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The ’Splainer: Who are you calling a Puritan?

(1988) Frankie Fox and Sharon Palm wear Pilgrim costumes for their Thanksgiving celebrations. Their community center sponsored a pageant for the kids to help teach them about the first Thanksgiving. RNS file photo by Hugh Scott

The ’Splainer (as in “You’ve got some ’splaining to do”) is an occasional feature in which the RNS staff gives you everything you need to know about current events to hold your own at the water cooler.

(RNS) — It’s time for that old story again — the guys in the big black hats with the buckles sit down for an autumn feast with the local Native Americans.

Fast-forward a couple of centuries, and most Americans commemorate that 1621 meal as Thanksgiving (with almost nothing on the table reminiscent of the original).

Who were the black-clad strangers the natives helped survive their first winter in the New World? What did they have in common with the sober strangers who came later with a similar seven-letter name also beginning with a “P”? What is the difference between a Pilgrim and a Puritan and which of them do we thank for Thanksgiving? Let us ’Splain …

Which group was at the first Thanksgiving?

A picture of a young boy in a Puritan outfit carrying a book

courtesy Shutterstock

A young Puritan

The Pilgrims. But let’s back up. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the Protestant Reformation — kicked off in 1517 — was new and thriving. Many new sects formed, eager to leave Roman Catholicism behind. Among these were several Calvinist groups — followers of John Calvin, the French reformer who riffed off Luther’s movement and was known for his austerity.

The Pilgrims and the Puritans were English Calvinists. Puritans thought the Church of England was not holy or austere enough — still too many “smells and bells” for them after the split with Rome. But they hoped to purify it through further reforms — thus the name “Puritans,” a pejorative term assigned them by outsiders. The Puritans gave themselves a variety of humble names, including the “Precise men,” the “Saints” and the “Godly.” But Puritans stuck.

The Pilgrims were actually a subset of the Puritans. They wanted to part entirely with the Church of England, so they formed their own tiny congregations. Outsiders gave them the name “Separatists,” though they referred to themselves as “Dissenters.” The name “Pilgrim” came long after the original Pilgrims disappeared, when scholars discovered a manuscript written by William Bradford, their leader in the New World, in which he called his band “saints” and “pilgrimes.” In 1820, at a ceremony at Plymouth Rock, the great American orator Daniel Webster referred to them as “Pilgrim Fathers,” and they have been known as Pilgrims ever since. (Fun fact: The Pilgrims didn’t really land at Plymouth Rock; that is a myth born in the 19th century.)

Which group was on the Mayflower?

The Pilgrims. Forming their own congregations opened them up to persecution; the king, as head of the Church of England, was not amused. So the Pilgrims — about a hundred of them — left England in 1607 for the Netherlands, where there was greater religious freedom. In 1620, many of them stepped aboard the Mayflower, an aging three-mast merchant ship, and headed for the New World, aiming for the mouth of the Hudson River. They missed and ended up north, along Cape Cod.

Meanwhile, the Puritans stayed home. They worked to eradicate the final bits of Roman Catholicism from the Church of England — kneeling for Communion, special vestments for services, making the sign of the cross, etc. — but to little or no avail. In 1630, they sailed for Massachusetts. They hit the target, and 20 years after the first Thanksgiving there were 20,000 Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

So it’s easy to conflate the Pilgrims and the Puritans. Are there any other real differences?

Yes, and some important ones. It is true that both stemmed from English Calvinism, protested the Church of England and adopted sober, colorless attire. Both held to a literal interpretation of the Bible and placed Jesus at the center of their theology. Both believed they were living in the “latter days” — the time immediately before Jesus’ return.


READ: Let’s celebrate the Pilgrims (the Puritans not so much)


The differences were less theological and more social. According to Rockwell Stensrud, a New England historian, the Puritans were more literate, better-educated, wealthier and more dominating than the Pilgrims. In terms of the Native Americans, the Pilgrims wanted to be left alone, Stensrud contends, while the Puritans engaged with them — often to the detriment of the tribes. And because there were more Puritans than Pilgrims, the Puritans determined the trajectory of the colony. “Massachusetts Puritans set the intellectual tone of the country for three centuries,” Stensrud writes. “They branded the land with the Protestant Ethic. They introduced New England to a lingering burden of guilt and existential angst.”

Photo courtesy Bochkarev Photography via Shutterstock

Thanksgiving turkey on a holiday table

Swell. Why celebrate that with a holiday?

It is true, there are some unpleasant things to consider before the feast. The arrival of Puritans and Pilgrims kicked off the decimation and forced migration of Native Americans. King Philip’s War, fought by the Wampanoags and Narragansett tribes against the colonists from 1675 to 1676 — nearly wiped out both tribes. Fewer than 700 colonists were killed. It is no coincidence that November is Native American History Month.

But the Puritans and the Pilgrims gave us some of the founding ideas of this country. Ronald Reagan’s vision of the U.S. as a “shining city on a hill” was cribbed from a sermon by John Winthrop, a Puritan founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Puritans brought with them the idea that education should be free and for everyone (as long as they were male). Scholars say our commitment to religious freedom comes, in part, from the Puritans who came here in search of it — though they were not much in favor of doling it out. They routinely banished dissenters (Rhode Island was founded by Puritan minister Roger Williams after he was thrown out of Massachusetts). And Christmas celebrations — take note, President Trump — were banned in Puritan Boston from 1659 to 1681.

So lift a turkey leg and remember the good with the bad. And be thankful the Puritans evolved — or they might have banned Thanksgiving, too.

About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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