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King Charles Forces the Puritans to America

February 2024
3min read

Persecuted as “heretics,” the Puritans emigrated to Massachusetts, where Governor John Winthrop hoped to create a “Citty upon a Hill.”

Editor’s Note: After a distinguished career as a journalist, television commentator, and president and editor-in-chief of Congressional Quarterly, Robert Merry turned to writing history. He has authored five books, including most recently Decade of Disunion: How Massachusetts and South Carolina Led the Way to Civil War, 1849-1861.

On a June day in 1630, a great English ship called the Arbella completed a two-month journey across the Atlantic Ocean and entered Massachusetts Bay with a contingent of English families and all their worldly possessions. It transported also the farm animals and equipment needed to carve a slice of the New World wilderness into a fledgling society. Thus began a harrowing adventure that would be a milestone in the history of Anglo-Saxon America.

The Arbella was the first of seventeen ships that deposited a thousand or so men, women, and children onto the distant American shore that summer. Nearly two hundred perished during the first winter, and another hundred fled back to England as soon as favorable weather returned. But the human flow that began with the Arbella continued through the 1630s, transporting some twenty-one thousand English folk to the emerging Massachusetts Bay Colony, along with the distinctive mores, folkways, and spiritual sensibilities they carried with them in their minds and hearts.

King Charles I tried to govern without Parliament, and persecuted the opposition and “heretics” such as the Puritans.

They were Puritans, as manifest in their austerity of dress, seriousness of manner, and intensity of religion. They acquired these traits and lifestyles from the area where most of them had lived in eastern England, a small enclave of nine counties centered geographically on the market town of Haverhill, near the convergence of Suffolk, Essex, and Cambridge counties. A historian of that region described these people, whether gentle or simple, as “dour, stubborn, fond of argument and litigation, strongly Puritan.”

This East Anglian region generated the English realm’s most concentrated opposition to King Charles I and his increasingly oppressive rule. For more than a decade, known as the “eleven years’ tyranny” (1629 to 1640), Charles sought to govern without Parliament and installed as head of the once-tolerant Anglican Church a severe prelate named William Laud. Laud stamped the realm’s Puritans as subversives, sought to purge them from the established Church, and burdened them with all manner of harassment, fines, and banishment from university and Church vocation. He considered the East Anglians to be the “throbbing heart of heresy in England,” as one historian put it.

This was as intolerable to the Puritans as the economic stagnation and epidemic diseases also ravaging England at the time. In the view of John Winthrop, a leading Puritan lawyer and advocate of the American migration, the lands of England had become “weary of her Inhabitants, so as man which is most precious of all the Creatures, is here more vile and base than the earth they tread upon.” 

As the migration plan took shape, participants turned for leadership to Winthrop, who proved himself a gifted governor for the transatlantic voyage and later for the Massachusetts challenge. He also sheathed the enterprise in inspiring language, as when, during the passage, he talked of creating a new “Citty upon a Hill” that would become “a story and a byword throughout the world.” But most Puritans on that voyage held a more rustic sense of their adventure. Religion dominated their lives, and they wanted the freedom to embrace it in their own way. As the noted historian David Hackett Fischer wrote, when they described their motivations for crossing the Atlantic, “religion was mentioned not merely as their leading purpose. It was their only purpose.”

The primary migration of the Puritans to America lasted only ten years – until Charles I was executed – but their culture shaped much of the ethos of the northern U.S. 

Then, in 1641, a decade after the remarkable Puritan migration began, it ceased, as events in England presaged an end to the king’s “personal government” and his trespasses upon religious freedom – and an end also, eventually, to his life.

By then the colony was in full bloom, spreading across the landscape of New England in the form largely of small, efficiently run farms and tidy villages. Nearly all of the Massachusetts communities were farm towns, and most citizens were yeoman farmers who soon generated agricultural surpluses-in grain, meat, fish, butter, cheese, timber-shipped to markets in Virginia, the West Indies, and Great Britain. A merchant class soon emerged along with a hearty presence of religious leaders. By 1640 the colony boasted some three hundred university-trained clergy­ men, and the population was doubling every generation, almost entirely from robust internal birth rates. The population reached one hundred thousand by 1700 and more than a million a century later.

These people, as historian Fischer has noted, “became the breeding stock for America’s Yankee population” – nearly all descended, he adds, from those initial twenty-one thousand English migrants. 

In time, Massachusetts Bay descendants built communities in eastern New Jersey, northern New York, Maine, New Hampshire, Canada, and eventually westward in a band stretching to the Pacific Northwest, where many place-names echoed those of New England cities and towns – Portland, Salem, Albany, Quincy, Everett. 

The Puritan culture shaped much of the societal ethos of the U.S. northern tier, even as the populace became more secular and the focus shifted from individual salvation to the cause of human betterment.

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