The Pilgrims and the Puritans are similar because both groups migrated to North America to escape religious persecution in England during the 17th century. However, the arrival of the two groups to North America and the theological views held by the two groups significantly differentiates these early Americans.
Both the Pilgrims and Puritans originated from opposition to the Church of England. As political scientist Sanford Kessler notes, Puritanism emerged during the late 16th century during the period where King Henry VIII separated from the Catholic Church and established the Church of England (Kessler 779). Inspired by the Protestant Reformation, Puritans felt that the Church of England did not go far enough in removing the influences of the Catholic Church (779). Similarly, the Pilgrims objected to the Church of England because they believed that the new institution merely replaced the King for the Pope (Pilgrims and Puritans par. 1). The desire to exercise their religious convictions freely is a uniting characteristic of both groups.
The first distinction that can be made between Pilgrims and Puritans is that the former had a longer history of colonizing North America. As theology historian Robert Mullin notes, the Puritans had established many temporary colonies in North America before arriving at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620 (Mullin 161). In contrast, the Puritans made their first arrival to North America by 1630 (161). In an event known as the “swarming of the Puritans” between 1630 and 1640, over 20,000 Puritans made a mass migration to North America (161). The impact of the more recent migration of the Puritans is that they had a closer connection than the Puritans to the institutions in England.
However, the most significant distinction between the Pilgrims and Puritans regards their theological stances towards the Church of England. The Pilgrims believed that efforts to reform the Church of England had reached its limits and that separation from the Church was the only option (Pilgrims and Puritans par. 1). In accordance with Reformation tenets, the Pilgrims believed that religious scripture should serve as the sole religious authority (par. 1). Further, advocating for the democratization of religious organizations rather than institutionalization, the Pilgrims believed that leading by example was the best way to influence the religious beliefs of others (par. 1; par. 3). However, the Puritans sought to “purify” the church by working within the church to remove its Catholic influences (Sanford 779). Believing that the New World offered an opportunity to reconstruct the Church of England in alignment with their beliefs, the Puritans established the Holy Commonwealth where Church membership was required for citizenship (Mullin 161). In their covenant societies, Puritans discouraged religious pluralism and actively punished religious dissent (161). Ultimately, the theological views held by the Pilgrims and Puritans also accounted for the different social structures and gender expectations adopted by both groups. Apart from the Pilgrims, Puritans had their own ideal of womanhood.
Though the Pilgrims and the Puritans migrated to North America partly in protest to the Church of England, the two groups differ theologically. While Puritans wished to enact reforms within the Church of England, Pilgrims believed that separation from the Church was the only suitable option to escape corrupt Church practices. These divergent emphases on democratization and institutionalism influenced the unique social and political arrangements that were adopted by the Pilgrims and Puritans in early America.
Kessler, Sanford. “Tocqueville’s Puritans: Christianity and the American Founding.” The Journal of Politics 54.3 (1992): 776-792. JSTOR. 20 Oct. 2013.
Mullin, Robert B. A Short World History of Christianity. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008. Print.
“Pilgrims and Puritans: Background.” Department of American Studies, University of Virginia. 2009. Web. 20 Oct. 2013.