Pilgrims and Puritans

Puritans and Pilgrims were distinct groups, though often confused due to their shared history and beliefs. Both emphasized Calvinist theology, strict moral codes, and the importance of scripture.; both faced persecution in England for their beliefs, motivating their migration to America.


Pilgrims were separatists who broke away from the Church of England due to its perceived Catholic practices. They followed the teachings of Robert Browne who tried and failed to establish a separatist church in England before moving to the Netherlands in 1581. Members of his congregation sailed to America on the Mayflower where they established Plymouth Colony in 1620.  The Pilgrims became known as “Congregationalists, with local churches making their own decisions.


Puritans remained within the Church of England but sought to “purify” it from Catholic influences.  English authorities considered them troublemakers by their refusal to follow Anglican doctrine they believed to be too Catholic. This included concerns about biblical errors and Catholic remnants within the prayer book, bowing at the name of Jesus, priests wearing vestments, and the use of written, set prayers in place of improvised prayers. Their move to America to create the “city on the hill.” They arrived in larger numbers starting in 1630 and established the Massachusetts Bay Colony. 

Initially, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was not tolerant of other religions. Only Puritans were allowed full citizenship and voting rights. Other denominations, including Quakers and Baptists, faced restrictions and even persecution. Leaders like Roger Williams (founder of Rhode Island) and Anne Hutchinson (banished after questioning religious authorities) challenged the established Puritan orthodoxy.

Over time, Massachusetts’ stance on religious freedom gradually evolved. The Half-Way Covenant of 1662 allowed baptized children of non-church members to become members, expanding the voting base. The Toleration Act of 1689, passed under English pressure, granted limited religious freedom to non-Puritans. However Catholics and Jews were still excluded, and dissent within the Puritan community could face consequences.

Puritans and Pilgrims, though often conflated, were distinct groups with different motivations and approaches to religion. While Massachusetts initially lacked religious tolerance, the colony’s stance gradually shifted, reflecting internal pressures and external influences.