Most of us already know the difference between Puritan and Pilgrim, but not so many years ago, I wasn’t able to explain the difference and probably used the words interchangeably.
In the spirit of this Thanksgiving holiday, I’m posting directly from Pilgrim and Puritan: A Delicate Distinction by Richard Howland Maxwell,
The American Heritage Dictionary defines a Puritan as “A member of a group of English Protestants who in the 16th and 17th centuries advocated strict religious discipline along with simplification of the ceremonies and creeds of the Church of England.” The Puritans, in short, were people who wanted to reform or purify their church.
A pilgrim (spelled with a lower-case “p”), is defined in that same dictionary as “A religious devotee who journeys to a shrine or sacred place, or one who embarks on a quest for something conceived of as sacred.” A pilgrim is one who makes a journey for a religious purpose.
In America, we’ve added specific references to those two terms. We apply the name Pilgrim (with a capital “P”) to the small band of English people who came here in 1620 on a vessel called the Mayflower and settled in Plymouth. We use the name Puritan to refer to a much larger group of English immigrants, led by John Winthrop, who came here ten years later and started Massachusetts Bay Colony. Both groups were motivated by their religious convictions…
Maxwell goes on to say that,
…the Pilgrims who settled Plymouth were puritans seeking to reform their church, and the Puritans who settled Massachusetts Bay were pilgrims (with that lower-case “p”) who moved to a whole new land because of their religious convictions. Now you know why I call it a “delicate distinction!” What the two groups have most in common is Puritanism…
Parnel Wickham explains it,
Pilgrim separatists rejected the Church of England and the remnants of Catholicism that the Church of England represented. Puritan non-separatists, while equally fervent in their religious convictions, were committed to reformation of the Church of England and restoration of early Christian society.
Pilgrims were separatists who first settled in Plymouth, Mass., in 1620 and later set up trading posts on the Kennebec River in Maine, on Cape Cod and near Windsor, Conn.
Puritans were non-separatists who, in 1630, joined the migration to establish the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Within 10 years Puritans settled most of Massachusetts, Connecticut and areas of Long Island.
The Presbyterian Historical Society says that Puritans on Long Island established seven of the eight oldest Presbyterian churches in America, beginning with Southold in 1640.