The Puritans leave England for America

Posted on September 17, 2008. Filed under: Puritans, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

Welcome to part three of my Truth v. Myth series on the Protestant or Puritan work ethic. Here we will see how the ambitious Puritan political platform played out in England and was then transplanted to the New World.

We’ve seen that the English Puritans wanted to wipe out poverty, encourage private enterprise, and vigorously embrace the newly emergent capitalist system. Their religion spurred them to achieve these goals, but they did not rely on God to work a miracle for them. The Puritans had many converts from the nobility, powerful men who sat in the House of Lords, and most Puritans of common birth were politically active. The Puritans had members in both houses of Parliament and agitated constantly at court and in the popular press for the changes they desired.

Unfortunately, the Puritans would not abandon their insistence that the Anglican Church (or Church of England), the state church, be radically “purified” (hence their name) and stripped of its remaining Catholic qualities. Elizabeth I and James I after her took a firm hand in stopping such religious agitation, which invariably led to bloodshed and public turmoil, and seemed to promise eventual civil war. (These fears would be realized in the Thirty Years’ War and the English Civil War.) England had gone through extremely divisive religious conflict during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary, and had landed as a unique Protestant nation: the original Catholic church in England was taken over by the English government, completely separate from the Roman Catholic Church governed by Rome. The Anglican church was sort of neutral or Protestant-by-default, but it was not Lutheran or Calvinist. Anglicanism avoided both submission to Rome and affiliation with European Lutherans or Calvinists.

This policy had maintained a fragile peace in England since 1558, when Elizabeth I took the throne. Puritans who agitated for further reformation, with a Calvinist bent, were not looked upon with kindness. James I particularly loathed the Puritans and their near-relations, the Separatists, who decided Anglicanism could not be purified, and therefore separated from it, leaving the church. Puritans and Separatists were persecuted in England as traitors.

By refusing to drop their demands for religious change, the Puritans sabotaged their efforts to get their social reforms passed. By the 1620s, many Puritans were beginning to fear that God had abandoned England, and was about to punish it, perhaps destroy it. When William Laud, a pro-Catholic Puritan hater, was made Archbishop of Canterbury–head of the Anglican church–in 1630, he launched a Puritan eradication campaign that made life very dangerous for Puritans of all walks of life.

In that year, a small group of influential Puritans left England. Led by John Winthrop, a well-known royal lawyer and property owner, they left to establish a safe space in America where Puritans could wait out God’s wrath on England. While England was punished, America would thrive, regenerating a holy people to lead England back to God’s grace. They founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, with its seat of government in Boston.

Next time: Here the work ethic begins?

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13 Responses to “The Puritans leave England for America”

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You skipped over the part where they first went to Holland–and weren’t they given an ultimatum to leave or be arrested?

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Hello Darcy. The Puritans never went to Holland–that was the Pilgrims, 10 years beforehand. The Pilgrims were harried out of England for refusing to worship in the state church. They left Holland because that nation’s truce with Catholic Spain ended in 1621 and it was pretty certain war would start up again, and if Catholic Spain won and resumed control of Holland, it would be curtains for the Pilgirms. The Puritans left England because Charles I installed the pro-Catholic William Laud as Archbishop of Canterbury and Laud instantly began a violent campaign against dissenters, taking their property, throwing them out of their jobs, imprisoning them, etc. So two different cases, at different times.

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I studied that the puritans where the pilgrims arriving at Pymonth rock, even there, there is a list of names and then they go on about how the puritan values built the new world. You claim though that the two grous were different. The Harvard press states that John Winthrop arrived at Massachussets in 1630 to the colony the pilgrims fouded in 1620…

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Hello! The Pilgrims were former Puritans who decided to leave the Church of England altogether and become Separatists. They were no longer people who wanted to purify the English church, and therefore were not Puritans. Separatists had their own church. Their values overlapped the Puritans’, but they had different goals, religion, and worldviews, and the two groups really didn’t like each other or get along once the Puritans landed in 1630. Winthrop and his Puritan group landed in Salem in 1630, then traveled south to found Boston. They never lived in Plymouth.

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I see! I must have my info wrong, thank you for the clarification!

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If it weren’t confusing, we wouldn’t still be explaining it today! It’s easy to mix them up since they were once the same group.

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Why did the King of England give the Puritans a land grant in America if he was simultaneously trying to eradicate them? Did they reach some kind of truce?

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Charles I was anxious to increase England’s colonial empire, and so allowed the Puritans to go to the New World (just as his father James I had allowed the Pilgrims to go). The crown, however, did not fund these endeavors, allowing private citizens formed into companies which were granted royal charters to found colonies. The Plymouth Council for New England was the first of these joint-stock companies, and it issued a land grant in 1627 to a group of private investors called the Massachusetts Bay Company, which funded the Puritan venture.
The idea was that the crown risked no money on the colony, but if that colony succeeded, the crown could then control its exports, force it to buy only English imports, and extend direct royal rule over the colony. It would not work out that way in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, for a few reasons, until 1691. But that’s how the crown could allow nonconformists to settle colonies in its name–it sent the trouble-makers far away from England, invested no money in their success, then profited if they managed to make a go of it. Religious conformity could be enforced once direct royal rule was extended, and voila–problems solved.

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Is it possible that the Puritans’ departure from England was an indirect beginning of the American Revolution? I ask this question in reference to the fact that the American Revolution was fought to gain independence from England by making America its own nation. Because the Puritans left England with the intent to live by their own rules, is it possible that they were the first independent thinkers of America?

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Hello Mary; thanks for writing. The Puritans were early independent thinkers in America, if not the only ones. They did establish a proto-democracy and in the early decades the government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was ready to enter into a shooting war if the English government tried to exert direct control over them. If you click “Puritans” on our homepage cloud, you’ll find plenty of posts on this; see What caused the Revolutionary War? for more on early differences between the colonies at large and England.

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can you give me the name of the author who wrote this? i want to site it for a paper i am making, and i want to give them credit.

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R. Sós is the author of this post.

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Wow! Thank you so much! Have have been doing some genealogy work on Ayers, Ayer and Eyre. It turns out that I am related to John Ayers Haverhill Mass/Derbyshire,UK. One of my questions has been why leave England. Dare I say it? Puritans and Pilgrims were in some sense religious extremist.

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