Closer Readings Commentary

The Pilgrims are Coming! The Puritans are Coming!

On Tuesday, November 24, and again on Thanksgiving night, the long-running PBS series American Experience will broadcast The Pilgrims.

This new docudrama from director Ric Burns tells the story of the small group of religious radicals who embarked from England in 1620 to establish a separate religious community in the New World. In the latest issue of Humanities magazine, “Who Were the Settlers Who Celebrated the First Thanksgiving?” shows how the film attempts to correct the popular image of the first Thanksgiving and explains why we think of the New England Puritans as the founders of the American Republic.

Native Americans of New England

It’s important to remember that the Puritans did not arrive in an unoccupied world. The Algonquian had recently suffered a dramatic decline caused by their contact with earlier European settlers, who brought with them deadly contagious diseases and led to a series of epidemics among the native tribes. Different tribes interacted in different ways with the newcomers. The NEH-funded Native Americans of New England: A Historical Overview website is recommended to investigate the various indigenous peoples and their relations with the Puritans.

The coming of the New England Puritans

The term “New England” was first used by John Smith in 1614 on a voyage to the coasts of what is now Maine and Massachusetts. In 1620, a group of Puritans seeking greater religious freedom than they could hope to attain in England founded Plymouth Colony in the place they now called New England. They were quickly followed by two more settlements in the area, neither of which proved financially successful. That was soon to change, however. The next group of pilgrims was preceded by an advanced party of Puritans, who arrived in Salem in 1629 under a charter issued to the Massachusetts Bay Company by King Charles I. The Puritans’ charter created a typical joint stock company with a couple of differences. It did not specify the exact location in the area where the group would settle, nor, significantly, did it name the location where the company’s stockholders would meet—a situation that allowed the company to move its governing board from England to the New World.

From 1630 to 1641, approximately 13,000 Puritans emigrated from England to New England. The first mass exodus of 700 individuals occurred in 1630, when Governor John Winthrop led a fleet of ships from England to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The charter was used as the colony’s framework of government, with different parts of the large fleet settling in several small communities around Massachusetts Bay, each forming around a minister and a magistrate.

Why would such large number of English people leave their country and homes and undertake a dangerous journey across the Atlantic Ocean?

Why they came: Tocqueville’s analysis

“It was not necessity that forced them to abandon their country,” Alexis de Tocqueville begins a series of penetrating observation about these immigrants in an early chapter of his classic study of Democracy in America, “they tore themselves from the comforts of their homeland to obey a purely intellectual need. By exposing themselves to the inevitable hardships of exile, they wanted to assure the triumph of an idea.”

He goes on to explain the idea and its importance for America’s future political development:

“The emigrants, or, as they so accurately called themselves, the pilgrims, belonged to that English sect given the name Puritan because of the austerity of its principles. Puritanism was not only a religious doctrine, but also at several points it was mingled with the most absolute democratic and republican theories.”  

Neither rich nor poor, the Puritans were a well-educated, middle-class, homogeneous people who knew how to form themselves into a “civil body politic” of equals. Unlike Europe, America came into political existence from the bottom up, democratic at its roots in the township. Well over a hundred years before the Revolution of 1776 or the Constitution of 1787, New England’s Puritans became the nation’s “first founders”.

John Winthrop’s sermon: “City upon a Hill”

There are any number of ways of going deeper into the Puritan idea, but certainly one of the best is by way of John Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity.” This sermon was delivered aboard the Arabella as the Puritans approached their destination of Massachusetts Bay in 1630. It is a powerful speech outlining some key tenets of the Puritans’ beliefs, as well as Winthrop’s ideas of what the Puritans needed to do to build a successful community in the land they were entering.

The speech, often referred to by its “City upon a Hill” metaphor, spells out his vision of the society they hoped to create and how they must act if they were to succeed in the eyes of God. The sermon sought to inspire and to motivate the Puritans by pointing out the distance between an ideal community and their real-world situation. It is a speech that American political leaders still quote.

The EDSITEment lesson, Colonizing the Bay, from which much of the above discussion is taken, focuses on the content of Winthrop’s speech and how it illuminates the Puritans’ beliefs, goals, and programs. It requires a group activity in which students analyze the reasons for Puritan immigration followed by a group effort at close reading of a difficult text—but one that yields significant benefits to those who persist and analyze it closely.

Additional NEH-funded resources

American ExperienceThe Pilgrims
Divining America: Religion in American History

     Puritans and Predestination

     The Legacy of Puritanism

Native Americans of New England: A Historical Overview