The Plight and Flight of the Puritans

There has never been a country like it nor can any ancient kingdom compare. It was built upon the principles found within the pages of Sacred Text and sustained by the faithfulness of God. Thrust upon her shores were men, women, and children whose destiny was to build a Christian nation. Driven by both persecution and a passionate drive for Gospel liberty, they came to America. They laid the foundation of a nation that would become the symbol of freedom for the entire world. They were simple God fearing devout Christians known as the Puritans.

Looked upon as heretics by Catholics and fanatics by many Protestants, Puritans suffered greatly being persecuted by both. But it was their aspirations that were essential in the shaping of American politics and culture. To discover who the Puritans were and why they came to America, we must go back into history about 500 years to a time when kings ruled and the title to religion was held by the state.

The history of the Puritans begins at the origin of the Protestant Church of England; however, they would not be given the name “Puritans” until the reign of Elizabeth in 1558. In 1534 after breaking from the Roman Church because the pope would not grant him a divorce, King Henry VIII issued his Act of Supremacy, which essentially denied the pope religious power in England and established total control to the English throne. Although the Act of Supremacy withstood the popish power, it stopped way short of providing any type of religious freedom in England.

The king’s Act of Supremacy launched England into a new era of religious struggle in which only the powerful had advantage. The state commanded the religious conduct of its people, but the hearts of the people were with their own convictions. This was the perfect recipe for a volatile religious atmosphere, which would inevitably result in persecutions and death.

Puritanism was a sect of the English Protestants that believed the Bible was the only religious authority and adamantly protested any form of ceremony that resembled the Church of Rome. The Church of England, or the Anglican Church as it’s called, was very Roman in its ceremonies. Politically the ties between Rome and England were severed, but the church was essentially the same with a few exceptions such as changing the official ceremonial language from Latin to English. But in terms of ceremony and much of the doctrine, the Church of England and the Roman church were very much the same, including the claim of an unbroken succession of bishops dating back to the Apostle Peter.

Henry demanded common worship and common prayers from all of England. Regardless of ones spiritual convictions, all were to participate in the common ceremonies of the Church of England. Needless to say, this did not set well with those who were remained loyal to Rome, nor did it set well with the Puritans who wanted freedom to practice the Gospel. The Catholics, for the most part, held mass in secret and appeared otherwise cooperative. But many Puritans were not willing to remain silent, and as a result, they found themselves on the receiving end of government persecutions.

After Henry’s death in 1547, his nine-year-old son Edward VI was crowned king of England. During the youths reign a new book of common prayers was introduced, which eased the differences between Protestant and Catholic worship. This was welcomed by the Catholics but strongly opposed by the Protestants, causing greater friction between the two faiths. King Edward VI only lived to the age of 16. He died from illness in 1553.

Following her brother’s death, Mary, the oldest child of Henry VIII, ascended to the throne. Mary was a devout Catholic and had been all her life. Puritans endured pure hell on earth under her reign, as she was totally devoted to restoring religious power to Rome. No less than 300 Christians were executed by burning under the reign of Mary in just a three-year period, averaging two horrific executions per week.

Mary’s first victim during her reign of terror was a Puritan minister named John Rogers who, upon his refusal to recant the true word of God, was burned to ashes in 1555. Ten children and his wife, in whom the inquisitors forbade him to speak with before his death, survived John Rogers. Even the thought of making orphans and widows of their victim’s loved ones, or hearing and seeing the anguish of little children shrieking from the fear of their father’s pain and their own broken hearts, was not enough to stop the wickedness of the intolerant tyrants from doing their evil duty. It was now clear that being a Puritan or any Christian willing to stand against the popish rule was no longer just a mater of attracting persecution; it was now a death sentence.

Mary’s second victim was a pastor named John Hooper who preached openly against the iniquity of the world and the corrupt abuses of the Church of England. On a cold wet February day in 1555, damp wood was assembled and the stake prepared for his martyrdom. When all was made ready and Hooper was secured to the stake, a box was brought and laid before him upon a stool. In the box was a written pardon from the queen. The queen’s pardon would be granted to him if he would denounce what he knew to be the truth. His faithful response to the queen and her pardon was powerfully stated when he said, “If you love my soul, away with it!” The box was taken away and the fire kindled. Hooper’s only request was for the fire to take him quickly, but because the wood was wet, it took three attempts to achieve a large enough fire to do the job. When the fire finally began to surround him he was heard to shout, “O Jesus, Son of David, have mercy upon me, and receive my soul!

Many Puritans and other Christians sought exile in neighboring lands, and one can only imagine the greater carnage had they not escaped. Though some were able to escape — innocent farmers, housewives, and other non-educated lay people, who could ill afford to make their way out of the country — made up the majority of Mary’s burning victims. If one of these people so much as carried a Bible in their hand, they were bound for a certain painful death by burning.

After what must have seemed like the longest three-year period in history, the carnage came to and end. November 17, 1558, marks the day of Mary’s death, and on that day bells rang, and elated English citizens danced in the streets – Rome mourned. After the news of her death, Christian exiles returned to England with hopes of a better future. Mary fittingly earned the name “Bloody Mary” due to her reign of horror.

Mary’s successor was her half-sister Elizabeth who promptly restored Protestantism to England. The Church of England, however, was as pompous as it ever was before, and the returning Puritans were just as repulsed by it. The first act of Parliament in the reign of Elizabeth reestablished the supremacy of the crown in the state church. The conformity of common prayer was soon introduced and enforced under sever penalties, which quickly dowsed any hope of Puritan reform.

Although she was not Catholic, Elizabeth was inclined to respect that faith. In her private chapel she kept a crucifix and other symbols and images of Catholicism. She was, however, intolerable of the Bible-only Puritans and their cry for religious freedom, and it was her desire to force them underground. Refusing to be silenced, the defiant Puritans were as outspoken as ever concerning church reform.

Most Puritans were not interested in separating from the Church of England; they were interested in separating the church form the state. Therefore, they refused to be hidden and remained vocal to their cause. A few Puritans were executed and many others banished in 1583 under John Whitgift who Elizabeth appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. Elizabeth was uneasy with the executions and was sorry for sanctioning them. She realized the political turmoil the continuing murders would have created in an already volatile England. This act of repentance stopped any further killings and kept alive the spirit of liberty among the puritans in the church and arguably helped their cause. Elizabeth reigned for twenty years with relative calmness but never allowing the Puritans to gain power in parliament.

The Protestant King James, for whom the King James Bible is named, ascended to the throne in 1603. But James, contrary to popular belief, proved to be just as intolerant toward the Puritans as his predecessors. Debating was not one of James’ traits, but demanding obedience was. “I will have none of that liberty as to ceremonies; I will have one doctrine, one discipline, one religion, in substance and in ceremony” he demanded. James denied liberty of free discussions to the Puritans and said, “As to the Puritans, I will make them conform or I will drive them out of the land or hang them.” He also said, “If any would not conform, be quiet, and show their obedience, they were worthy to be hanged.” Afterward he boasted that he had “soundly peppered off the Puritans.”

The Separatists

In 1604 under James’ order, at least three hundred Puritan ministers were imprisoned or exiled. A more extreme sect of the Puritans migrated to Holland where they believed freedom of religion ruled. Most of the Puritans desired church reform, but this group held a more strict doctrine concerning salvation, believing they themselves to be God’s chosen people. They, unlike other Puritans, were not interested in church reform, but rather they believed separating themselves from the Church of England entirely was the prudent thing to do and were, therefore, called Separatists.

The Separatists first attempted to leave England in 1607, but their endeavor was prevented by a devious shipmaster. They made arrangements with the English shipmaster who told them to be ready on a certain day and he would take them and their goods aboard his ship. The shipmaster was an ungodly man whose only desire was to use the opportunity to rob these unsuspecting pilgrims of everything they had.

The families and their goods arrived at the appointed place on the day they agreed. After waiting all day, the shipmaster finally arrived after dark and took them aboard his ship. Once they were all fully aboard, the shipmaster unleashed his devious plan. The officers of the ship put the men, women, and children into small boats rifled and ransacked them, taking whatever money and other valuables they might of had. The betrayers returned the bewildered families to the shore, leaving their goods aboard the ship, and released them in front of peering crowds that had gathered to see the commotion. Down but not out, the determined men vowed to get their families out of England, though next time they would have to be more cautious in their planning.

The next opportunity for the pilgrims to leave England came in the spring of 1608. This time there would be partial success with a great deal of distress. The men made arrangements with a Dutch captain, believing him to be more faithful than the former English shipmaster. The Dutchman assured them that he would do them no harm. He proved to be faithful, but the logistics of the operation were less than perfect. They had arranged for the women and children to travel to the rendezvous point in small boats with the goods, and the men would meet them there by land. The men and their families arrived at the appointed place, but the Dutch ship had not yet arrived. Many of the women aboard the small boats were getting sick from the rough seas so the seamen, who sailed the small boats, steered them to a shallow creek on the shore where the women could recover and the boats could remain hidden. The men, in the mean time, were in a different nearby place.

The Dutch ship did not arrive until the next morning and the small boats carrying the women, children, and all their goods were not prepared to make way. Seeing that the women and children were not ready, the captain of the ship decided to dispatch his boat to pick up the men who were waiting on the nearby shore. When the first boatload of men had embarked aboard the ship, the captain noticed a large company of horsemen and others on foot approaching with weapons ready to overtake them. The captain was fearful, and seeing that the wind was favorable, he pulled anchor and sailed away.

The men aboard the parting ship were in anguish for their families. The desperate gazes of teary-eyed men who, for the first time in their lives, were utterly helpless as they witnessed their families being overtaken by the pursuing horsemen. Those who made it aboard the ship had only the clothes on their backs, as all they owned were with their families on the small boats, likely once again to become the property of thieves. This time, however, it wasn’t the loss of cargo they mourned, but the loss of their families.

Despite their plight, the determination of this group of pilgrims was not to be underestimated. Because of their relentless efforts, each and every person who had originally attempted to escape England made their way to Holland with elated rejoicing. Families were once again reunited and they praised God, recognizing Him as their deliverer from the oppression of English rule.

Life In Holland

Life in Holland was anything but simple for these pilgrims. Most of them were farmers who now found themselves performing whatever labors they could for extremely low wages. Notwithstanding the hardships, they were content with what they had – at least for a while. The Dutch, after becoming acquainted with the pilgrims, actually preferred them as employees because of their honesty and diligence.

After about eleven years, the hardship of their situation became evident. Many were stricken in age and the younger ones were so overworked their bodies were becoming decrepit. Some were even thinking that life in an English prison would be better than the hard life they endured in Holland. Realizing that if they stayed in Holland much longer, they would surly become separated and dissolved as a group. What they needed, they concluded, was a place – God willing – they could call their own.

The obvious choice for a place they could call their own was America, as it was yet unsettled. But there were many objections to this idea, not the least of which was the danger they would be imposing on their families by bringing them to such an untamed land filled with, as they put it, “dangerous savages.” All the while as they were contemplating whether to settle in America, they could hear the drums of war beating in their ears. The twelve-year truce between Holland and Spain was ending, and many of them realized that the “savages” in America were likely to be no more dangerous than the Spaniards who would surely come to Holland. Being Protestants they were acutely aware of the Spanish Inquisition and the popish power behind it.

After weighing the pros and cons of moving to America, the decision was made. Despite the high expense and danger, the Separatists could not go home to England. And in Holland they were merely pilgrims with a dim future so for roughly half of the congregation, America was the choice. Being a people wholly devoted to God, these pilgrims did not make their decision lightly but fasted and prayed fervently, asking God what course of action they should pursue.

In August, 1620, they made all the necessary preparations for their departure to Southampton, England, where they would begin their transatlantic voyage to America. They purchased a 60-ton sailing vessel called the Speedwell and sailed it from Holland to England. There they met up with the 180-ton vessel, the Mayflower. The Mayflower, owned and operated by the Virginia Company, was preparing for departure to Virginia where the pilgrims had obtained permission to land. Arrangements were made in advance for the Mayflower to carry some of the company of pilgrims to Virginia while others would sail aboard the Speedwell. The Speedwell, however, proved not to be seaworthy as she leaked large amounts of water into her hull. The pilgrims were forced to sell the ship. And many who were aboard the Speedwell crowded into the Mayflower and a few others stayed in England. In all 102 pilgrims were aboard the westbound Mayflower when she set sail for America.

The Pilgrims Arrive In America

After a perilous nine-week voyage across the Atlantic wherein one person died and one baby was born, the pilgrims neared land far north of their intended destination. The unforgiving autumn North Atlantic had driven them to a place they did not intend to go. It was November 11, 1620, and the Mayflower had arrived just off the coast of what is now Cape Cod, Massachusetts. A select party went ashore to find a suitable landing area for the ship, which they found at Plymouth Bay. The ship sailed to Plymouth Bay and dropped anchor on December 21, and there she remained until the following spring. Because the pilgrims had no legal right to settle in this northern land, they created their own government, though recognizing the authority of the English throne, and drew up the Mayflower Compact.

In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord, King James, by the Grace of God, of England, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, e&. Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour 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 of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid; And by Virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the General good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In Witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape Cod the eleventh of November, in the Reign of our Sovereign Lord, King James of England, France and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini, 1620.

If what they went through to get to America wasn’t enough, the perils of the unusually harsh New England winter was worse. By spring only 52 of the 102 pilgrims had survived. Notwithstanding such devastation, none of the 52 surviving pilgrims boarded the Mayflower on her return voyage in April of 1621. This small group of Separatists, who were so greatly withstood by tyranny, nature, and disease, were the paradigm of faithfulness and bravery. Their future was uncertain, but their passion was unsurpassed as they planted the ensign of freedom and liberty in the new world known as America.

In early spring of 1621, a Wampanoag Indian named Samoset walked into the colony’s camp with a welcoming salutation. Samoset was no stranger to English-speaking Europeans and spoke the language fairly well. He introduced the new settlers to his chief Massasoit, who offered the pilgrims friendship and assistance.

Civil War Erupts in England

While the first pilgrims were getting acquainted with their new home, King James was nearing death. In 1625 he passed away leaving the throne to his second son, Charles. Under the reign of James, Puritans had gained many seats in parliament giving them a louder voice in English affairs. Charles acquired the throne as an adult (age 25) and his headstrong character was soon realized.

Charles married a 15 year-old French princess named Henrietta Maria who was devoutly Catholic. She was a meddlesome woman who flooded the royal court with her Catholic friends setting off a severe riff between the king and the Puritan-saturated parliament. Parliament was called only two times in the first four years of Charles’ reign. In 1628 Charles, desperate for funds, was forced to call a third parliament. Parliament presented him with the “Petition of Right” – a bill that declared forced loans, imprisonment without trial, and martial law illegal. Charles accepted the bill, but one year latter, after criticism of his illegal taxation, he dissolved parliament and imprisoned its leaders. Parliament was shut down for eleven years – a period known as “the eleven years tyranny” making Charles the sole ruler of England.

In 1633 Charles, by the insistence of his bride, appointed William Laud Archbishop of Canterbury, an advisor to the king. Laud was not popular with the English citizens, especially the Puritans as they considered him very popish or Catholic-like. Laud was given great power in both church and state, as Charles was ruling England without parliament. Laud used his authority to impose the religious ceremonies he loved so much. He replaced the pulpits with stone altars and suppressed Puritan lecturing. Puritans launched a backlash of criticism towards Laud. In 1637 three Puritans – John Bastwick, Henry Burton, and William Prynne – had their ears cut off for writing pamphlets attacking Laud’s views. Laud also attempted to force a new prayer book and canons on Scotland, which was seen as an all out attack on Scottish independence – the Scotts rebelled.

Charles’ financial management left much to be desired, and the Scottish rebels were gaining ground. Desperate for funds, Charles summoned parliament, breaking his eleven-year reign without it. In 1640, with Scotland in revolt, the Short Parliament was summoned, but it refused to grant money until grievances were readdressed. It was shortly thereafter dissolved. As Scottish forces advanced into England and forced their own terms on Charles, the Long Parliament (beginning in November 1640) rebelled and declared extra-Parliamentary taxation illegal, the Star Chamber abolished, and that Parliament could not be dissolved without its own consent.

One of the first proceedings of the Long Parliament, which assembled on November 3, 1640, and sat for thirteen years, was against Archbishop Laud accusing him of treason. On December 18, Laud was impeached and imprisoned for high treason and other high crimes. Charles saw this as a direct attack on his authority. Charles himself then entered parliament with arrest warrants for Henry Pym and four other leaders. But Pym and company were tipped off and fled prior to the king’s arrival. Parliament feared the king would take military action so they issued an order to the military that all solders report to parliament rather than to the king. The army was split and civil war ensued.

In 1645 Parliament had won the civil war and Laud was beheaded, but Charles escaped capture until the Scots got him in May of 1646. The Scots, however, turned the king over to parliament and he was promptly arrested. King Charles I was beheaded on January 30, 1649. He was the only English monarch to ever be beheaded.

The Exodus

One of the major impacts the war had on England and the colonies was the max exodus of Puritans to America. There were as many as 20,000 Puritan pilgrims streaming to America during the reign of King Charles I. Unlike the Separatists Puritans, these Puritans considered themselves part of the church of England and still under the rule of their king. Living in America, however, afforded them the opportunity to reform the church without repercussions. Mainly Puritans who despised popish rule now populated the English colonies in America. But the fastest growing minority in the new land was those whom the Puritans distrusted the most, the Catholics.

In 1632 George Calvert obtained from Charles a charter to Maryland. George Calvert was a secretary to King James when he converted to Catholicism in the year 1625, at least that’s when he announced his conversion to James. At the time, Calvert was a minister of parliament, a position forbidden to Catholics. However, James liked Calvert so he gave him a new title: the First Baron of Baltimore, a town on the southern coast of Ireland. He became the first Lord Baltimore. His desire was to make a refuge for Catholics in America. Calvert drew a map showing the king an area of land north of Virginia in which he wished to obtain a charter. The king granted the charter and named the colony Maryland, after his wife Henrietta Maria.

Calvert didn’t just want to provide a land for Catholics; he wanted to become its ruler. But before Calvert could realize his dream, he died. His death came just two years before the charter became official. The charter was then granted in 1632 to Calvert’s son Cecilius who faithfully carried out his father’s project. Cecilius had been given great power as the second Lord Baltimore. Since America was under English rule, nobody in the new land had more power than Cecilius Calvert. The papacy had now gained a porthole into Protestant America.

Large groups of Catholics came to Maryland bringing with them a fair number of Jesuits. The Jesuits thought it prudent to convert the Indians that lived in Maryland, but were hampered by the fact that they couldn’t communicate with them except through Protestant interpreters. The Catholics, therefore, were pretty much isolated from the rest of America. Living isolated became rather freighting considering their neighbors didn’t like them much. Fearing the ever-increasing number of Protestants around them and the stronghold of democracy, Calvert was forced to provide security for his Catholic residents.

If Calvert made any special law protecting Catholics it would insult the Protestant King Charles. So Calvert did the only prudent thing he could; he issued the “Toleration Act.” He invited not only Catholics to settle in Maryland, but also Puritans from neighboring Virginia and New England. It became illegal in the Catholic-run colony of Maryland to say anything harsh towards another’s religion. The Toleration Act included speaking reproachfully concerning the Virgin Mary or any of the Apostles or Evangelists and carried with it punishment by a fine, or in default of payment, by a public whipping and imprisonment. The calling of anyone a heretic, Puritan, Independent, Popish priest, Baptist, Lutheran, Calvinist, and the like in a “reproachful manner” was punished by a light fine, half of which was to be paid to the person or persons offended, or by a public whipping and imprisonment until apology was made to the offended.

Many today praise the Toleration Act for being the precursor to freedom of religion, but fail to acknowledge its absolute disregard for freedom of speech. Without freedom of speech, freedom of religion cannot truly exist. The Toleration Act amounted to no more than an act of desperation on the part of Cecilius Calvert.

The reign of King Charles proved to be a distressful period in English history. The marriage of a Protestant king to a young devout Catholic bride, the king’s choice for Archbishop, and his hatred of the ever-growing Puritan sect – all led to the massive exodus of English Puritans to America. And so they came by the thousands to the land of liberty where the Gospel of Christ was an open book. They vowed to live on in this new land, never again allowing themselves to be burdened by the yoke of popery or bound by the rule of any tyrant.


Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation: 1620-1647. New York: Modern Library, 1981Bancroft, George. History of the United States from the Discovery of the Continent: Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1864; Vol.1 pp 275 to 3l3F. N. Thorpe, ed., American Charters, Constitutions and Organic Laws, I, 77-81

One Response to The Plight and Flight of the Puritans

  1. […] A history of the movements surrounding the Puritans and Separatists [link] […]

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