What’s the Difference Between a Pilgrim and a Puritan?

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A painting depicting the first Thanksgiving features pilgrims and native Americans joining together for a feast. Library of Congress

An elderly man I knew in Newport, Rhode Island, relished social gamesmanship. At dinner parties, after exhausting insignificant chatter, he would lean conspiratorially to his table companion and ask, “Can you tell me the difference between a Pilgrim and a Puritan?”

One night I eavesdropped when he posed the question. A benign smile filled his face as the woman to his right, a successful business executive, suddenly found herself in a predicament similar to that of the lepidopterist’s mounted butterfly.

Her eyes sought the ceiling. She squirmed and, after a moment, sputtered: “They’re both English, aren’t they? Big black hats with broad brims. Buckle shoes. Thanksgiving. Right?”

My friend said, “It’s a bit more complicated than that.”

He was playing a parlor pastime, but her answer confirms the confusion most of us have in sorting out New World newcomers, their sartorial choices and the myths they fostered—particularly concerning the origins of Thanksgiving.

Pilgrims and Puritans were Protestants who differed in degree. While both followed the teaching of John Calvin, a cardinal difference distinguished one group from the other: Pilgrims were Puritans who had abandoned local parishes and formed small congregations of their own because the Church of England was not holy enough to meet their standards. They were labeled Separatists.

Their desertion was an ecclesiastical insult to the king as head of the Anglican Church and a crime punishable by jail or death. Around a hundred Separatists left England in 1607-08 in search of religious freedom in the Netherlands; many of them later migrated to America in 1620 aboard Mayflower.

The far larger group, those we know as Puritans or Nonseparating Episcopalians, reluctantly retained attachment to the English Church but were determined to cleanse it of remnants of Roman Catholicism. These Puritans remained at home during the 1620s and, through participation in Parliament, tried to prod the Stuart kings toward toleration. They failed.

In 1630, John Winthrop led some 1,000 English Puritans in the initial wave of the Great Migration to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, north of Plymouth. They were fleeing the royal wrath of King Charles I and Bishop William Laud, who were escalating persecution of dissidents.

For those who believed in simple Sunday services based on the Bible, without the intrusion of Roman rituals, it was time to leave. Fear of further repression quickened decision-making and, by 1640, New England colonies would be home to nearly 20,000 mostly Puritan immigrants.

Despite doctrinal differences, the two communities were not hostile to one another because, with boatloads of the godly arriving, the Bay Colony was steadily becoming more Separatist (even though Winthrop denied it) by the year. The Pilgrims’ basic tenets prevailed.

Nevertheless, Puritans were infinitely more influential in providing the pitch and tenor for the colonies than the Pilgrims: more numerous, more literate, more controlling. Intent on creating a City upon a Hill and a New Jerusalem in North America, Bay Colony leaders demanded strict conformity in religious belief and practice. That was just the beginning.

Massachusetts Puritans set the intellectual tone of the country for three centuries. They branded the land with the Protestant Ethic. They introduced New England to a lingering burden of guilt and existential angst.

They overwhelmed the same Native Americans so helpful to Mayflower survivors. They established towns around Boston and forged a theocracy of magistrates and Congregational clergymen to control the growing population. They hanged dissenters.

This ruling elite carried piety on their shoulders and paranoia tucked into their high stockings, distinctive for their pinched lips and the injustices they inflicted on others.

In the maw of American myth, Pilgrims and Puritans have melded and congealed in memory; they endure, branded in the strands of our cultural DNA. Together, they have been marketed with such persuasive repetition that we have ceased to doubt their importance or make a distinction between them.

But there were genuine differences in how they viewed the world. The Pilgrim Saints were forgiving toward others. The Bay Colony Puritans believed in their God-given superiority and that they could do with New England as they pleased.  

It’s hard to imagine Massachusetts offering a feast of thanks to local Native American tribes. Friendship was not on their agenda. They were aggressive and arrogant and had no intention of sharing food or the land.

America celebrates Thanksgiving each November because of the Separatists. It is their defining foundational gift—welcoming, accommodating, communal.

And for those few Pilgrims, the First Thanksgiving was miraculous.

The venison, corn, squash and turkey served by the ragtag group of English Pilgrims at Plymouth in the autumn of 1621 to about 90 members of a local Indian tribe was a gesture of appreciation for their help in sowing and reaping the settlers’ first harvest. Less than a year before, Mayflower passengers (most of the original 102 survived the 66-day crossing) stumbled on shore with few provisions, in despair over surviving the harsh winter. They faced starvation. Their ability to host a three-day festival of community and friendship so soon after such a fitful start was God’s blessing.

After long living in Dutch cities, the Pilgrims had few agrarian skills, little hunting acumen and nary a fishhook to ply the Atlantic waters. These geography-challenged self-exiles (whose intended destination was south of the Hudson River, not Cape Cod) would likely have gone the route of the near-disastrous Jamestown, Virginia, experiment had it not been for the good graces of the English-speaking Indian Squanto who, along with local with Wampanoags, taught them to fish and live off the land.

Unlike later arrivals, the Pilgrims were not intent on conquering the inhabitants. Suspicious tribes marked their movements for months and vastly outnumbered the English, who had no desire for confrontation. They resembled a reclusive religious cult, and we can almost hear the echo of Greta Garbo murmuring, “I want to be alone.” The community cultivated the area around Plymouth and learned to be self-sustaining. They were friendly but withdrawn, leery of others.

Thanksgiving 1621 was a wary exchange of food and friendship. But regardless of the gestures of gratitude on behalf of Pilgrim leader William Bradford and tacit acceptance by the Wampanoag sachem Massasoit, that feast turned out to be the high point in their relations.

Sharing could not be sustained after it became clear that the English were there to stay, posing a threat to Native American autonomy. Peaceful coexistence was illusive. Conflict became frequent. The spirit of amity of the first Thanksgiving evaporated.

Over ensuing years, Bay Colony fear, xenophobia and self-righteousness replaced Plymouth’s curiosity, conversation and Christian goodwill. Cultural differences may have been too difficult to bridge, particularly since so few English bothered to learn the Algonquin languages. Sachems Massasoit of the Wampanoags and Canonicus of the Narragansetts reluctantly welcomed early settlers but were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the steady stream of Europeans. The equation was skewed and, by the 1660s, their world had been turned inside out.

Resentment among sons and daughters who had seen their fathers humiliated, threatened and robbed of their heritage could not be contained. As the younger generation watched its options dwindling, the resulting calamity became inevitable.

Hostilities ensued, and how they commenced deepened the tragedy. No one at the Thanksgiving feast in 1621 would have dared imagine that Massasoit, whose benevolence had saved the Pilgrims from extinction, would be the agent of the destruction of Indian authority in New England. But—Shakespearean in its savage irony—the seeds of destruction had been sown within the sachem’s own family.

On Massasoit’s death, his son Metacomet (also named Philip) became leader of the powerful Wampanoags. A half century of broken promises spurred Metacomet’s violent retribution. He cobbled together a volatile coalition of tribes and attacked Massachusetts and Rhode Island villages in hopes of regaining ancestral lands.

King Philip’s War, from 1675 to 1676, was the bloodiest war proportionate to population that North America has endured. Half of New England towns suffered and over a dozen were severely torched; 4,000 Indians died compared to about 650 immigrants.

The war was a disaster for Native Americans. Indians and English alike recognized that the victor would dominate the future. European settlers destroyed Indian life in New England, opening westward expansion with little threat of resistance. Land lust did not abate until their descendants reached the Pacific Ocean.

State- or church-sponsored days of thanks, devoted to fasting, prayer, and private reflection, were common in England. The Pilgrims turned that tradition on its head and served nature’s bounty as reward—beginning the dieter’s dilemma we navigate each November when one day’s focus is on food and family.

A Thanksgiving holiday appealed to political leaders eager to promote unity and patriotism. In 1789, President George Washington proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving to commemorate the republic’s victory in the War of Independence and the successful ratification of the new United States Constitution.

Thanksgiving as we know it took root during the grimmest days of the American Civil War. On October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln, attempting to heal wounds after the Union victory at Gettysburg, proclaimed that Americans “set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise.”

In beseeching citizens to restore the country “to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and Union,” Lincoln created a permanent national holiday that would have meaning for everyone, North and South, regardless of race, politics, or religious views. A tradition had been inaugurated.

The 1621 Thanksgiving was memorable for the merging of two cultures and the tantalizing promise of peaceful relations. That Pilgrim legacy still survives almost 400 years later, and the spirit of sharing sustains our hope for the future.

Rockwell Stensrud is the author of Newport: A Lively Experiment 1639-1969, recently released in paperback. His latest book is Inventing Rhode Island: Six Lives (ebook), chronicling the experiences of the colony’s founders in the 17th century.