Who Were the Pilgrims? Why did they come to America?

The Pilgrims were Separatist Puritans who came to America for Religious Freedom

Embarkation of the Pilgrims by Robert W. Weir, 1843

The Reformation of the 1500s had given rise to a devout group of Christians in England in the 1600s who called for reform and purification of the Church of England.  Though the Church of England, which had been under the Roman Catholic Church for centuries, implemented some moderate reforms and became Protestant during the Reformation, some English Protestants did not believe its reforms went far enough.  The “Puritans,” as they were called, wanted to purify the church from within.  They wanted to expel from the church what they saw as heresy and corruption in the church’s doctrine and worship practices.  One remnant of this group believed the church was too corrupt to be restored, and they separated from it altogether.  These “Separatists,” as they were called, refused to conform to the existing church.  The Separatists’ movement was outlawed, so they met secretly in a home in Scrooby, England.  To escape persecution, they moved to Leyden, Holland.  Disillusioned by hardship and the secular society of Holland, they ultimately set sail for America.  They would become known as the Pilgrims.  The Pilgrims’ migration across the Atlantic on the Mayflower vessel in 1620 would prove to be an historic move.

The Pilgrims’ primary reason for coming to America was religious freedom.  They wanted freedom to believe and worship without harassment or persecution.  They sought freedom in America to set up their own church and community as they believed and chose.  As early French historian Alexis de Tocqueville observes in his well-known 1835 Democracy in America, the Pilgrims sought some “unfrequented part of the world, where they could live according to their own opinions, and worship God in freedom….”  The Pilgrims also hoped, in the process, to advance the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Like other Christians, the Pilgrims and Puritans were monotheistic, believing in one God—the God of the Bible.  They identified God as Creator (Genesis 1 and 2, Isaiah 42:5), Provider (Genesis 22, 1 Corinthians 5:7), and Supreme Ruler or Judge of the world (1 Timothy 6:15, Revelation 17:14, Psalm 97:1).  They recognized God’s supreme authority or “sovereignty” in the world.  God’s sovereignty means that all human and earthly spheres—including church, civil government, family, and individual—are under God’s rule and are accountable to God.  God is the highest authority on earth among equal men.

The Pilgrims’ and Puritans’ Bible-based view of God’s sovereignty affected their political as well as religious views.  It affected their organization of church and civil government.  It also set an important precedent for the direction of the Puritan colonies in New England and, ultimately, for the founding of the new nation.

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

Source:  Kamrath, Angela E.  
The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2015.

Related blogs/videos:
1.  Why the Pilgrims Identified with the Israelites
2.  The Mayflower Compact:  The Pilgrims’ First Self-Governing Act in America
3.  The Pilgrims’ Mayflower Compact as a Covenant
4:  The Pilgrims and Private Property:  What the Pilgrims Might Have Thought About Communism and Socialism
5.  The History of Thanksgiving Day in America
6.  Three P’s That Led to Freedom in the West:  Printing Press, Protestant Reformation, & Pilgrims

Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 2, Part 1, Activity 8: Learning More About the Puritans, pp. 69, 318-319.  ES-HS.

To download the whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the member resources page on americanheritage.org.

Copyright © American Heritage Education Foundation.  All rights reserved.