Puritans facing religious persecution in England set out for the New World, where they established a colony at Plymouth. 


  • Puritans were English Protestants who were committed to "purifying" the Church of England by eliminating all aspects of Catholicism from religious practices.
  • English Puritans founded the colony of Plymouth to practice their own brand of Protestantism without interference.
  • New England society was characterized by equality under the law for white male citizens (as demonstrated by the Mayflower Compact), a disciplined work ethic, and a strong maritime economy.

A new England for Puritans

The second major area to be colonized by the English in the first half of the 17th century, New England, differed markedly in its founding principles from the commercially oriented Chesapeake tobacco colonies.
Settled largely by waves of Puritan families in the 1630s, New England had a religious orientation from the start. In England, reform-minded men and women had been calling for greater changes to the English national church since the 1580s. These reformers, who followed the teachings of John Calvin and other Protestant reformers, were called Puritans because of their insistence on purifying the Church of England of what they believed to be unscriptural, Catholic elements that lingered in its institutions and practices.
Many who provided leadership in early New England were educated ministers who had studied at Cambridge or Oxford but who, because they had questioned the practices of the Church of England, had been deprived of careers by the king and his officials in an effort to silence all dissenting voices.
Other Puritan leaders, such as the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, came from the privileged class of English gentry. These well-to-do Puritans and many thousands more left their English homes not to establish a land of religious freedom, but to practice their own religion without persecution. Puritan New England offered them the opportunity to live as they believed the Bible demanded. In their “New” England, they set out to create a model of reformed Protestantism, a new English Israel.
The conflict generated by Puritanism had divided English society because the Puritans demanded reforms that undermined the traditional festive culture. For example, they denounced popular pastimes like bear-baiting—letting dogs attack a chained bear—which were often conducted on Sundays when people had a few leisure hours. In the culture where William Shakespeare had produced his masterpieces, Puritans called for an end to the theater, censuring playhouses as places of decadence.
Indeed, the Bible itself became part of the struggle between Puritans and James I, who as King of England was head of the Church of England. Soon after ascending the throne, James commissioned a new version of the Bible in an effort to stifle Puritan reliance on the Geneva Bible, which followed the teachings of John Calvin and placed God’s authority above the monarch’s. The King James Version, published in 1611, instead emphasized the majesty of kings.
During the 1620s and 1630s, the conflict escalated to the point where the state church prohibited Puritan ministers from preaching. In the Church’s view, Puritans represented a national security threat because their demands for cultural, social, and religious reforms undermined the king’s authority. Unwilling to conform to the Church of England, many Puritans found refuge in the New World.
Yet those who emigrated to the Americas were not united. Some called for a complete break with the Church of England while others remained committed to reforming the national church.

Plymouth: the first Puritan colony

The first group of Puritans to make their way across the Atlantic was a small contingent known as the Pilgrims. Unlike other Puritans, they insisted on a complete separation from the Church of England and had first migrated to the Dutch Republic seeking religious freedom.
Map of the Plymouth Colony, located near present-day Cape Cod.
Map of the Plymouth Colony, located near present-day Cape Cod. Note that the capital of the Massachusetts Bay Colony at Boston was farther north. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Although they found they could worship without hindrance there, they grew concerned that they were losing their Englishness as they saw their children begin to learn the Dutch language and adopt Dutch ways. In addition, the English Pilgrims—and others in Europe—feared another attack on the Dutch Republic by Catholic Spain. Because of this, in 1620 they moved on to found the Plymouth Colony in present-day Massachusetts.
The governor of Plymouth, William Bradford, was a Separatist—a proponent of complete separation from the English state church. Bradford and the other Pilgrim Separatists represented a major challenge to the prevailing vision of a unified English national church and empire. On board the Mayflower, which was bound for Virginia but landed on the tip of Cape Cod, Bradford and 40 other adult men signed the Mayflower Compact, which presented a religious—rather than an economic—rationale for colonization. The compact expressed a community ideal of working together.
This is a transcription of the Mayflower Compact, written in longhand.
William Bradford, transcription of the Mayflower Compact, c. 1645. Image credit: "English Settlements in America" by OpenStaxCollege, CC BY 4.0
The original Mayflower Compact is no longer in existence; only copies, such as the transcription below from around 1645 by William Bradford, remain.
"In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King, defender of the Faith, etc."
"Having undertaken, for the Glory of God, and advancements of the Christian faith and honor of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the Northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents, solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic; for our better ordering, and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience."
"In witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape Cod the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth, 1620"
When a larger exodus of Puritans established the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s, the Pilgrims at Plymouth welcomed them and the two colonies cooperated with each other.

The Puritan work ethic

Different labor systems also distinguished early Puritan New England from the Chesapeake colonies.
Puritans expected young people to work diligently at their calling, and all members of their large families—including children—did the bulk of the work necessary to run homes, farms, and businesses.
Unlike the indentured servants in Virginia, very few migrants came to New England as laborers; in fact, New England towns protected their disciplined homegrown workforce by refusing to allow outsiders in, ensuring their sons and daughters would have steady employment.
New England’s labor system produced remarkable results, notably a powerful maritime-based economy with scores of oceangoing ships and the crews necessary to sail them. New England mariners sailing New England-made ships transported Virginian tobacco and West Indian sugar throughout the Atlantic World.

What do you think?

How did the labor system of New England compare to the labor system of Virginia and the Chesapeake?
Read the Mayflower Compact. What aspects of later American political values do you see in it?
How do you think English citizens who belonged to the Church of England viewed the Puritans?


This article is a modified derivative of "English Settlements in America" by OpenStaxCollege, CC BY 4.0.
The modified article is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.