While it was the Pilgrims who by their
example led the way for the English colonization of New England,
it was the Puritans who were to have the most enduring effect
upon not only the religious, but also the political, social and
economic aspects of life in New England, and to a large extent,
of all Americans.
The "Great Migration" of English people was caused,
as was discussed in the first issue of The Brownell Chronicle,
by a number of factors, with religious and economic issues being
the primary motivation for emigration to the New World. As we
have seen, most of these emigrants went to the southern colonies
and the West Indies, while about 21,000 chose to go to New England.
For a majority of these people, religious issues were dominant.
The religious climate in England had steadily deteriorated. James
I died in 1625 and was succeeded by his son, Charles I, who was
married to a Catholic, Henrietta. Persecution of non-conformists
had increased under Charles I and William Laud who was first
appointed Bishop of London and later Archbishop of Canterbury.
The Puritans, who were seeking to reform the Church of England
from within, despaired of ever making the desired changes. As
pressure on the Puritans increased, the prospect of establishing
a colony in the New World which would be governed by their religious
beliefs began to seem more appealing.
In 1628 a small group of about sixty people under the leadership
of John Endicott settled Salem, Massachusetts, under a grant
from the Council for New England. The following year the Puritan
merchants who financed this small expedition obtained a royal
charter and formed themselves into the Massachusetts Bay Company.
Another group of about 350 colonists was sent to join those at
This new company quickly attracted the attention of other Puritans
of the "middling sort" who were becoming increasingly
convinced that they would no longer be able to practice their
religion freely in England. These "Congregationalists"
who now looked to the Massachusetts Bay Company for a solution
to their problems remained committed to the goal of reforming
the Church of England. But they realized that it might be better
to pursue that goal in America rather than at home.
In October of 1629 the members, or stockholders, of the Company
elected John Winthrop as their governor. It was Winthrop who
began to organize the initial phase of the great Puritan migration
to America. During the spring and summer of 1630 a total of seventeen
ships left England for Massachusetts Bay, carrying about one
thousand settlers. Thanks to Winthrop and other Puritan leaders,
the expedition was well-planned and well-financed. After a first
attempt to settle in the area that is now Charlestown failed
because of the lack of running water and poor sanitary conditions,
the settlers moved to Boston and the Massachusetts Bay Colony
In the decade following 1630, the colony's growth was extraordinarily
rapid. By 1641 it is estimated that three hundred vessels carrying
twenty thousand passengers had crossed the Atlantic. These colonists
dispersed rapidly, establishing by 1640 twenty-two settlements
in addition to Boston. While each of these communities chose
and supported their own ministers, the General Court in Boston
ruled the colony and set the standards for the religious and
These Puritans had a definite mission-to establish a community
where they could put their ideals into practice. New England
was, to them, a new "promised land" which God had set
apart for an experiment in Christian living. As Winthrop said
on the way to America, they were like "a city upon a hill,
with the eyes of all people" upon them. It was their intent
to establish a model community, a Bible Commonwealth, based upon
what the Scriptures revealed of God's intent, a society centered
on a community of Saints-God's Elect, His chosen people. They
saw themselves as being engaged upon a noble experiment for the
benefit of the rest of mankind.
In these Puritan communities, the individual's needs were subordinate
to those of the group's and secular authority joined with religious
authority to impose total, unbending orthodoxy of belief and
behavior upon every member. This orthodoxy was not confined to
the church and religious matters, but was also expected to be
followed in a man's family relations (authoritarian, unbending),
business dealings (hard-working, thrifty), and even recreations
(limited, tending to be more useful than pleasurable). Deviation
was quickly and harshly punished--expulsion was among the milder
The Puritans were not fighting for religious freedom when they
opposed the established Church of England. They were fighting
for the right to replace that authority with one of their own.
Democracy, religious toleration and separation of church and
state were equally distasteful to the ruling elders. From the
start, the Bay Colony confined voting to members of the approved
Puritan churches, denied freedom of speech to its opponents and
insisted that all persons subject themselves to the authority
of its magistrates.
The life of the colony and of its people, the clothes they should
wear, the length of their hair, their labors and pastimes, were
all supervised and regulated in accordance with the clergy's
interpretation of the scriptures. Cards and dice were banned.
Cooking, making beds, sweeping, shaving, running were forbidden
on the Lord's Day, and that woeful day began at three o'clock
in the afternoon on Saturday.
Because Christmas, New Years and other holidays were holy days
in the Catholic Church, their observance was prohibited. Even
the familiar names of months were discarded, because they had
been bestowed by pagan emperors and by popes, and numbers were
substituted. Since the ministers said that they could find no
authority in the Bible for church weddings or church funerals,
marriages were performed by civil magistrates, and the dead were
buried with a sermon, a song or a prayer.
In creating a government, Winthrop and the small group of church
leaders began with the charter's stipulation that the freemen
(stockholders) of the company should make all laws for governing
the colony and elect a governor, deputy governor, and eighteen
assistants (a chairman and board of directors) to execute the
laws and preside between the quarterly meetings of the shareholders.
This was a fairly standard procedure for business corporations,
then as now. But this company was attempting to adapt the structure
of an economic institution to purposes for which it was not intended-the
actual government of the colony.
In an unprecedented move designed to further their purposes,
the Congregationalist merchants had decided before leaving England
to transfer the charter and the headquarters of the Massachusetts
Bay Company to New England-what the Crown had given, the Crown
could take away. Thus the settlers would be answerable to no
one in the mother country, and would be able to handle their
affairs, secular and religious, as they pleased.
The Puritans gradually transformed the General Court, officially
merely the company's governing body or board of directors, into
a colonial legislature and opened the status of "freeman,"
or voting member of the company, to all adult male church members.
Still, four-fifths of the men of voting age were not allowed
to vote, because a large proportion of the colonists were not
members of the Congregational Church. Even the Puritans were
not all permitted to join the church. The law compelled every
one to attend services. But the ministers had the power to say
who should be admitted to membership, and they kept the churches
small and select.
At the same time, Winthrop and his followers pushed through the
proposition that the freemen would confine themselves at their
annual meeting to electing assistants. These assistants, in turn,
would choose the governor and deputy governor and assume the
lawmaking power. They had expanded the charter on the one hand
by increasing the number of freemen who could vote and contracted
it on the other by transferring the lawmaking power from the
freemen to the assistants, who together with the governor, now
in fact held all of the legislative, executive and judicial authority
in the new government.
This was, however, short lived. In 1632 the General Court voted
that each town would thereafter elect two deputies to serve,
along with the Governor and assistants, as the legislative body.
In 1641 the General Court drew up a code of laws for the colony.
Three years later, the General Court was divided into a bicameral
body, with an upper house composed of the assistants and a lower
house composed of the two elected deputies from each town. This
Puritan experiment in self-government served as an example for
future New England colonies, and, to a large extent, for most
later state governments as well as our federal government.
By the end of the 1630's, emigration from England had greatly
decreased. With the political situation there moving closer and
closer to civil war, Puritans were less likely to leavethey
remained at home where they took up arms against the king, beheaded
him, and made England herself a Puritan commonwealth.