The Puritans and the Founding of the New England Colonies

Lesson Transcript
Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

Expert Contributor
Jeffrey Perry

Jeffrey Perry earned his Ph.D. in History from Purdue University and has taught History courses at private and state institutions of higher education since 2012.

Learn about the people and motives that led to the founding of Massachusetts Bay Colony, as well as the growth and internal dissent that led to the establishment of Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Hampshire.

Pilgrims vs. Puritans

Map of the 17th-century Plymouth Colony
Plymouth Colony Map

There are some definite stereotypes about what people are like in different parts of the United States. For example, a lot of people say the West is more laid-back, or life is slow in the South, or the East Coast is really industrious. Now, that's changing a little these days since our population moves around a lot more than we used to, but the way of life in different regions of the country really is different, and the roots of those differences go all the way back to the people who originally settled the area and why they did so. In this lesson, we're going to take a look at the Northeast.

The first settlement in New England was Plymouth Colony. It was chartered by a group commonly referred to as the Pilgrims in 1620. After a rough start, they were happy in Plymouth. They could practice their own form of Christianity without bothering anyone else, and they had plenty of food thanks to their friendly Wampanoag neighbors.

But just a few years later a second Northeast colony was chartered, overwhelming Plymouth in 1628. Soon, about 400 strict, religious Puritans arrived. They were called Puritans because they felt it was their God-given duty to purify the church from the influences of Roman Catholicism. In Europe, the Puritans were actually a huge group with a lot of political influence, but a new English king was aggressively persecuting them, leading to civil war. Within a decade, 20,000 Puritans immigrated to America. Massachusetts Bay Colony had arrived.

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  • 0:06 Pilgrims vs. Puritans
  • 1:32 Massachusetts Bay Colony
  • 3:27 Rhode Island
  • 6:03 Expansion and Conflict
  • 7:01 Lesson Summary
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Massachusetts Bay Colony

In 1630, the first wave of Puritans met up with survivors from an abandoned colony and renamed the little settlement Salem. Governor John Winthrop encouraged them to work hard and continually remind themselves and each other of God's commands so that He would bless them. In a famous speech, Governor Winthrop said 'He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, 'may the Lord make it like that of New England.' For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.'

This meant that hard work was a religious duty, and the way you lived your daily life proved whether or not you were saved. This so-called 'Puritan work ethic' meant that few of the original colonists had servants or slaves. In order to focus on pure, Christian living, they tried to eliminate worldly distractions, such as entertainment, decorations or holidays. For example, they made it illegal to celebrate Christmas because the Christian Bible does not mention that holiday.

Governor Winthrop encouraged colonists to see work as a religious duty
John Winthrop

There's often a misunderstanding that the Puritans came to America to promote religious freedom. That isn't really true. But to say they were intolerant isn't really fair, either. Suppose you and your friends ran more than 3,000 miles away to live exactly the way you wanted to; would you put up with anyone who tried to move in and then change the way you were doing things?

The colony was not a democracy, it was a theocracy - for the purpose of serving God and increasing His kingdom, not to let people live however they saw fit. Any challenge to the Church's authority undermined the colony's mission and all that they had worked so hard to accomplish. Any person who challenged the strict practices of their faith was literally thrown out of the colony. This would have been a death sentence to individuals in the early years.

Rhode Island

Roger Williams was one of these unlucky Puritans. He didn't agree with the practice of legally punishing citizens for breaking religious rules, and as a preacher, he taught that the land of New England rightfully belonged to the Natives, not the King or colony. In 1635, Roger Williams was convicted of teaching diverse, new and dangerous opinions. He was ordered to leave Massachusetts before the spring. But since Williams wouldn't keep his opinions to himself throughout the winter, the leaders of Salem decided to arrest him immediately and send him to England, where he was also likely to face imprisonment because of the Civil War.

Instead, he fled into the wilderness alone. He was discovered in the snow, nearly frozen, by some Wampanoag. They nursed him back to health, and Chief Massasoit even gave him some land. Unfortunately, it was still inside the colonial charter, so Williams moved on yet again. This time, he purchased land from the Narragansett Indians and established a settlement he called Providence in 1636. As you might expect, his colony guaranteed wide personal and religious freedom. Roger Williams was joined by his family and twelve followers.

Roger Williams established the colony of Rhode Island
Roger Williams

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Additional Activities

Activities for the Puritans and the Founding of the New England Colonies:

Writing Prompt No. 1:

Imagine you are a devout Puritan who arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634. You become a member of the local church, and watch as controversy surrounding Roger Williams swirls through the colony. You believe his accusations to be dangerous to the community's survival. Write a 2-3 paragraph letter back home to your relatives in England that summarizes your view of Williams's charges against the church and colony.

Writing Prompt No. 2:

The Massachusetts Bay Colony faced numerous challenges from members of the community and from nearby Indian groups. Write a paragraph on each challenge. Each paragraph should provide the date, specific details, and impact of the challenge.

Timeline Activity:

Develop a timeline of notable events for New England colonies. Begin with the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620 and continue through 1640. For each entry on the timeline, provide a brief annotation (2-3 sentences) that summarizes that event. For example, for 1630: "In April, a convoy of ships arrived on the coast of New England carrying nearly 700 migrants. John Winthrop delivered his famous sermon 'A Modell of Christian Charity' which laid out the goals of the Puritan settlers."

Additional Questions to Consider:

  1. How did the colony of Rhode Island originate? (Hint: Think Roger Williams and his conflict with the Puritans)
  2. How did the Wampanoag Indians help Roger Williams after Puritan authorities banished him? (Hint: Where did Roger Williams flee after his banishment?)
  3. John Winthrop declared that the Massachusetts Bay Colony would be a "city upon a hill." Knowing why the Puritans established the colony at Massachusetts Bay, what do you think Winthrop meant by that statement? (hint: if you live in a city upon a hill, you can be see from afar, and what did Winthrop and other Puritans want to do to the Church of England?)
  4. Why did the Puritans ban celebrating Christmas? (Hint: It has to do with the Bible)

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