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Puritan New England: Plymouth

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. 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.
William Bradford, transcription of the Mayflower Compact, c. 1645. Image credit: "English Settlements in America" by OpenStaxCollege, CC BY 4.0
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?

Want to join the conversation?

  • sneak peak green style avatar for user hs4j
    Can someone give me a deeper explanation on why the Puritans disapproved of theater? I don't understand what they saw wrong about it.
    (28 votes)
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    • male robot donald style avatar for user Isaac E
      I can explain that. Puritans believe(d) that the worship of God is the only worthwhile purpose in life, and anything that distracted people from God was wicked and sinful. The Puritans enjoyed the arts such as poetry which could testify to the glory of God, but theater was mostly secular plays which they disapproved of heartily.
      (73 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user wmontforttnye
    Please can you further explain the distinction between a Separatist (Pligrims, Plymouth Colony) and the Puritans ( Puritans, Massachusetts Colony). They were very different in practice beliefs and additudes)
    (9 votes)
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  • leaf yellow style avatar for user Selene Beydoun
    Why was the Mayflower Compact such as big deal? What is its significance and impact?
    (4 votes)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Manomay Shravage
      When these pilgrims set sail on the Mayflower, some London stockholders came with them and financed the journey. They thought the ship would land in the ports of Virginia and they would gain profits. Unfortunately, their ship was driven off course and they came to Massachusetts Bay.
      The stockholders onboard understood that they would not get any profits and began to mutiny against the pilgrims. To stop this mutiny, the Mayflower Compact was signed.
      Of course the compact was also signed because of other reasons. One of them being,
      A new colony needed a system of governance, or it would fall apart.
      Hope this helped :)
      (15 votes)
  • female robot grace style avatar for user Laila Yahyaa
    What was the main religion during this time?
    (6 votes)
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  • purple pi purple style avatar for user louisaandgreta
    It says that bradford and co were separatists and that they wrote the mayflower compact but the document itself doesn’t suggest any such separation; in fact, it links itself a lot to the king, the head of the church of england. What am I missing?
    (5 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user solin
    why did they call the ship the mayflower?
    (5 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      There were 26 vessels bearing the name Mayflower in the Port Books of England during the reign of James I (1603–1625); it is not known why the name was so popular. The identity of Captain Jones's Mayflower is based on records from her home port, her tonnage (est. 180–200 tons), and the master's name in 1620 in order to avoid confusion with the many other Mayflower ships.It is not known when and where the Mayflower was built, although late records designate her as "of London". She was designated in the Port Books of 1609–11 as "of Harwich" in the county of Essex, coincidentally the birthplace of Mayflower master Christopher Jones about 1570.
      (6 votes)
  • duskpin seedling style avatar for user isabellawitte27
    Question...since they barely had any indentured people, and most labor was done in families or by children, does that mean that there were only family farms, and they didn't use their crops as a cash crop? Did they keep their crops for themselves once they were harvested, or trade/sell them like some other colonies?
    (5 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Since crops raised on the land take up space for shipping, and since the growing season in the Plymouth Bay colony was short, the food raised was consumed in the community. Certain members of the community did not farm: teachers, clergy, lawyers & etc., so there was a market for surplus agricultural production. What MIGHT have been exportable was salted fish and stuff like that.
      (6 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Emma Martinez <3
    what are some political reasons why puritans influenced colonial new england
    (3 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      "Politics" is about how people manage power. The Puritans arrived and continued in colonial New England as organized groups. Organization by itself is powerful. They also arrived and continued in colonial New England with skills and modern industrial materials (like steel tools for construction and farming, and steel weaponry.) These materials gave them relative power over the native population.
      (6 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Rodela.Mourin0906
    what is the present location?
    (2 votes)
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    • male robot hal style avatar for user Stephen White
      I'm not sure what "present location" you are asking about, but if you mean the present location of Plymouth, it is found in Massachusetts. There you will also find a replica of the Mayflower, and in surrounding areas, you'll find some of the homes of those original passengers. (John Alden and Pricilla Mullins' home in Quincy for example)
      (6 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user AdamaB
    why do new england come togetther
    (2 votes)
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    • male robot hal style avatar for user Zev Oster
      They were all in close proximity, at least partially Puritan and English. As all respected the same church and, more importantly, were politically beholden to the same parliament and King, they had no realistic choice but good relations. After the revolution began, the relations between those states deteriorated, only preserved by their mutual dangerous enemy. Directly after the revolution, their were territorial disputes between the states that sometimes led to war. Only the constitution, uniting the states under one sturdy banner, could truly resolve those issues.
      (1 vote)