Pilgrims and Puritans

It is pretty common for people to get the Pilgrims and the Puritans mixed up.

Since the United Church of Christ traces its history through both of these, I thought it would be helpful for you to know the difference (though I’m willing to be that they both liked turkey!).

Both groups originated in England and both ended up in Massachusetts, but that is where the similarities end.

England, under Henry the VIII, split with the Roman Catholic in 1534.  The Church of England (or the Anglican Church or—in the U.S. today—the Episcopal Church) was created instead.  Attending the Church of England was a requirement of the citizenry and those who didn’t were punished.  One group of so-called “Separatists” began worshiping in secret despite knowing this was treasonous.

Not surprisingly, they were persecuted by the state.  When it became too much, they decided to leave England for Holland.  That worked out for a while but fears grew that the children of the separatists were becoming too culturally Dutch so a portion of the group left Holland, returned to London and boarded the Mayflower for “the New World”.

Half of the 102 passengers died during their first winter in Plymouth.  All would have likely died if not for the help of the Wampanoag people in the area.

The Pilgrims (who only got that name in the 1800s) practiced an open form of Christian worship, were very tolerant of other people and religious practices (sound familiar?) and sought a break with the Church of England.

Puritans, on the other hand, arrived much later.  They did not seek a break with the Church of England but felt it could be reformed from within.  They desired a more “congregational” approach to church organization; the head of the church was not the pope or the king, but Jesus Christ as revealed in the bible.  Consequently, decisions were to be made democratically.  Despite this, they were hostile to other religious perspectives and felt divinely ordained in their cause.

A huge difference between these two groups was class.  Puritans were wealthy while the Pilgrims were very poor.

When the Puritans arrived in the Bay Colony in 1630, they came with 17 ships and over 1,000 passengers and a great deal of money.  Their numbers quickly grew to 20,000.  They came not only for religious freedom, but also to own land and resources.  Because of this, within a few decades the Pilgrims of Plymouth were absorbed by the Puritans in the Mass. Bay Colony.

Pilgrims and Puritans.  A similar backstory, but very different approaches and outcomes.  Something to chew on while you carve up your turkey this year!

See you in church,

–Rev. Dominic