Looking Backward Into the Present

Using the Popular Culture of the Past to Help Answer Perplexing Questions in the Present

What is the Difference Between a Pilgrim and Puritan?

As anyone who is friends with me knows, I have been reading a LOT of colonial  history over the course of the last few months. 

So on the eve of that most colonial of American holidays, Thanksgiving, I thought I would write something about it on this blog. 

William Bradford wonders for all eternity: "Who ate all the stuffing?"

One thing that has always been a mild source of rhetorical confusion for me is the difference between the term “Pilgrim” and “Puritan”.  Were Pilgrims coming over on the Mayflower Puritans? Or did Pilgrims have a separate, nuanced identity apart from Puritans?  Or were Pilgrims the non-religious people coming over with the Puritans?  I wasn’t quite a 100 percent sure. 

To answer this question, I turned to the distinctly non-American online version of the Oxford English Dictionary.   According to the OED, a common U.S. usage of the term Pilgrim refers to the settlers of the Plymouth Colony.:

 1630, William Bradford (the second governor of Plymouth) uses pilgrim of the settlers figuratively, alluding to Hebrews 11:13 (cf. sense 3). The same phraseology was repeated by Cotton Mather and others, and became familiar in New England. By the late 18th cent. commemorative toasts were often given to ‘the Pilgrims’ or ‘the Sons of the Pilgrims’, and through such celebration Pilgrim and Pilgrim Father eventually passed into use as historical designation

So then I looked up the definition of Puritan in the OED.  According to them, a Puritan was:

A member of a group of English Protestants of the late 16th and 17th centuries, who regarded the reformation of the Church under Elizabeth I as incomplete and sought to remove any remaining elements of church practice (such as ceremonies, church ornaments, the use of musical instruments, and in some cases episcopal authority) which they considered corrupt, idolatrous, or unscriptural.

So in essence, the term Pilgrim seems to become a term to separate Puritans in America with those Puritans left behind in England. 

However, the Pilgrim Hall Museum (yes, there is one), suggests that the Puritans that came over on the Mayflower in 1620 and founded the Plymouth Colony were different than the Puritans who came in 1630 on ships such as the Arbella to start the Massachussetts Bay Colony.  In a piece on their Web site called Pilgrim and Puritan: A Delicate Distinction, Richard Howard Maxwell writes:

In other words, the Pilgrims who settled Plymouth were puritans seeking to reform their church [in England], and the Puritans who settled Massachusetts Bay were pilgrims (with that lower-case “p”) who moved to a whole new land because of their religious convictions. Now you know why I call it a “delicate distinction!”

That should clear everything up (he said sarcastically).   

As far as the first Thanksgiving goes, below is an account of the first Thanksgiving in August 1621 from William Bradford’s History Of Plimoth Plantation (FYI—he’s a terrible speller).  Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

They begane now to gather in ye small harvest they  had, and to fitte up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health & strenght, and had all things in good plenty; for as some were thus imployed in affairs abroad, others were excersised in fishing, aboute codd, & bass, & other fish, of which y ey tooke good store, of which every family had their portion. All y e somer ther was no wante.  And now begane to come in store of foule, as winter aproached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besids  water foule, ther was great store of wild Turkies, of which they tooke many, besids venison, &c. Besids they had aboute a peck a meale a weeke to a person, or now since harvest, Indean corne to y* proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largly of their plenty hear to their freinds in England, which were not fained, but true reports.


  Nathan wrote @

So, let me get this straight. The first group was BOTH, and then the later groups were Puritans joining their Pilgrim/pilgrim predecessors?

  backwardpresent wrote @

Both the Mayflower and the Winthrop group were Puritans. The distinctions that some scholars want to make is that the Plymouth colony wanted to be a shining example to England, whereas Winthrop is famous for his “City Upon the Hill” sermon on the Arbell where he declares that their intention is to create a new utopia. However, I have read credible historical research that suggests that it was a throw away line in his sermon and while most people on Winthrop’s ships were intensely religious, they weren’t that concerned with the whole utopia thing.

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