Their opponents ridiculed them as "Puritans," but these radical reformers, the English followers of John Calvin, came to embrace that name as an emblem of honor. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, England faced a gathering storm in religious life - the Puritan movement. Before the storm abated, the Puritans had founded the first permanent European settlements in a region that came to be known as New England.
The Puritans believed that God had commanded the reform of both church and society. They condemned drunkenness, gambling, theatergoing, and Sabbath-breaking and denounced popular practices rooted in pagan custom, like the celebration of Christmas. They deplored the "corruptions" of Roman Catholicism that still pervaded the Church of England - churches and ceremonies they thought too elaborate, clergymen who were poorly educated.
The refusal of English monarchs to attack these "besetting evils" turned the Puritans into outspoken critics of the government. This King James I would not endure: he decided to rid England of these malcontents. With some of the Puritans, known as the Separatists, he seemed to have succeeded.
The Separatists, a tiny minority within the Puritan movement, were pious people from humble backgrounds who concluded that the Church of England was too corrupt to be reformed from within. In 1608 one Separatist congregation at Scrooby decided to flee to Holland. That move afforded them religious freedom, but they found only low-paying jobs and were distressed by desertions from within their ranks to other religions.
Some decided to move again, this time to North America. In December of 1620, eighty-eight Separatist "Pilgrims" disembarked from the Mayflower at a place they called Plymouth on the coast of present-day southeastern Massachusetts. But misfortune followed the Separatists to the New World. The hardships of the crossing and inadequate provisions left many vulnerable to a "starving time" during the winter. The Plymouth colony would have failed entirelyif the Pilgrims had not received assistance from local Indian tribes.
The Pilgrims had received permission from England to settle farther south in the New World, but they had sailed off course and lacked any legal sanction for their land claims or their government in Plymouth. English authorities, however, distracted by more pressing problems, left the tiny colony alone. Among these distractions were other Puritans who were still striving to reform church and society in England. By the 1620s, Charles I, James's son and successor, had undertaken even more stringent measures for suppressing dissent. Compounding the religious crisis were mounting political tensions between the king and Parliament and continuing economic problems of recession and unemployment.
Many Puritans concluded that England was slipping toward the Apocalypse. Some, from the ranks of the Congregationalists, became interested in...