My friend Ashok and I were at Starbucks today and along the way I mentioned to him my research I’ve begun on the Puritans. It lead to a question that he had for me about the difference between the Pilgrims and the Puritans. With it having been Thanksgiving a few weeks ago I think it is an important topic to discuss.
The Protestant Reformation had already hit England in many ways before Henry VIII formally separated from Rome. The Scottish were exposed to the Calvinist brand of Protestantism and formed the Presbyterian Church. Their beliefs and ideology spread down into mainland England in the aftermath of the English Reformation. There were pockets in England who believed that the King had not gone far enough in reforming the Church of England. Among those who believed this were a group that I will generally call English Calvinists. This group was made up of the Puritans and the Pilgrims; religious cousins if you will. Both groups subscribed to Calvin’s particular brand of Christianity and believed that the Church of England needed to be purified. The distinguishing difference between the two was what this purification meant. The Pilgrims quickly became a more radical brand of English Calvinism going so far as to flee England for the Netherlands.
The Pilgrims believed that the Church of England was beyond salvation and utterly corrupt. As an extension, because the King of England was also now the head of the Church of England the state itself was corrupt. The Puritans on the other hand held out faith that King Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth and King James would all do their part to purify the Church more and more, eventually riding it of the Catholic influences. Puritans became integral members of their respective towns, including becoming political leaders. Puritans would even infiltrate the King’s own privy council with men like John Locke. And while members of the Puritan church did eventually leave England for the New World, their actions once they arrived separate them from the Pilgrims.
The Pilgrims received a charter to establish a colony in Northern Virginia along the Hudson Bay and immediately set sail for the New World along with others who they called “Strangers” on board the Mayflower. When they arrived the men on board decided to write a compact for the governance of their new colony. This compact was the first such document written by the people in the new world and while it was not a constitution, it was very much a proto-constitution. It also is significant because it did not come from the King nor Parliament and the men who wrote it did not have legal authority to do so. However, the Pilgrims had taken it upon themselves to govern their colony as they saw fit rather than depending upon the corrupt government in London to do so.
Unlike the Pilgrims, the Puritans did not write their own compact when they arrived in the New World in the 1630’s. Instead they had their own charter. And while they did have a government, it was not in the same manner we would recognize as in New Plymouth. Eventually such compacts would be written by Puritans in Connecticut, though. In all the Puritans were seeking religious separation but not necessarily legal or political separation from the state. Their charter was revoked in the 1690’s and the New Plymouth colony and the Massachusetts Bay colony were merged.