Turner: “The Pilgrims receive far more attention than they deserve.”


John Turner of George Mason University is writing a history of the Plymouth Colony.  In his recent piece at The Anxious Bench, he reminds us that the “Pilgrims” and the “Puritans” are not the same thing.  As Turner notes, popular culture loves the Pilgrims, but early New England historians spend most of their time discussing the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay.

This is certainly true in my U.S. Survey course.  We spend a week (in a MWF course) on colonial New England.  On Monday I lecture on the English Reformation (ending with the difference between Puritans and Separatists).  On Wednesday I lecture on 17th-century Massachusetts Bay and the so-called “City Upon a Hill.”  On Friday we read and discuss the trial transcript of Anne Hutchinson.  I mention Plymouth very briefly in Wednesday’s lecture, mostly for the purpose of debunking commonly held myths about “Plymouth Rock” and the First Thanksgiving.

Here is Turner:

Not all historians have accepted the marginalization of Plymouth in the history of New England puritanism. (Morgan, like David Hall in the latter’s study of the New England ministry, devoted considerable time to separatism and the Pilgrims before proceeding to narrate events in Massachusetts Bay). Perry Miller, for instance, argued that the Bay colony churches “would have proceeded along essentially the same line had there been no Plymouth at all.” Miller wrote against earlier historians who assigned responsibility for the very emergence of congregationalism in New England to Plymouth’s separatist example.

Recently, Michael Winship has posed a very vigorous challenge to the post-Miller consensus. In his Godly Republicanism, Winship argues that there is no evidence that the Salem colonists came to New England as Congregationalists. One major piece of evidence for Winship’s argument is that there were very, very few committed Congregationalists among English puritan ministers. Two as of the late 1620s, to be precise: the exile William James and the London “semi-separatist” Henry Jacobs. There is no evidence that the ministers who came to Salem in 1629 were “Amesians.” By contrast, seventeenth-century sources assert that they came to New England with no agreement about how to proceed in the formation of churches.

Read the entire post here.

One thought on “Turner: “The Pilgrims receive far more attention than they deserve.”

  1. I was not impressed by Turne’s article, but Plymouth and the “Pilgrims” cannot be overlooked in any U.S. history survey.
    IMHO the “go to” historian about the Pilgrims is Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs.
    His great book is ‘Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners…’
    “My book, Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners – Leiden and the Foundations of Plymouth Plantation, was published in 2009, the four hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrims in Leiden.54 This is the most thorough examination of many aspects of the Pilgrims’ early history, based on extensive archival investigation in America, England, and The Netherlands. The book focuses on the Leiden exile period. Attention is given to geography, housing, social conditions, theology, and labor, besides political, economic, and ecclesiastical circumstances, and influential events. It’s long, and I’m fond of it, but with only one final chapter about life in New England (which carries the subject no farther than 1645) it does not pretend to be a history of the colony. And it is not the last word.”


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