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