Skip to main content

Pilgrims, Puritans, and the ideology that is their American legacy

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | November 24, 2010

Puritan with a rifleMuch of what we know about the roots of American values arises from what we know — or, don’t know –  about the dissident Protestant sects that settled Massachusetts, the Pilgrims and the much more numerous Puritans. The fourth Thursday in November commemorates the earliest event in our national holiday calendar, the Pilgrim’s thanksgiving for barely surviving their first winter in 1621. Many a Thanksgiving Day speech-maker hearkens back to these early New England settlers to understand America and to seek guidance for the American future.

Historians warn, however, that the Puritans were a strange group, one highly atypical of early America; they were perhaps more a cult than a community. Scholars have, in the words of one, “long since abandoned any interpretation grounding the American nation in Puritanism.” Yet the Puritans may have left us something enduring besides the holiday and tourist sites: not a model for American community but an ideology for American culture.

True believers

The Mayflower‘s Pilgrims in Plymouth and the Boston-area Puritans, often confused, were two different colonizing groups (see, for example, here). The Puritan settlers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony outnumbered Plymouth’s Pilgrim settlers by about 10 to 1 and absorbed them in 1691. It is mainly the Puritans and their descendants, such as the Minutemen of Concord, who form the popular image of America’s early settlers. Ronald Reagan, for example, famously borrowed the wish that “we shall be a city upon a hill” – to be a “new Jerusalem,” God’s light to the nations – from the speech leader John Winthrop gave aboard the Arabella, the ship taking the first Puritan settlers to the New World.

Thanks to the records the colonists left behind, the influence of Massachusetts, and the visibility of their descendants (Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Adams, and so on), we know a lot about the Puritans of the 17th century, more “than any sane person should want to know,” according to historian Edmund Morgan (cited here).  We know that they were atypical of Early American settlers. For example, they lived in compact villages rather than spread out in homesteads; they were relatively isolated from world commerce; they were homogeneous; and they were sternly religious. Most distinctively, they lived in tightly-controlled communities, in what historian Michael Zuckerman has called “a totalitarianism of true believers.”

In the mid-1600s, at the zenith of their culture, Puritan villagers held land in common, belonged to a single and strong church, and resisted the intrusion of outsiders. They controlled individual behavior by fierce gossip, defamatory and often obscene billboards, and court suits. In one town, 20 percent of the adults in each decade found themselves charged with an offense, usually a morals violation. Magistrates compelled Sabbath attendance and suppressed religious alternatives, to the point of executing dissident Quakers. Jack Greene has explained that the Puritans

used mutual surveillance to . . . suppress individual deviance and sin, exert tight control over the unruly forces of the market, diminish acquisitiveness and the covetousness or frivolous indulgence it engendered, locate every person in an appropriate calling . . .  and achieve a degree of communal unity virtually unknown in the fluctuating world of early modern England.

Colonists almost everywhere else in 17th and 18th-century America lived in far more unorganized, disorderly, and diverse places. (For more detail, see Made in America, Ch. 4.)

Moreover, these Puritan societies did not last long. As the towns grew and connected to the outside world, residents became more divided and less deferential to the elites – a trend that exploded in, for example, the Salem witchcraft trials of the 1690s.

Withcraft trial at Salem

Witchcraft trial at Salem

Within a century of their communities’ founding, residents turned to export trade, watered down the standards for church membership, accepted more religious diversity, fought over a variety of issues, increasingly eluded community punishment for their sins, and left town. By the late 1700s, the churches became, as one scholar shows, open “centers of worship that could maintain a measure of peacefulness simply because the discontented could leave and join, or form, another group [church] whenever they pleased.”

Ideological inheritance

So, the Puritans formed short-lived, authoritarian religious communities that were atypical for their times – hardly the prototype for the America which emerged nor a model for America that most Americans today would want. Yet they did leave us with an important legacy – an ideology of individual choice and social contract.

Much of Puritan theology rested on the idea of covenants, one between God and man and one between man and man. Central to those covenants was the principle of free choice. As the great scholar of Puritanism Perry Miller wrote, “The individual voluntarily promised to obey civil and scriptural law, for the seventeenth-century Puritans believed that meaningful obedience could only grow out of voluntary consent, never out of coercion.” Even birth into the Puritan village did not guarantee full membership; choice did. In the early decades, churches required people to have and to describe a conversion experience before they could join the congregation. The coercive quality of Puritan life ran against their explicit ideology and theology. As the grip of the Puritan elite on townsfolk weakened, the practice of religious freedom expanded and doctrines emphasizing personal belief and individual routes to salvation became even more important.

These developments brought 18th-century Puritans, for better or for worse, closer to the culture of other northern colonists, a culture that stressed individual self-reliance, voluntary association, and resisting authority and hierarchy. But the Puritans brought with them an explicit, religiously-based ideology of choice and contract that justified that American culture.

Americans have in the centuries since the first thanksgiving followed more the preaching than the practices of the early Pilgrims and Puritans.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.

Comments to “Pilgrims, Puritans, and the ideology that is their American legacy

  1. What roles do social class, ethics, and religion play in the classification of both groups? Explain each groups impact on Colonialism.

  2. Well, lots of Puritan-bashing going on here. As a descendant of Puritans who settled in Massachusetts and Connecticut in the 17th century, I spring to their defense. First, let me point out that England had cruel punishments for people who would not attend the church declared by their monarch to be supreme. So did most European countries. If one criticized the state church’s tenets or practices, he was considered a traitor to the king. The Puritans wanted to “build community” and hoped to unify people around the lessons and values of the Bible. Second, people forget that, with few exceptions, the English settlers lived harmoniously with Native Americans for half a century. The Puritans did NOT steal land from the Indians; nearly every deed stated that the Indians retained hunting and fishing rights on the land they sold to colonists. The Puritans were non-violent and quite diplomatic. Their treaties called for MUTUAL protection from outside threats and predatory tribes. Indians from several tribes welcomed help from the colonists in fighting the Pequots. But 40 years later, King Philip convinced his tribe and others to kill colonists indiscriminately and burn their villages. Thus ended the dream of a “city on the hill.”

    • Increase and Cotton Mather and other Puritan ministers were delighted to see the extermination of the Indians. Cotton being one who “gleefully saw the Indians being “Berbiqued”. There are numerous historical writings on just how brutal the Puritans were toward the Indians. A good book called “The Unredeemed Captive” by John Demos is an excellent source of primary resources that show truly how many Puritans viewed the “savages”. Another great book called “Changes in the Land” by William Cronon also show how the Puritans deceived the Indians out of the land. The several Indian tribes that helped the English in fighting the Pequots were ones ravished by diseases that the colonists brought to America and desired to repopulate their own tribes. I am currently writing a Master’s paper on this topic. There is so much evidence to the contrary that the Puritans were peace-loving when it came to the Natives. Indian slavery by colonists began as early as 1500. Indians welcomed the Puritans at first, again because the disease had ravaged their tribes.

    • Native Americans understood usufruct rights when it came to land. Those who needed it used it. Colonists viewed land as something they could own and fence in keeping others out. Native Americans agreed to something they did not understand or comprehend. They did not have the concept of land ownership.

    • as Dr Paul Jahle of Plymouth Rock Foundation and other notables to the Judeo – Christian Faith in North America and South America say: This new Judeo and Christian Movement to North and South America (1620 AD to 1640 AD) was meant to be Providence from Almighty God of the Universe due to the evil persecutions of Europe, Africa, and Asia by Heathen, Pagan and Islamic cruel and murderous forces. Islam was murderously controlling the sea lanes of the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic over and over again through what is deemed the ‘Dark Ages’ or ‘100 years war’.

      The 41 people surviving the first year of living in North America were all born-again Christians. They kept the laws of God and not of the world. The worldly forces of the last 100 years has greatly distorted the correct history due do their non-Christian and Non-Hebrew natures. We the Pilgrims and Puritans came to colonize and spread the Word of God and to live by the Word of God through the Bible, The Mayflower Compact with God The Constitution of The United States of America is a historical compact, a covenant with our Puritan and Pilgrim Fathers and with Almighty God.

      The year 2020 AD marks 400 years since this Providential Journey started and survives today for all the Free World of Liberty Grace and Mercy from God.

      Jamestown, Virginia has already started the commemorations with New England starting next Spring and Summer. Florida around St Augustine has plans also …

  3. Wow…the Puritans had Free Choice to join their totalitarian churches or leave the community…POOF!…Puritans no longer exist. Now that’s a true American Value!

  4. Traditional American values,life without persecution what’s wrong with that! Separation of church and state what’s wrong with that!Constitution that protects everyone amendments that secure your freedom by the second amendment without fascism involved what’s wrong with American values like that

  5. Definitely. Puritanical values are still the same today! It’s one way street! On the other hand you got Pilgrim values which are Kill ‘Em All of the Puritans of course which is total illuminati way

  6. I agree with everything you have stated here Mr. Fischer. However, it was not Ronald Reagan that delivered the “City Upon a Hill” speech. This speech was delivered by John F. Kennedy. Just wanted to correct that for any future readers!

    • What does that mean “traditional”? The Puritans were the largest group in Colonial America and were intolerant of anyone not “pure” Puritan (play on words). Quakers had their ears cropped, holes bored in their tongues and at least four hanged. Others were banished. Rhode Island and Pennsylvania came about from “traditional” Puritan values. They, in essence, arrived in the New World (that wasn’t new to Native Americans) because of King Charles’ persecution, then became the persecutors of others. Although instrumental in developing ideals that brought about the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, etc., putting them on a pedestal as if they were were some new day Ghandi or Mother Teresa is to close one’s eyes to the suffering they inflicted upon others who refused to adhere to their “traditional American values.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *