Godly Zeal: The Main Factor in the Puritan Migration
Written by John Heikoop
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Reformed Worldviews - The Hand of God in History

Many present day historians have tried to understand the reasoning and motives behind the mass migration of English Puritans to North America, but have failed to realize the important role played by these Puritan's faith in God.  To the Puritan "man's chief end (or purpose in life) was to glorify God and enjoy Him forever", and his "only comfort in life and death was that he did not belong unto himself, but unto his faithful Saviour, Jesus Christ."   Without understanding this aspect of the Puritan mind-set, we cannot begin to understand why these English speaking white man began settling our North American continent.    Sincere godliness was at the foundation of the 'push' and  'pull' factors whereby the Puritans were convinced that God wanted them to leave their homeland for a new land which He had prepared. These Puritans did not want to leave their native shores but rather were driven from them by the conviction that ungodly England held little future for their families and the truth and were propelled by their sense of Divine calling and mission.

The Puritans were not unaware of the many costs and hazards that they would face in carrying out this mission and thus, for the most part, had no romantic dream that impelled them to leave their homeland.  They were not ignorant of the fact that large numbers of the early settlers would probably meet with death within the first years of the colony.  They were well aware of the fact that Sir Walter Raleigh's colony of a few years earlier had resulted in complete failure, with only a few people surviving.  They were aware of how big a gamble that this new enterprise was, and of the work that would be involved in setting up political and legal systems.

The leader of the migration was a justice of the peace by the name of John Winthrop. Upon departure, Winthrop and company assured their friends remaining in England that they fully realized the kind and the magnitude of afflictions they would face. In an address called their "Humble Request" they looked into the near future when they would be in their "poor cottages in the wilderness, over shadowed with the spirit of supplication, through the manifold necessities and tribulations which may not altogether unexpectedly... befall us." Also in this same address those aboard the Arbella including Winthrop made it clear that they could not part from their native country where the church of England "specially resideth, without much sadness of heart, and many tears in [their] eyes."

One author notes in Vexed and Troubled Englishmen that in 1642 when "hopes were renewed for a brighter religious and political future in Old England... the Puritans suddenly stopped crossing the ocean." Thus we can see that the driving force  motivating the migration was the Puritan conviction that ungodly England held little future for their families and their religion.

The Puritans began increasingly to fear that England would return to the Roman Catholic Church as the Counter Reformation grew in strength under the first two Tudor kings.  Their fear was not totally ungrounded.  From the year 1601 when James I of England ascended the throne, things gradually became bleak for the Puritans as a more ceremonial religion returned to many aspects of church life. The monarchy no longer promoted Puritan ideas and, therefore, the only voice that Puritans had to promote a more complete reformation of the Church of England was Parliament.

With the crowning of James' son Charles I, Puritan fears were by no means reduced.  His marriage to a Spanish Roman Catholic princess was his first indication to the Puritans of his unwillingness to please them.  Puritan fear grew as Charles began to act more arbitrarily and to listen less to the largely Puritan Parliament.  Many of the Puritans not only began to lose hope of England ever becoming the 'Reformed' country they had dreamed of, but they also saw that religious conformity to a more ceremonial brand of Protestantism was drawing near.  The Puritans felt they could never accept this blend of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.

The effect that these political conditions had on the Puritan migration, was increased with the dissolving of Parliament in March of 1629 by king Charles I, one month before the first ship sailed to Massachusetts Bay.  From the dismissal of Parliament in 1629 till the calling of parliament in 1642 about 30,000 thousand Puritans crossed the Atlantic. Yet we see a sudden stop to Puritans crossing the ocean with the calling of the long Parliament in 1642.5

However Puritan discontent reached a climax when Archbishop Laud, with the consent of Charles, began to persecute the Puritans by forcing conformity to all forms of church ceremony and The Common Prayer Book.  Not till then did the Counter Reformation fears actually become real threats to the Puritan's personal religious worship.  Numerous  Puritan ministers had to stand trial before the Star Chamber for refusing to conform to the highly defined laws of the church and some received physical abuse and jail terms.

The moral degeneration of the English people was also an important 'push' factor. The half-century after 1590 was a time of profound, unprecedented, and often frightening social ferment for the people of England. Puritans like John Winthrop were disturbed by the 'common corruption's' of "this land of sin," and the judgements that would be brought about because of them.  They complained about the prevalence of such sins as blasphemy, fraud, drunkenness, prostitution, sexual promiscuity and idleness in the streets.  So desperate were many Englishmen, that they were ready to listen to suggestions that they leave the country and sail westward where the land seemed bright.  It is understandable that the Puritans felt despairing and were distracted by the morally degenerated society, especially if one considers the personal piety they strove for within themselves. After all, had not Christ their Saviour said to his disciples while on earth "when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another?"

As the first seven hundred immigrants of the English Puritan exodus made their way across the Atlantic to New England, John Winthrop, their newly elected Governor, reminded his followers that the primary reason for leaving their native soil was a desire to fulfil the Lord's will and improve their religious environment by founding a new godly society. This desire to improve their godliness was always in the heart of Puritans, yet it is only when opposition was at its peak that they left for New England in significant numbers. Therefore the 'push' and 'pull' factors were not merely based on a dream by Winthrop of a Puritan 'Utopia' or a perfect society as some maintain, but rather, that Winthrop and his followers left  England in order "to improve their lives" by fleeing persecution and "to serve the Lord better" by leaving behind them the sinful environment of the socially fermenting England.

Feeling that God was departing from England, Puritans were also 'pulled' by a faith that God was leading them from England to a promised land.  They increasingly saw themselves to be like unto the Children of Israel in the Old Testament who had been oppressed by the Egyptians.  And when Winthrop was chosen as leader of the exodus they immediately took him to be a Moses to lead his people into the promised land.

The Puritan historian Cotton Mather writes that this refuge seeking company would have never given up so much material wealth and faced so many hazards had not their hearts been inclined by "a strange and strong impression from Heaven".  These settlers of New England would never have had the courage and the desire to risk so much without the unquestioning faith they had in their calling and mission from God.  Many Puritans left "merely on Account of Pure and Undefiled Religion, not knowing how they should have their Daily Bread, but trusting in God for that." The following exhortation to this faith, taken from Winthrop's discourse written on board the Arbella under the title A Model of Christian Charity, gives us a real sense of their unquestioning confidence.

The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us as His own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, and power, goodness and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with.  We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, "the Lord make it like NEW ENGLAND."

It is the assured confidence that we see here expressed that filled them with the great zeal to go forward not knowing whither they went.  This faith in God gave these pilgrims a hope when the way before them appeared hopeless.  Thus it is clear that the Puritan faith was the vital force responsible for both 'pushing' and 'pulling these Englishmen to the New England colonies.  Had the Puritans not possessed an assured trust in God they would not have responded to the gloomy conditions in England with the under taking of such a zealous mission.  And so filled were these Pilgrims with the longing after the heavenly country of their God that they were willing to surrender every comfort of England in order to secure their entrance.

John Heikoop is the principal of Rehoboth Christian School in Norwich, Ontario.  He attends the Netherlands Reformed Church in Norwich, ON, Canada.



1 Palfrey, John., History of New England Vol.1 (Boston, 1858)  page 312.

2 Ibid., p. 312.

3 Bridenbaugh, Carl., Vexed and Troubled Englishmen, 1590-1642 (New  York, 1968), p. 472-473.

4 Notestein, Wallace., The English People on the Eve of  Colonization (New York, 1954) p. 264.

5 Bridenbaugh, Carl., Vexed and Troubled Englishmen, 1590-1642, I,  p. 472-473.

6 Ibid., p. 355.

7 Ibid., chapter 10.

8 Rutman, Parrett. Winthrop's Boston (Raleigh, N.C., 1965) p. 5.

9 Bridenbaugh, Carl., Vexed and Troubled Englishmen, 1590-1642, I,  p. 273.

10 Matthew 10: 24a (KJV.)

11 Winthrop, John., A Model of Christian Charity  in The Norton Anthology of American Literature Vol.1 (New York, 1985) p. 48.

12 Ecclesiastes 12: 13 (KJV.)

13 Rutman, Parrett. Winthrop's Boston, I, p. 21.

14 Bridenbaugh, Carl., Vexed and Troubled Englishmen, 1590-1642, I,  p. 450.

15 Ibid., p. 439.

16 Ibid., p. 472.

17 Ibid., p. 460.

18 Winthrop, John., A Model of Christian Charity, I, p. 49.