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I n 1608 a group of Puritan separatists, attempting to escape religious persecution, fled England for the Netherlands. They remained there until 1620, but, fearing that they were losing their cultural identity, they decided to settle in Delaware in the New World. A mixed group of Puritan emigrants (the "Pilgrims") and adventurers from England sailed to America on the Mayflower and landed, accidentally, on Cape Cod in November 1620. Within five months half of the original 101 colonists were dead. During the course of the early seventeenth century, however, increasing numbers of immigrants, many but by no means all of them Puritans, managed to establish a group of autonomous North American colonies, including Plymouth (1620), Massachusetts (1628), New Hampshire (1629), Connecticut (1633), Maine (1635), Rhode Island (1636), and New Haven (1638). Like their counterparts in Britain they were extreme Calvinistic Protestants who viewed the Reformation as a victory of true Christianity over Roman Catholicism. They believed that the Universe was God- centered, and that man, inherently sinful and corrupt, rescued from damnation (if indeed he was) only by arbitrary divine grace, was duty-bound to do God's will, which he could understand best by studying the Bible and the universe which God had created and which he controlled.

Their isolation in the New World, their introversion, the harshness and dangers of their new existence, their sense that they were a new Chosen People of God destined to found a New Jerusalem -- a New City of God in the midst of the wilderness -- insured that American Puritanism would remain more severe (and, frequently, more intellectually subtle and rigorous) than that which they had left behind. The American Puritan tended to interpret the Bible, which had supreme literary value because it was the perfect word of God, even more literally than did his British counterparts. Though many of the original American Puritans -- many of whom were both preachers and authors -- had attended English Universities, they tended to form religious oligarchies and sought to establish a purified church -- which meant the frequently harsh imposition of religious uniformity upon an unwilling populace.

It was to escape Puritan religious persecution that Roger Williams, a minister from Salem, established his colony in Rhode Island in 1636. The overt remnants of Puritanism did not die out in New England until well into the nineteenth century, and it echoes in American society today. In coming to the New World in the first place, Puritans altered the course of history, for better or for worse. There were approximately 4,000,000 English- speaking people in the entire world in 1603: less than four centuries later there are over seventy-five times that number.

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Last modified 1988; link last added 29 December 2009