Pilgrim and Puritan immigrants Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During the mid-seventeenth century, thousands of English Puritans escaping from religious persecution immigrated to North America, where they established a society whose ideals and principles would become central to the American concept of civil and religious freedom.

Although the Puritans fled from England during the seventeenth century, the seeds of their migration were sown years earlier with the advent of the Protestant Reformation led by sixteenth century theologians, including Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli. In England, King Henry VIII defied the pope by divorcing his Roman Catholic wife and marrying Anne Boleyn. Henry’s archbishop, Thomas Cranmer, continued to loosen Catholicism’s hold by forbidding church music, allowing priests to marry, replacing the Latin mass with services in English, and encouraging everyone to read the Bible. These changes within the Anglican Church opened the door to Puritanism, which advanced the foundational doctrine of predestination–the belief that all people were inherently sinful, and the notion that the God is revealed through a personal encounter with the Scriptures and not through the agency of a priest.Puritan immigrantsMassachusetts;Pilgrim settlersBritish immigrants;PuritansPilgrimsPuritan immigrantsMassachusetts;PilgrimsettlersBritish immigrants;PuritansPilgrims[cat]EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS;Pilgrim and Puritan immigrants[04180][cat]IMMIGRANT GROUPS;Pilgrim and Puritan immigrants[04180][cat]RELIGION;Pilgrim and Puritan immigrants[04180]

English Anti-Separatist Sentiment

During the reign of England’s James IKing James I (r. 1603-1625), the Separatists, an extreme sect within the Puritan community, wished to sever all ties with the Anglican Church and conduct their own services in accordance with what they claimed were biblical teachings. Their refusal to support the Church of England was illegal under the 1559 Act of Uniformity, which required English citizens to attend the state church. Regarding the Separatists as traitors, James pressured them to conform to the law.

In 1607, a group of Separatists from Scrooby, Nottinghamshire, left England to escape government persecution and eventually settled in Leiden, Holland. Although they enjoyed a prosperous life, they were concerned about the influence of Dutch culture upon their children. In order to preserve their English identity and religious freedom, they decided that they would sail for the New World. Various sites were discussed, including Guiana, Virginia, and the Hudson River area. With the financial support of London merchants and adventurers, they eventually secured a land patent in New England.

The <i>Mayflower</i> and Plymouth Bay

On MayflowerSeptember 16, 1620, 102 passengers made up of Leideners and Strangers, non-Puritan colonists who were hired by the investors, set sail from Plymouth, England, in the Mayflower. A difficult crossing was made more so by friction between the Leideners and the Strangers, who were wary about living in a community dominated by those they viewed as religious extremists. In order for the new settlement to succeed, both groups realized they would have to work together and abide by the same laws.

Pilgrims holding their first Sabbath service after landing at Plymouth, Massachusetts.

(Gay Brothers)

After dropping anchor in Provincetown Bay in November, 1620, forty-one male Separatists signed the Mayflower Compact. Exposed to the dangers of theocracy in England, as well as to advantages of a civil government in Holland, the Separatists were aware that formulating “just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices” that were applicable to every citizen was necessary for the colony’s survival. The Mayflower CompactMayflower Compact, the forerunner of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, was the germ from which a democratic society based on the separation of church and state would blossom after the American Revolution.

Disembarking from the Mayflower on November 21, 1620, the Pilgrims settled in what is now Massachusetts;Plymouth Bay ColonyPlymouth Bay, MassachusettsPlymouth, Massachusetts. Their goal was to establish, in Governor Bradford, WilliamWilliam Bradford’s words, “a city upon a hill,” which they hoped would be a model Christian community founded on biblical principles. Their harsh life in Plymouth Bay gradually eroded the idealism of the colonists, and over the years families drifted to other areas of the region where they could make a better living. When Boston emerged as a major port and economic center, Plymouth diminished in importance and in population.

The Great Migration

During the years the Pilgrims were struggling to make their Massachusetts a utopia, Puritans in England were increasingly harassed. After succeeding his father, James I, in 1625, King Charles ICharles I viewed the Puritans as a threat to his government because they controlled Parliament. In 1629, he dissolved Parliament in an attempt to weaken the Puritans’ power, which left them open to further persecution. His actions launched the Great Migration, a mass exodus of English citizens to the Massachusetts Bay ColonyMassachusetts Bay Colony. More than twenty thousand people crossed the Atlantic to settle in Massachusetts from 1630 to 1640. In 1640, however, Charles reconvened Parliament, and immigration dropped off sharply.

The Great Migration began with the sailing of the Winthrop Fleet, which comprised eleven ships carrying seven hundred passengers. Most of these immigrants were prosperous, middle class, and well educated. Their primary motivation for settling in the New World was their desire for religious freedom and not for material gain. They possessed a unique set of characteristics that contributed to their success as colonists: They traveled to America in family groups, were highly literate, enjoyed robust health, and were skilled workers who provided well for their typically large families. As the settlers expanded north and south of Boston, they took advantage of land distribution policies, allowing them to purchase large tracts of property that in many cases were kept in families for hundreds of years. The Puritan immigrants’ secure family life, shared social and religious values, and stable land distribution system provided a firm foundation on which to build a society whose cultural mores would shape American history in succeeding generations.Puritan immigrantsMassachusetts;Pilgrim settlersBritish immigrants;PuritansPilgrims

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. Focusing on 693 settlers who arrived in New England between 1635 and 1638, Anderson examines the reasons for the stability of New England society.
  • Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation. 1630. Reprint. New York: Dover, 2006. This firsthand account written by the colony’s second governor documents the Pilgrims’ life in Holland, their Mayflower voyage, their first winter, and the aid they received from Native Americans.
  • Moore, Susan Hardman. Pilgrims: New World Settlers and the Call of Home. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007. Explores the reasons colonists set out from England during the 1630’s, their experiences in the Massachusetts colony, and why some chose to return to England.
  • Philbrick, Nathaniel. Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. New York: Viking Press, 2006. Examines fifty years of often tenuous relations between the Pilgrims and their Native American neighbors, and shows how the clash of cultures resulted in King Philip’s War in 1675-1676.


British immigrants

History of immigration, 1620-1783

Indentured servitude


Religion as a push-pull factor

Religions of immigrants

Return migration

Categories: History