It’s easy to get them confused. From our 21st century vantage point the Puritans and Pilgrims look much the same. They were both from England, braving the dangerous Atlantic crossing to the new world in pursuit of religious freedom. Both had issues with the Church of England and were looking for a place where they could worship according to their beliefs and principles. They both settled in Massachusetts, the Pilgrims in Plymouth in 1620, and the Puritans in Salem nine years later. Both were part of the Protestant Reformation and they both wanted change.
But they weren’t the same. Puritans and Pilgrims were distinct groups with fundamentally different approaches to the religious issues of their day.
In England, the Church of England was the only legal church. Everyone who lived in England was a member of the church parish in their community whether they wanted to be or not. The worship services were read and there was little or no preaching. Parish priests were assigned to communities and individual priests were often their “living” as a political favor to a family. Church members had no voice in this.
It’s not surprising that there were calls for change. The difference between the Puritans and Pilgrims was their approach. Puritans wanted to reform, or “purify” the Church of England from within, while the Pilgrims were “separatists” who had given up on the possibility of reform and wanted to establish their own separate church.
In Plymouth Colony, the separatists favored a congregational approach to church government, which came to be known as the Congregational Way. Instead of including everyone who lived in a community, no matter their belief or personal character, the Pilgrims believed that only committed Christians should belong to a “gathered” church. These believers were bound together by a covenant with God. Instead of a church hierarchy and appointed priests, each congregation had the power to choose and ordain its own minister, and to accept or dismiss individual members.
In Massachusetts Bay Colony, however, the Church of England was still the official church and everyone was under the jurisdiction of the parish. But since there were no bishops or other hierarchy in the colony to support the Church of England bureaucracy, they became, in a sense, de facto separatists.
Eventually, both Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies embraced the Congregational Way. Despite their differences, their faith and their physical distance from England drew them together in a new land.