Pilgrims v. Puritans: who landed in Plymouth?

Most Americans know the terms Puritans and Pilgrims. Most don’t know that these are two different groups.

Puritans were English Protestants in the late 16th century who wanted their church, the Anglican church, to follow the Calvinist model more closely and give up the remnants of Catholicism still present in Anglicanism.

During the reign of Elizabeth I, the Puritans consistently pushed their agenda in Parliament and in their local towns. Puritans would often remove themselves from their assigned parish church to go hear sermons from a Puritan minister in another town’s church. This was illegal at the time. In an effort to stop the wild pendulum swings in her kingdom from extreme protestantism to Catholic resurgence and back again, Elizabeth refused to legitimize the Puritan agenda. She did not prosecute them severely, but she did not rescind the laws making their activities illegal.

Their sense of being persecuted for their faith gave the Puritans a lot of energy. They developed a complete system for defining and realizing salvation that I can’t go into in a short post here. But they also split.

Puritans began as a group within the Anglican church that wanted to purify it of lingering Catholic influences. But some Puritans lost faith in the Anglican church. Deciding it could never be purified, they abandoned it, separating themselves from it. These became known as Separatists. The majority of Puritans, who remained within the Anglican church, were known as nonseparating Puritans. The two groups grew increasingly hostile as the 17th century wore on.

It was the Separatists who took the Mayflower for America. Forced to leave England because it was treason to leave the Anglican church, small groups of Separatists left for Holland and other Protestant European countries. The group that we know as the Pilgrims went to Leiden in Holland. Americans often learn that they decided not to stay there because their children were becoming Dutch, but this is not true. They left because Holland’s truce with Catholic Spain was near its end, and the Protestant Separatists would have been wiped out if Spain had taken control once again of Holland.

So the Separatists received permission from the English government to go to America. Why? They were funded by financiers in London, and the crown figured that if the colonists made a go of it, the crown would seize the colony and enjoy the profits. The religion of the colonists was secondary to the financial potential they represented.

Not all the people on board the Mayflower were Separatists. Stories of the horrors suffered by colonists at Jamestown, in Virginia, were well-circulated in England. The feeling in England was that the Jamestown colonists had gone to America grossly unprepared. The Separatists vowed not to repeat those colonists’ mistakes. They recruited tradespeople from London whose talents would be essential to building a new society—carpenters, blacksmiths, etc.

Those recruits were not Puritans or Separatists. They were Anglicans. But mostly, they were people who didn’t really think about religion too much, who just wanted a chance to go to America. The Separatists, then, were in the minority as the Mayflower set sail. Fights between the two groups broke out almost immediately. The Separatists got on the others’ nerves with their religion, which permeated all aspects of their lives, and the Anglicans got on the Separatists’ nerves with their deliberate sacrilege and mockery of religion. When they landed in America, the Separatists had a hard time keeping control of the colony from the majority.

Now, the nonseparating Puritans in England came under real persecution starting in 1630, with the election of Archbishop Laud, who dedicated himself to wiping Puritanism out and bringing the Anglican church as far back toward Catholicism as he could. Tens of thousands of Puritans would emigrate to Massachusetts in the 1630s.  But they didn’t go to Plymouth. They weren’t about to miss their chance to found an untrammeled, unchallenged, all-powerful Puritan state by moving in with a bunch of crazy Separatists and, worse yet, blasphemous, Catholic-tinged Anglicans.

The Puritans instead founded Boston, north of Plymouth. And as the Puritan colony centered there—the Massachusetts Bay Colony—grew, it quickly outstripped Plymouth. Bay colonists ruthlessly confiscated land, including lands owned by Plymouth. By the 1640s, Plymouth was reduced to a backwater, and its Separatist quality was fairly diluted, even as the Puritanism of the Bay Colony grew and strengthened.

So that’s the story of the Pilgrims and the Puritans in a two-minute nutshell. Here are some fantastic books to read on the subject:

Mayflower, by Nathaniel Philbrick

Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea, by the great Edmund S. Morgan

The Long Argument: English Puritanism and the Shaping of New England Culture, 1570-1700, by Stephen Foster

26 thoughts on “Pilgrims v. Puritans: who landed in Plymouth?

  1. exactly the information I needed presented in a concise yet generous style, accessible and lucid with a touch of humor. Nice writing. It was a pleasure, thank you.


  2. we love your blog. this is really good. thanks for everyhting that you have posted. it has really helped us figure out ways to do our homework and things. we will use this website to further our careers and to become better human beings. thank you for everything!


  3. As I understand, there was a pretty serious concern that the separatists’ children were “becoming Dutch”–or were becoming like the Dutch. Here’s what William Bradford himself writes: “[M]any of their children, by [. . .] the great licentiousness of youth in that country, and the manifold temptations of the place, were drawn away by evil examples into extravagant and dangerous courses [. . .].” So it is not the sole factor in their leaving Holland, but it is was one of them.

    I would agree that the end of the treaty with Spain was probably the most critical event.


    1. Hello SB; thanks for writing. What Bradford was getting at was not that the English children were speaking Dutch, wearing different clothes, marrying Dutch people, feeling more loyalty to Holland than England, etc., which is what most people imagine. He was saying that Holland had a religious settlement that the Separatist English disapproved of, and if the Separatists stayed there any longer their “pure” religious discipline would be infected and destroyed. The Dutch for their part did not approve of the Separatist platform, and tolerated it with very bad grace, threatening all the while to boot them back to England. The tangles the English immigrants got into with each other caused terrible arguments and often physical strife, and they got a bad reputation with the Dutch authorities for lawlessness. So Bradford puts all the blame on the Dutch, who put all the blame on the English, and the Pilgrims took off to find a place where they could establish their own religious settlement and it could be unchallenged by any other.


  4. Super helpful! Answered exactly my question and in a few very concise and understandable manner. The article seemed almost to guess my questions – esp. with “So the Separatists received permission from the English government to go to America. Why?”


  5. I’ve heard it presented that the Pilgrims were more tolerant than the Puritans and were the founders of religious liberty in America. But from your blog I take it that the Pilgrim Separatists were, if anything, more strict in their religion than the Puritans and more determined to get away and establish their own pure commonwealth. Can you say which group was more tolerant in a modern sense? Which group (if either) was willing to tolerate Catholics, Jews, etc.?


    1. Hello Carl; thanks for writing. Both Puritans and Pilgrims went to America to establish “national” churches—that is, to create commonwealths where their version of Anglicanism was the state religion. That’s how European countries were operating at that time. If the ruler was Catholic, his kingdom was Catholic; if Protestant, or whatever denomination of Protestantism, then that. So technically, neither the Pilgrims nor the Puritans would tolerate any other denomination within their borders, though Antibaptists began meeting secretly, then openly in Boston in the mid-1660s and continued to do so until the Massachusetts General Court eventually granted them official permission to exist. And the Pilgrims had to allow non-Separatists to live in their colony since they were shareholders in the enterprise (eventually the Pilgrims bought them out). Neither would tolerate Catholics; Catholics were by far worse in their minds than any other group, and that includes “heathen” Indians, Jews, and Turks. They had a religious interest in Judaism, but not in having Jewish people live amongst them.

      Neither group “founded” religious liberty in America; religious liberty was an 18th-century Enlightenment concept that did not exist anywhere in the west in the 17th century. But the Puritans’ commitment to the independence of individual congregations, democratic church leadership, and proto-democratic civil government definitely gave the population of New England an affinity to political liberty that eventually led the way to Revolution and freedom of worship.


      1. Yes, they were English. Basically, English Anabaptists at that time believed everything the Congregationalists did; they just didn’t support infant baptism. It was a difficult problem because many Anabaptists were originally Congregationalists who just changed their minds about baptism (believing in adult baptism only).


  6. Who landed in Plymouth? Nobody because it hadn’t been named yet.

    Did you mean Plymouth England from where these Pilgrim separatists came? Because of this last point of departure from England, historians have happily called them the Plymouth Colony. Then after they arrived, first across the bay inside the “hook” then later on the mainland they gave themselves no new name but continued to call themselves “Saints” as they had in Scrooby. They knew they were living in the New World of America but exactly where they didn’t know.

    They had that terrible time of starvation during the first year and later ships came also, one was the same Mayflower they came over on captained by the same man. He was calling them the Plymouth colony because it is where he embarked from England. Later arrivals began to call them by that name. It wasn’t officially named until 1621 when a letter arrived Jan. 17th. 1621 from Mr. THOMAS WESTON. of England. In it he refers to the people at “New Plymouth”.

    Only later was it named Plymouth.


    1. Thanks Franklin, for sharing this. It’s interesting that in Of Plimoth Plantation in book 1 Bradford quotes a letter written on June 30, 1620, by “one Mr Dermer” who had been scouting for Ferdinando Gorges that begins: “I will first begine (saith he) wth that place from whence Squanto, or Tisquantem, was taken away; wch in Cap: Smiths mape is called Plimoth: and I would that Plimoth had ye like commodities.” So Dermer is claiming that the place in America where Squanto lived (and was taken away from by the English men who captured him for slavery) was called Plimoth; he continues on “The Pocanawkits, which live to ye west of Plimoth, bear an inveterate malice to ye English…” Dormer seems to be using the name retroactively, but even so, if he wrote that in June 1620, perhaps the name was already established by then?


      1. Completely off the subject. The question is not, when did the colony of Plymouth get its name? The question is, were the people who landed at Plymouth (North America) in 1620 Puritans, like Oliver Cromwell and John Milton? Or were they some other sect? And weren’t there a number of people on the Mayflower who were not in fact part of that sect, people we would call “economic emigrants”?


      2. Hello Carl; as we say in the post, a minority of the Pilgrims were Separatists—former Puritans who decided to leave the Anglican Church altogether. So while their worship and church discipline were very similar to the Puritans’, the Separatists were not Puritans. The majority of people on the Mayflower were not religious reformers. They were plain old Anglicans who did not go to the New World for religious reasons but to start new and make money. The two groups were in constant conflict until the Separatists basically bought them out.


      3. Correct. And that ship also included some of the crew who signed on for that same reason. Some of them stayed behind and joined the colony.

        I should have started my post with “Great subject, thanks for posting!”
        Since I am currently working on my 12th book for Amazon, and it is about the Plymouth Colony of people, I have recently put in a lot of research time about them, including reading your excellent site.

        Being an American I have been taught about that Plymouth Colony who landed in Massachusetts. Because our American history was written from Boston we get that slant on everything. We know, in detail, what occurred with those people after they landed but very little about them from their gathering as a Separatist church at Scrooby England until the sailing for America.

        This is what I am writing about. Thus, I have learned that they were only called the Plymouth Colony by later historians because they sailed from Plymouth England. This is not what they called themselves in Scrooby, or in Leyden, Holland, or when they sailed across the sea. As you know, they called themselves Separatists and even Saints.

        They believed they were the same as the people in the Bible: “And it came to pass, as Peter passed throughout all quarters, he came down also to the saints which dwelt at Lydda.” (Acts 9:32) and also those that Paul referred to:
        “And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God.” (Romans 8:27)

        Bradford, writing later after the colony was settled, calls it New Plymouth in his history. In Book 1, Chapter 1, we have the description by Captain Dormer of the colony at New Plymouth. It was the name of the place, not the people.

        Thanks for a great website. I’m enjoying it
        Franklin Reid


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