Most Americans think the Pilgrims were Puritans who came over on the Mayflower and had Thanksgiving with the locals. Not so.
All nations make origin myths and America’s is at least more plausible than the Roman Empire’s. In Rome’s origin myth the founders Romulus and Remus were raised from infancy by a mama wolf.
In America’s a small group of Puritan pilgrims braved the dangerous seas and wilderness seeking religious freedom, built one nation under God that has served as a shining city on a hill for the rest of the world, which does not understand freedom like America does.
America’s Origin Myth
American history cannot be understood without understanding the history of England that the settlers carried in their collective unconscious. In England, between about 1550-1600 three religious sects had emerged: conformists, who supported the current religious establishment (and its ties to the state,) Puritans who wanted to purify the current religious establishment, and Separatists who thought the current religious establishment was beyond reform.
Pilgrims vs. Puritans
Puritan ministers were oppressed and fined for their dissent, but entire congregations of Separatists were imprisoned. The settlers of the Massachsetts Bay Colony were Puritans (a pejorative name others called them.) According to William Bradford’s History of Plymouth Colony, however, the Separatists, whose views were more radically non-hierarchical than the Puritans, fled English persecution and many went to Holland between 1607 and 1609, where religious freedom was practiced.
Though they had religious freedom in Holland, they became alarmed that their children were becoming too Dutch, so they wished to set up their own colony and rule it by their own precepts and customs. These Separatists, who had a hostile relationship with the Puritans, would come to be known as the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony.
Joint Stock Companies Settled America
Settlers to America came under the sponsorship of joint stock companies. These joint stock investors intended to make a profit, of course. In Jamestown, the Virginia Company of London established a commercial base in 1607. The Pilgrims were similarly allied with English merchants and 102 of them set out on the Mayflower, after several false starts, for America in 1620.
The hardships were severe and the small group survived only with the help of the Wamapanoags, their faith and sheer determination. They must have been truly thankful when they had their fall feast; thankful that they were miraculously still alive. The Pilgrims were eventually absorbed by the much larger migration of Puritans from 1630-1640.
Around 1630 Puritans began to migrate to New England and by 1640, they had established almost two dozen settlements. Their society was very structured and church and state authority was one and the same. Contrary to the myth, neither the Pilgrims nor the Puritans believed in religious freedom; they believed their religion was the only correct one and everyone should follow it.
Regulations covered social and family life, dress, hair length and recreational activities. Although Puritan strictness is sometimes mocked, they had their good points. They fervently believed in high quality education and built schools and the first universities. They set up governments and courts and their colonies flourished due to their unity of purpose and work ethic. They also considered beer a necessity.
Pilgrims vs. Puritans
The Pilgrims were sort of back-to-the-land Jesus freaks, but they were real Christians in that they cared for rotten sailors when they got sick and tried to be decent to the Native Americans.
The Puritans were much better-off financially and came equiped with lawyers and the “better sort” of people. Meanwhile, the first successful colony in America in Virginia grew in a very different way from the small landholders in New England. In Virginia a plantation society was developing and the Anglican Church remained the official church for many years.
The origin story of America is complex, but is incomplete unless profit-making, theocracy, aristocracy, indentured servants, small farmers, town meetings, Native Americans and slavery are factored in.
Let’s be honest: Some came for God, but some just came for cod.