In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section New England “Pilgrim” and “Puritan” Cultures

  • Introduction
  • Indigenous Perspectives and Exchange
  • Theological and Historical Contexts
  • Plymouth Colony

American Literature New England “Pilgrim” and “Puritan” Cultures
Christopher Leise
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0111


The English colonizers of New England were mostly dissenters to English Christianity’s lingering Catholic influences. Popular historical narratives often center America’s origins on these “Pilgrims”—founders of New Plymouth in 1620—and “Puritans,” who founded Massachusetts Bay in 1630. The first name was a benign adjective and the second a derisive epithet; both evolved into honorific proper nouns retrospectively. Part of these groups’ complexity follows from their blended, sometimes competing purposes. They were simultaneously colonial agents of a growing British empire, Christian missionaries, and advocates for substantial changes within a developing state religion. Favoring the “Reformed” theologies of John Calvin, they are counted among the founding generations of Congregationalism, a structure authorizing individual congregations—not bishops—to “gather” churches and appoint ministers. Agreeing on no clear orthodoxy, they are often best defined by what doctrines, beliefs, and practices they rejected as by those they affirmed. Although we cannot definitively say who comprised the movement or when it ended, the twentieth century reveals significant patterns in the literature. They occupied Indigenous peoples’ land; featured in transatlantic exchanges regarding Christian belief and hierarchy; rejected most of Catholicism’s sacraments, ceremony, and decoration; and wrote texts spanning a range of genres and purposes. “Pilgrims” and “Puritans,” impossible to define positively, arguably revealed themselves most in conflicts and controversies that formed and fractured their communities. A dynamic, nonlinear historical process, “Puritanism,” therefore, emerges from a scholar’s inclusive and exclusive choices, its nature significantly determined by interpretations of what it became: variously monolithic, incoherent, progressive, tyrannical, and more. After years of scholarly cementing, the terms “New England” and “Puritan” as interchangeable require unbundling, so that modern scholarship will not continue confusing the myth of a uniform movement with the diverse peoples who occupied the land. That land was neither empty, nor undeveloped, nor disused. Prior to the Mayflower’s landing in 1620, Anglo-European fishers and traders brought epidemic disease to New England’s shores, substantially reducing indigenous populations. But the “Pilgrims” and “Puritans” justified royally chartered land grabbing as something other than theft, in part through perfidious claims that the land had been unimproved, belying the persistence of Native nations: recognizing Native peoples’ sovereignty and influence in “Puritan” America is both a necessary and late-developing feature in scholarship. Because the “Pilgrims” and “Puritans” feature centrally in mythologies about America’s origins, they make for fascinating subjects of ongoing inquiry and scrutiny, and thus explanations continue to evolve.

General Overviews

Gura 2010 offers a meta-analysis of “Puritan” studies from the early twentieth century through the first decade of the twenty-first, and van Engen 2013 provides another fine guide to the historiography. Hall 1997 introduces theological and practical concepts of belief, while Winship 2018 explores the diversity within English nonconforming Christianity around the Atlantic from the early sixteenth century through the Salem Witch Panic. Miller 1982 and Bercovitch 1975 lay foundations for the field that are often contested by historians but remain stubbornly central in many narratives of literary history. Knight 1994 follows with a significant fracturing of the “Puritan” monolith into separate spheres of difference central to an emergent orthodoxy. Van Engen 2015 corrects misinterpretations of radical Protestantism as cold-hearted by establishing sympathy as central to their theological and political aspirations in the Massachusetts Bay region.

  • Bercovitch, Sacvan. The Puritan Origins of the American Self. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975.

    Based largely in a close reading of Cotton Mather’s biography of John Winthrop, it describes Mather’s distinctive pastiche form of American life-writing as one that posits certain colonial New Englanders as synecdoche for a larger exceptional American identity, which contradicts rather than inaugurates the tradition of individualism. Remains a lasting influence on “Puritan” literary study.

  • Gura, Philip F. “Puritan Origins.” In A Concise Companion to American Studies. Edited by John Carlos Rowe, 17–35. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444319071.ch1

    Intellectual history of “Puritan” studies from a groundswell of intellectual analyses centering Congregationalism in American thought and writing at the turn of the twentieth century. Contends social and cultural readings subsequently sought to return New English Protestantism to its marginal place in American studies by the twenty-first century. Thorough overview of the field that offers useful citations.

  • Hall, David D. “Narrating Puritanism.” In New Directions in American Religious History. Edited by Harry S. Stout and D. G. Hart, 51–83. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

    Blends intellectual and social history of transatlantic Reformed Christianity. Situates key concepts into historiography of same, sketching processes of evolution from premigration era to Great Awakening.

  • Knight, Janice. Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

    Refines Perry Miller’s trope of a “New England Mind” to contain two hemispheres, “preparationist” and “spiritist.” Much attention paid to the “Antinomian Controversy,” it places difference (but not dissent) at the center of common New English Reformed practice and belief in early decades.

  • Miller, Perry. The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1982.

    Reprint of seminal 1939 study, subject to much revisitation and revision, establishing “Puritans” as rational and educated against the anti-intellectual, killjoy reputation of Miller’s time. A major contribution to contemporary Puritan mythology, it argues for central influence of Augustinian thought and focuses on intellectual experience during 1660s in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Deliberately excludes significant figures whose beliefs would complicate the book’s unifying thesis, such as Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams.

  • van Engen, Abram. “Puritanism.” In Oxford Bibliographies in Atlantic History. Edited by Trevor Burnard. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199730414-0198

    Rich and thorough bibliography of transatlantic Reformed movement from early history through influences on British and American novel, including subsections on primary sources and leading journals.

  • van Engen, Abram. Sympathetic Puritans: Calvinist Fellow Feeling in Early New England. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199379637.001.0001

    Corrects popular myths about New English Calvinists’ stern cruelty by situating their theological/philosophical beliefs in a continuum from the stoics through the Scottish Enlightenment and beyond about the nature of mutual affection. Its implications are wide ranging and join early-17th-century writers in the American colonies to a 19th-century sympathetic tradition that is too often regarded as unprecedented.

  • Winship, Michael P. Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018.

    Argues “Puritanism” was phenomenon spanning 1540s to 1690s comprising complex exchange among British populations in Old and New England, and (to a lesser degree) Scotland, Ireland, and the Caribbean. Describes evolution of and reverberations among Small and Large Congregationalism, as well as Presbyterianism, across spaces and generations. Offers extremely helpful descriptions of church organizations, as well as individual beliefs and practices.

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