Pilgrims Versus Puritans


Are your students clear about the difference between Pilgrims and Puritans? Understanding the differences between the two is important because they form the foundations of New England—without the differences between Pilgrims and Puritans, today’s northeastern states wouldn’t look the way they do. In fact, county lines in Massachusetts are drawn from the original border between territories of Pilgrims and Puritans.

Understanding the difference between Pilgrims and Puritans also help us understand other historical events. For instance, there’s the famous Puritan Cotton Mather, who wrote a number of influential books and treatises at the beginning of American history. His religious views impacted his writing and the predominate theories of his time, including views of witchcraft. Without Cotton Mather’s writings, the Salem Witch Trials might have taken a different turn.

The Pilgrims and the Puritans were both religious and political groups. Depending on your curriculum, you may want to go more deeply into these and related issues. If you’re taking advantage of a new slant on Thanksgiving, the background information below may be sufficient.

The Pilgrims

A good starting point is the lesson plan The Voyage of the Mayflower, which is designed to teach students about Pilgrims. Explain to students that during the 1500s, Henry VIII of England broke from the Roman Catholic Church and created a new church called the Church of England, today often called the Anglican Church. Since the head of the church was the king, everyone in England was required to belong to the Church of England. It was a hard time for Catholics in England, but it was also a hard time for some Protestants. Some groups didn’t believe that the king should be the head of a church and didn’t like the ways in which it resembled the Catholic Church.

One group was called the Separatists, and this group included the people whom we call the Pilgrims today. Under the leadership of William Bradford, the Pilgrims set sail on the Mayflower in September 1620 towards Virginia but ended up in Massachusetts and formed Plymouth Colony. Pilgrims believed that anyone could commune with God on their own terms by reading the Bible and they did not want to belong to the Church of England.

The Puritans

Another group was known as Puritans. The Puritans did not want to separate entirely from the Church of England; they wanted to make reforms or changes. King Charles I threatened the Puritans with harsh punishments if they did not conform to the views of the Church of England; therefore, they sought freedom in America. The Puritans received a charter from the Massachusetts Bay Company to settle land in New England. John Winthrop led approximately 1,000 Puritans to America and established the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The colonists wanted to base the colony on the laws of God. They believed that God would protect them if they obeyed his laws. Winthrop wanted to make this colony a model for all other colonies to follow. Like the other colonies, the Massachusetts Bay Colony established a government. All men who were church members were able to vote for governor and for representatives to the General Court. The General Court would then make laws for the good of the colony.

Lesson Plan

Tape large sheets of paper on two different walls. Label one “Puritans” and one “Pilgrims.” Pass out markers of one color and ask students to write as many facts as they can on the two sheets before beginning any research.

Watch this video and have students complete this worksheet. The resources below will help students fully understand the two groups.

Once students have completed the exercise, revisit the sheets of paper. Give out a different color of markers and have students cross out false information and add new information.


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