Yale, Harvard, Brown, and other outstanding liberal arts colleges and universities in New England.)

·       New England as source of most USA reform movements: abolition of slavery, education and equality for women, community health care, welfare.

·       New England as source of liberal politicians: the Kennedy's, Michael Dukakis, Paul Tsongas, Bill Bradley, John Kerry. (Liberals from the Midwest and Midsouth such as Abraham Lincoln, George McGovern, William Jennings Bryan, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore are often called "Progressives.")

·       The most liberal church denominations in the USA are the most direct descendants of the Congregationalist Church: The United Church of Christ (not The Church of Christ) and the Unitarian Church. Plus the Presbyterian Church is closely related ("predestination"). Also in the nineteenth century many Congregationalists moved to the Episcopal Church (examples: Harriet Beecher Stowe, the Bushes), which is also now a somewhat liberal denomination. (In Clear Lake, the Unitarian Church is on El Camino Real. Participants in such churches can be identified by high educational levels and low birth rates. Such "mainline" churches dominated American culture until the past generation but have until recently been in rapid decline.)

·       New England as source of greatest and most unbroken tradition in American literature: Bradstreet, Taylor, Edwards, Franklin, Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, Dickinson, Henry James, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, e e cummings, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Thomas Pynchon, and many more.