In the 17th century, the religious climate in England was in serious decline. Puritan clergy had adopted strict Calvinism, and were severely opposed to any rituals or religious practices that in any way mirrored the Roman Catholic Church. The growing reforms in the Church of England resulted in alienation of the Puritans.
The political climate was in an extremely volatile state as well, with constant, vicious struggles between Parliament and King Charles I. Parliament – which was predominantly Puritan – consistently opposed the King, challenging his decisions and his authority.
Because the religious and political climate in England was so volatile, a huge number of Puritans migrated to the New World in search of political and religious freedom. To fully understand their reasoning, however, we must look back at the root of the struggle between Charles and the Puritans.
In 1603, King James I ascended the throne of England. As Queen Elizabeth had died leaving no heir, her throne fell to the son of Mary Stuart, the Catholic Queen of Scotland. had been executed some years previous at Elizabeth’s command; however her son remained, and was the only viable successor to the throne.
When James I was crowned as king of England and Scotland, he came to believe that he was appointed to the throne by God, and as such, was above the laws of man and answerable only to God. He stood staunchly behind the Church of England, and passed laws requiring all English subjects to attend services, pay taxes, and unquestioningly accept the beliefs put forth by the Church of England. Those who deviated risked harsh punishment.
The Calvinists, however, were a strong force in England as well, and preached purification of anything that mirrored the beliefs or practices of the Catholic Church. They shunned the Church of England as they felt that it was too similar to the Roman Catholic Church. Their doctrine of “purification” led to the adoption of the name “Puritans”.
The Puritans endlessly petitioned King James, pressing him to change his laws pertaining to the church. King James refused, leading to an intense strain between the two factions. As the situation grew ever more precarious, some Puritans took refuge in Holland, while others went further still, founding the Plymouth Colony in the New World.
While King James I did eventually make attempts to reconcile with the Puritan clergy, the situation took a drastic downturn when Charles I ascended the throne in 1625. Charles also believed that he possessed the Divine Right of Kings, and used it to his own gains and to pardon his own corruption. The predominantly Puritan Parliament consistently opposed Charles, creating an intense struggle between the two.
Finally, King Charles got rid of Parliament altogether in a quick power grab, and for the next eleven years, he ruled as an Authoritarian. During this time, he viciously persecuted the Puritans, who he saw as a direct threat to his authority.
Soon the situation was so precarious that the Puritans had no choice but to look for freedom elsewhere. John Winthrop, a Puritan lawyer, began to discuss the idea of a Puritan colony in New England, following the example of the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony. For two years, Winthrop discussed his ideas and plans within his social circle.
In March, 1629, King Charles granted the land for the Massachusetts Bay Colony to the “Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England” – a company that was owned almost entirely by Puritan stockholders. It’s highly possible that Charles was unaware that the group was formed of Puritans, and he likely assumed that the venture was purely commercial. Whatever the case, the land was granted.
Winthrop set sail for New England in 1630. Eleven ships, known collectively as the Winthrop Fleet, carried 700 colonists toward the New World. Their goal: to become a “City upon a Hill” – an example to the countries of Europe as a fully reformed Christian commonwealth.
Thus, the Great Migration began, as over the next 13 years, approximately 21,000 Puritans fled England in search of religious freedom. Some struck out toward colonies in the West Indies; however most headed for New England in America.