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The ’Splainer: Who are you calling a Puritan?

(1988) Frankie Fox and Sharon Palm wear Pilgrim costumes for their Thanksgiving celebrations. Their community center sponsored a pageant for the kids to help teach them about the first Thanksgiving. RNS file photo by Hugh Scott

The ’Splainer (as in “You’ve got some ’splaining to do”) is an occasional feature in which the RNS staff gives you everything you need to know about current events to hold your own at the water cooler.

(RNS) — It’s time for that old story again — the guys in the big black hats with the buckles sit down for an autumn feast with the local Native Americans.

Fast-forward a couple of centuries, and most Americans commemorate that 1621 meal as Thanksgiving (with almost nothing on the table reminiscent of the original).

Who were the black-clad strangers the natives helped survive their first winter in the New World? What did they have in common with the sober strangers who came later with a similar seven-letter name also beginning with a “P”? What is the difference between a Pilgrim and a Puritan and which of them do we thank for Thanksgiving? Let us ’Splain …

Which group was at the first Thanksgiving?

A picture of a young boy in a Puritan outfit carrying a book

courtesy Shutterstock

A young Puritan

The Pilgrims. But let’s back up. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the Protestant Reformation — kicked off in 1517 — was new and thriving. Many new sects formed, eager to leave Roman Catholicism behind. Among these were several Calvinist groups — followers of John Calvin, the French reformer who riffed off Luther’s movement and was known for his austerity.

The Pilgrims and the Puritans were English Calvinists. Puritans thought the Church of England was not holy or austere enough — still too many “smells and bells” for them after the split with Rome. But they hoped to purify it through further reforms — thus the name “Puritans,” a pejorative term assigned them by outsiders. The Puritans gave themselves a variety of humble names, including the “Precise men,” the “Saints” and the “Godly.” But Puritans stuck.

The Pilgrims were actually a subset of the Puritans. They wanted to part entirely with the Church of England, so they formed their own tiny congregations. Outsiders gave them the name “Separatists,” though they referred to themselves as “Dissenters.” The name “Pilgrim” came long after the original Pilgrims disappeared, when scholars discovered a manuscript written by William Bradford, their leader in the New World, in which he called his band “saints” and “pilgrimes.” In 1820, at a ceremony at Plymouth Rock, the great American orator Daniel Webster referred to them as “Pilgrim Fathers,” and they have been known as Pilgrims ever since. (Fun fact: The Pilgrims didn’t really land at Plymouth Rock; that is a myth born in the 19th century.)

Which group was on the Mayflower?

The Pilgrims. Forming their own congregations opened them up to persecution; the king, as head of the Church of England, was not amused. So the Pilgrims — about a hundred of them — left England in 1607 for the Netherlands, where there was greater religious freedom. In 1620, many of them stepped aboard the Mayflower, an aging three-mast merchant ship, and headed for the New World, aiming for the mouth of the Hudson River. They missed and ended up north, along Cape Cod.

Meanwhile, the Puritans stayed home. They worked to eradicate the final bits of Roman Catholicism from the Church of England — kneeling for Communion, special vestments for services, making the sign of the cross, etc. — but to little or no avail. In 1630, they sailed for Massachusetts. They hit the target, and 20 years after the first Thanksgiving there were 20,000 Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

So it’s easy to conflate the Pilgrims and the Puritans. Are there any other real differences?

Yes, and some important ones. It is true that both stemmed from English Calvinism, protested the Church of England and adopted sober, colorless attire. Both held to a literal interpretation of the Bible and placed Jesus at the center of their theology. Both believed they were living in the “latter days” — the time immediately before Jesus’ return.

READ: Let’s celebrate the Pilgrims (the Puritans not so much)

The differences were less theological and more social. According to Rockwell Stensrud, a New England historian, the Puritans were more literate, better-educated, wealthier and more dominating than the Pilgrims. In terms of the Native Americans, the Pilgrims wanted to be left alone, Stensrud contends, while the Puritans engaged with them — often to the detriment of the tribes. And because there were more Puritans than Pilgrims, the Puritans determined the trajectory of the colony. “Massachusetts Puritans set the intellectual tone of the country for three centuries,” Stensrud writes. “They branded the land with the Protestant Ethic. They introduced New England to a lingering burden of guilt and existential angst.”

Photo courtesy Bochkarev Photography via Shutterstock

Thanksgiving turkey on a holiday table

Swell. Why celebrate that with a holiday?

It is true, there are some unpleasant things to consider before the feast. The arrival of Puritans and Pilgrims kicked off the decimation and forced migration of Native Americans. King Philip’s War, fought by the Wampanoags and Narragansett tribes against the colonists from 1675 to 1676 — nearly wiped out both tribes. Fewer than 700 colonists were killed. It is no coincidence that November is Native American History Month.

But the Puritans and the Pilgrims gave us some of the founding ideas of this country. Ronald Reagan’s vision of the U.S. as a “shining city on a hill” was cribbed from a sermon by John Winthrop, a Puritan founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Puritans brought with them the idea that education should be free and for everyone (as long as they were male). Scholars say our commitment to religious freedom comes, in part, from the Puritans who came here in search of it — though they were not much in favor of doling it out. They routinely banished dissenters (Rhode Island was founded by Puritan minister Roger Williams after he was thrown out of Massachusetts). And Christmas celebrations — take note, President Trump — were banned in Puritan Boston from 1659 to 1681.

So lift a turkey leg and remember the good with the bad. And be thankful the Puritans evolved — or they might have banned Thanksgiving, too.

About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.


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  • Also, being discriminated against in the old world, they arrived in the new world to get away from that discrimination — so that might discriminate against others. Religion is often funny that way.
    It was interesting to hear that “Puritans” was not a name they gave to themselves, but was a pejorative.

  • Interesting that the Puritans and Pilgrims banded together to form the Congregationalists…who split in the early 19th century to form the Unitarians and trinitarian Congregationalists…who today form the two most progressive denominations in the U.S.: the Unitarian Universalists and the United Church of Christ. My analysis is that they were a force for change and kept changing. Ecclesia semper reformanda est.

  • What I find most interesting is that the writer specializes in “atheism and free thought” and RNS thought it a good idea to have her write about Christians. Then we wonder why the world is falling apart.

  • ??? First, journalists have “beats”; subjects they cover for the publisher. If a journalist covers the farming beat, does that mean she’s a farmer? In fact, breaking up the general subject into sections to assign to particular reporters is an attempt to make sure the whole subject is covered… the the public well informed. Unfortunately, today each tribe only covers what it wants to hear and ignores the rest. Consequently, Americans are generally ill informed.
    Second, I would call this article a history of some “free thinkers”. Today the Puritans may find a home in the Evangelical movement, but they then were certainly free thinkers.

  • just like the name jesus and Yeshooah, was never Their G-D Given Name Adam are pejoratives. how One Unique Body is put to death, and always returned as two separate He and She bodies.

    in this world that, likes to change facts of ELOHEEM. to suit their, not here in This Story of The Physical Creation with the dark mental prejudiced delusions again.

    there are no physical resurrections without the physical resurrection, of The Whole Torah again.

    no one, is to be taken to HEAVEN of Heavens. that, have all failed to be here in THEIR Resurrected Story of The Physical Creation. in this world, that prefers deceptions from men rather than truth from ELOHEEM.

    deceptions from deceitful men, is why this world suffers from diverse delusional mental deceit. believing the unholy, and rejecting The Holy. from the first three and a half days beginning with Noach, Avraham, Moshe, to the last three and a half days with conjoined He/She Adam to The Male Child adam separated from his twin sister again.

    living again in this world, of non-scriptural idiots here in The Scripture physically all Happening again. laughing at ELOHEEM and THEIR He/She Son, with mental delusions from the diverse subtle talking beasts of the fields again.

  • “It was interesting to hear that “Puritans” was not a name they gave to themselves, but was a pejorative.”
    It often works out that way in religion. The origin of the term “Christian” falls into the same category.

  • > The truth of ELOHEEM is that ELOHEEM is a deception created by man.
    > This world suffers because it operates via naturalistic laws of nature that does not care about anyone’s mental or physical states. The world does not run by divinely orchestrated laws of a magic supernatural agent.
    > I think I happily fit the description of the “non-scriptural idiot” as I have read several religious texts, and rejected them all and with them all gods as myth, metaphor, fiction and lies — and I’m fine being that type of “non-scriptural idiot”. There is no sound evidence and no non fallacious arguments to adequately support such man-made supernatural uber-men creatures as actually existing — arguments being irrelevant, and valid evidence being the only true reliable path towards truth. I have no need to search further with out any verifiable, falsifiable, repeatable and predictive evidence not yet seen in the history of history by a world composed of fallible humans that suffer from over-active agency detection and other cognitive biases that are important for the survival of evolved social animals, but are not particularly useful at determining fact from fiction without liberal use of countermeasures.

    In conclusion, you are not going to heaven, I am not going to heaven, no one has ever gone to heaven, and no one will ever go to heaven.


  • There are many errors here. The Puritans were NOT biblical literalists, they debated together about the meaning of texts, and the Pilgrims are famous for the commission given to them as they set sail from England, “stick not fast where Luther and Calvin have left you, but press on, guided by the Holy Spirit, for God has yet more light and truth to break forth from his Word.” You have very badly misrepresented their theology, though you have gotten a number of details of their history right. Also, both Plymouth and Boston endorsed a strong social justice commission as the stated nature of their new communities. No, they didn’t always get it right, but they did press on, stepping forth from where they had been, and they never stopped struggling to find a better way. Finally, you have left out the important role the Plymouth history played in the struggle for abolition. The South clung to Jamestown, a slave plantation model of community, as the foundational model for America, and the Northern abolitionists and anti-slavery folks joined in their passionate insistence that Plymouth was the tale to remember. Lincoln’s proclamation, at the height of the Civil War, of Plymouth’s Thanksgiving as our national holiday, had everything to do with abolition. You, the writer of this piece, have not done nearly enough research, by RNS standards, to be writing this piece.

  • I don’t think Christians are the best people to write about Christians. Witness the number of so called Christians on these very pages who are happy to fling their Theo-poo at other Christians for not being the right sort of Christian.

  • The arrival of Puritans and Pilgrims kicked off the decimation and forced migration of Native Americans.
    For some balance, read — “Scalp Dance” by Thomas Goodrich

  • ” No, they didn’t always get it right, but they did press on, stepping forth from where they had been, and they never stopped struggling to find a better way”

    Way to bury the lede here and understate the obvious. The Puritans and Pilgrims were theocrats. Their efforts were inherently oppressive and destructive in nature. Hence the exile of Roger Williams and the founding of Rhode Island. One of two colonies specifically chartered for the purposes as a refuge for all faiths, where religious freedom was ingrained. It was not until the population of Boston and surrounding environs expanded, making the region a more commercial colony, that their grip was released.

    Please do not give credit for abolitionism to the Puritans. They had nothing to do with it.

    One of the reasons slavery did not take hold in the North was because the geography was far more amenable to immigration/colonization. Cheap English labor was hardly in short supply there.

    Disease and harsh climate were major limiting factors to populations in the South. Most Southern colonies didn’t initially even have a 1:1 male to female ratio until well underway. Slavery was seen to make up for the lack of motivation most had to travel and colonize those regions. Yellow Fever made colonization of the Caribbean extremely rough going, hence the absolute dependence on slave labor in the sugar producing colonies.

  • interesting but not true. A few may have morphed into Congregationalists but by no means could anyone claim all Puritans became Congregationalists.

  • Any good editor knows how to match up writers with assignments. Asking an atheist to cover a theist perspective is problematic. That you don’t recognise that is telling.

  • They did not plan for theocracy…they planned to live as Godly a life as humanely possible. Do yourself a favor and read the Mayflower Compact. It was instrumental in writing our Constitution.

  • You should give that question/example to the Christians who are attacking other Christians, not to me. I’m an atheist. I believe that anyone who calls himself a Christian and attends church is a Christian.

    I’ll give you a fairly apt parable. Two dogs were fighting over a bone on a bridge. A Sheepcame by, and the dogs asked her to decide which one of them should get the bone. She looked at it carefully, noticed it was a sheep bone, and tossed it off the bridge. The dogs asked, “why did you do that?” The sheep replied, “I’m a vegetarian.”

  • Sorry, LLL. I think you are mistaken. Please see the Cambridge Platform of 1648 and the Saybrook Platform of 1708 to observe the transformation. The Congregational Churches in both Massachusetts and Connecticut were established churches into the 19th c. Moreover, churches founded as Puritan congregations (e.g., First Parish Plymouth [UU], First Church in Salem [UU], Old South Boston [UCC], Center Church Hartford [UCC]) all were, at one time, Congregationalist. See James F. Cooper, Jr. (1999). “Tenacious of Their Liberties: The Congregationalists in Colonial Massachusetts.”

  • “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 ..”

  • You can use it without figuring it out! That’s the beauty of the internet! Imitation is the sincerest form of plagiarism!

  • Moral: there may or may not be a disinterested third party, but even a disinterested third party may have an agenda.