Great Puritan Migration

In the 1630’, English Puritans sought a home beyond the practical reach of King Charles I, the Supreme Head of the Church of England, who not only persecuted the Puritans but also changed Church doctrine and practice in ways that they despised. As a result, twenty thousand Puritans migrated to New England, founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a Puritan theocracy.

Summary of Event

Credit for the successful establishment of a Puritan Migration;Puritans into Massachusetts commonwealth in North America belongs as much to Charles I, king of England Charles I (king of England);Puritans and and Puritan antagonist, as to any other single individual. Resentful of any limitations or contradiction of either his political or his religious authority, Charles dissolved Parliament on March 2, 1629, thereby denying the Puritans, or any of his subjects, a public forum from which to continue their agitation for reforming the Church of England. A few days later, on March 14, he granted a royal charter to the Puritan-controlled Massachusetts Bay Company Massachusetts Bay Colony to establish a colony in the New World. By thus harassing the Puritans in old England even as he allowed them to procure a beachhead in New England New England;Puritan migration to , Charles virtually guaranteed the success of their colonizing venture. Persecution, religious;Puritans in England
[kw]Great Puritan Migration (May, 1630-1643)
[kw]Migration, Great Puritan (May, 1630-1643)
[kw]Puritan Migration, Great (May, 1630-1643)
Colonization;May, 1630-1643: Great Puritan Migration[1110]
Religion and theology;May, 1630-1643: Great Puritan Migration[1110]
Expansion and land acquisition;May, 1630-1643: Great Puritan Migration[1110]
American Colonies;May, 1630-1643: Great Puritan Migration[1110]
Great Puritan Migration

The charter granted to the Massachusetts Bay Company contained, contrary to established custom, no clause stipulating that the company should hold its meetings in England. This omission enabled several leading Puritan stockholders to carry the charter with them to the New World and so transfer control of both company and colony to North America. Massachusetts thus became an autonomous commonwealth, the government of which evolved out of a transplanted joint-stock company. The stockholders who emigrated to Massachusetts became the voting citizens of the state; the board of directors, known as assistants, developed into a legislative assembly; and the company president served as governor of the colony. John Winthrop Winthrop, John was the first such governor, elected to the position in 1629, even before the colonists left England.

The first contingent of settlers came to America in 1630, the earliest ships arriving in May and June. Over the course of the Great Migration, which lasted until 1643, some twenty thousand people came to Massachusetts, constituting the greatest colonizing exodus that England has ever known. They came mainly in family groupings, sometimes from the same parish, and largely from the east of England, especially East Anglia. Most were middle-class farmers or tradesmen. Religious reasons played a major role in their coming, although economic hard times and political problems influenced them as well.

Those who moved through Boston and settled the land, as most of the early migrants did, generally favored the open-field system of land tenure. Under that plan, quite common in England, each household had a village lot where it built its home and raised its garden, living in close proximity to its neighbors. Village life centered on the meeting house, where in town meetings the villagers discussed issues of common interest with the elected selectmen. The meeting house also was the church, and although the settlers of the Great Migration had different experiences that brought them to New England, they more or less shared the religious outlook that was called Puritanism. As the first governor of Massachusetts Bay, John Winthrop made it clear to those traveling with him in 1630 that they were on a mission for God. Their objective was not just to settle a new land: It was to establish a “City upon a Hill,” a holy commonwealth that would serve as an example for their countrymen back home.

Winthrop realized soon after his arrival in the colony that too few members of the company had emigrated to provide a secure basis for government. In 1631, therefore, he arranged for the admission of more than a hundred settlers to the status of freemen, as stockholders were then called in England, and this number was gradually increased as the colony grew. Although the original stockholders had hoped to contain the rights of these newly created citizens within definite limits, such restrictions proved to be increasingly difficult to enforce. By 1644, the freemen had broadened their participation in the legislative process through the establishment of a lower house in the legislature. Consisting of two deputies from each town, the lower house shared with the governor and assistants in the enactment of laws for the affected territory.

Despite these changes in the structure of government and the remarkable growth of the colony, Massachusetts remained safely under the control of a Puritan oligarchy. A law in 1636 helped to maintain this alliance of the church and the state by providing that only members of an approved congregation could apply for the status of freemen. Moreover, Puritan political theory held that although the people had a right to elect their leaders, once magistrates were installed in office, they held a commission from God and were responsible to the deity rather than to the electorate. Therefore, as Boston’s influential minister John Cotton Cotton, John repeatedly pointed out, the freemen had no right to deprive a man of elective office unless they found him guilty of some grave offense. The remarkable durability of Puritan magistrates attests to the effectiveness of this doctrine.

The difficulty of maintaining orthodoxy in a congregational system of church government presented the Puritan commonwealth with its greatest challenge during the early years of settlement. Despite John Winthrop’s efforts to maintain unity within the colony, zealots such as Roger Williams, Williams, Roger one of the founders of Rhode Island, and Anne Hutchinson, Hutchinson, Anne an enthusiastic disciple of John Cotton, threatened to divide the province into warring factions by convincing their respective congregations that the church stood in need of further purification. Since each congregation was presumably independent of outside authority, it was difficult to discipline any “heretic” who succeeded in winning support from his or her local church.

Williams arrived in Massachusetts in 1631 and almost immediately began to challenge the purity of the New England churches, as well as the basis on which the Puritans had erected their civil government. He contended that the Massachusetts congregations retained too many contacts with the Church of England, that the civil government had no right to enforce religious uniformity, and that the king had acted illegally in granting a charter to the colony. These arguments threatened established authority, and yet, because Williams enjoyed the confidence of his congregation at Salem, both the magistrates and the ministers found it difficult to deal with him.

Hutchinson presented an even greater problem. She argued that personal revelation might supplant the teachings of the ministers and that each person must obey the voice of God rather than the commands of either church or state (a philosophy that came to be known as Antinomianism Antinomianism ). Although she held no official church position, she enjoyed the support of a majority in the Boston congregation and, like Williams, proved a thorny problem for the ministers and magistrates.

The ultimate expulsion of both Williams and Hutchinson demonstrated that orthodoxy would continue to protect itself in Massachusetts. Williams pioneered the colony of Rhode Island Rhode Island ; Hutchinson joined him before going on to Long Island, then under Dutch jurisdiction. Her son-in-law, John Wheelwright, Wheelwright, John would head north to what became New Hampshire, founding the town of Exeter. Others who had differences with the Puritan oligarchs left Massachusetts Bay of their own accord.

Thomas Hooker, Hooker, Thomas a Puritan clergyman whose eminence almost equaled John Cotton’, may have led a portion of his Cambridge congregation to the Connecticut Valley in 1636 because of his rivalry with Cotton, whose influence on John Winthrop clearly made Hooker increasingly uncomfortable with the blending of church and state in Winthrop’s colony. Others followed the remarkable Hooker, who penned the most elaborate of early America’s constitutions, the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut (1639) Fundamental Orders of Connecticut (1639) . Unlike Hooker, the Reverend John Davenport Davenport, John and his rich patron, merchant Theophilus Eaton, Eaton, Theophilus believed that the relationship between church and state in Massachusetts was not close enough. In 1638, Davenport and Hooker, inspired by a vision of a religious utopia based on the Mosaic, founded New Haven.


The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay brought with them to the New World stark Calvinist values and a belief in religious governance. At the same time, however, they also brought a surprisingly diverse group of religious voices and viewpoints. As a result, the early colonial history of New England became almost immediately a history of struggle between advocates of specific dogmas and advocates of religious toleration. Massachusetts became the center of belief in dogmatic government and close cooperation of church and state. Other colonies, such as Rhode Island and Maryland, became traditional havens for dissenters.

The lawmakers and clergy of Massachusetts continued to insist upon the autonomy of each congregation, but they managed to maintain uniformity through their control of the government. In theory, the ministers of the colony exercised no authority over a particular congregation except through persuasion. They could, however, declare a person a heretic, and it then became the duty of the civil government to see that that person was punished. Through this partnership of the church and the state, formalized by the Cambridge Platform of 1649 Cambridge Platform of 1649 , the Puritans maintained viritually unchallenged control of Massachusetts throughout the first half of the seventeenth century.

Further Reading

  • Anderson, Virginia DeJohn. New England’s Generation: The Great Migration and the Formation of Society and Culture in the Seventeenth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. A searching analysis of who came, why they came, and what they hoped to do in Massachusetts Bay.
  • Battis, Emery. Saints and Sectaries: Anne Hutchinson and the Antinomian Controversy in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1962. A detailed study of the Antinomian controversy, with suggestions about its psychological, sociological, and physiological undercurrents.
  • Bremer, Francis J. John Winthrop: America’s Forgotten Founding Father. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Bremer, editor of the Winthrop papers for the Massachusetts Historical Society, draws upon those papers to produce this exhaustively detailed biography.
  • Cressy, David. Coming Over: Migration and Communication Between England and New England in the Seventeenth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Emphasizes the essential English nature of the Puritan enterprise in New England.
  • Fischer, David Hackett. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Argues that Puritan folkways were transferred largely from East Anglia and remained a potent force throughout U.S. history.
  • Games, Alison. Migration and the Origins of the English Atlantic World. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. Tracks the movements of about five thousand migrants who traveled from London to the Americas in 1635, providing information about their backgrounds and lives in New England and the West Indies. Features vignettes about many of the settlers.
  • Miller, Perry. Orthodoxy in Massachusetts, 1630-1650. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1933. Comprehensive account of Miller’s theories of the establishment of congregationalism in Massachusetts Bay.
  • Morgan, E. S. The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop. 2d ed. New York: Longman, 1999. Relates with eloquence and precision the “middle way” that Winthrop chose as he and other Puritans sought to build a society upon biblical principles.
  • Winship, Michael P. Making Heretics: Militant Protestantism and Free Grace in Massachusetts, 1636-1641. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002. Thorough and accessible study of the politics of the Antinomian controversy.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

Charles I; John Cotton; John Davenport; Thomas Hooker; Anne Hutchinson; William Laud; Roger Williams; John Winthrop. Great Puritan Migration