The Search For Religious And Political Freedom

During the religious upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries, a body of men and women called Puritans sought to reform the Established Church of England from within. Essentially, they demanded more complete protestantization of the national church and advocated simpler forms of faith and worship. Their reformist ideas, by destroying the unity of the state church, threatened to divide the people and to undermine royal authority.

During the reign of James I, a small group of Separatists - a radical sect, mostly humble country folk who did not believe the Established Church could ever be reformed to their liking - departed for Leyden, Holland, where they were allowed to practice their religion as they wished. Later, some members of this Leyden congregation, who became known as the "Pilgrims," decided to emigrate to the New World, where, in 1620, they founded the colony of Plymouth.

Soon after Charles I ascended the throne in 1625, Puritan leaders in England were subjected to what they viewed as increasing persecution. Several ministers who were no longer allowed to preach joined thc Pilgrims in America, accompanied by their followers. Unlike the earlier emigrants, this second group, which established the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, included many persons of substantial wealth and position. By the end of the next decade, a Puritan stamp had been placed upon a half-dozen English colonies.

For a map of the colonial period click here

But the Puritans were not the only colonists driven by religious motives. Dissatisfaction with their lot in England led William Penn and his fellow Quakers to undertake the founding of Pennsylvania. Similar concern for English Catholics was a factor in Cecil Calvert's founding of Maryland. And in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, many colonists - dissidents from Germany and Ireland - sought greater religious freedom as well as economic opportunity.

Political considerations also influenced many people to move to America. In the 1630s, arbitrary rule by England's Charles I gave impetus to the migration to the New World. And the subsequent revolt and triumph of Charles' opponents under Oliver Cromwell in the 1640s led many cavaliers - "King's men" - to cast their lot in Virginia. In Germany, the oppressive policies of various petty princes, particularly with regard to religion, and the devastation caused by a long series of wars helped swell the movement to America in the late 17th and the 18th centuries.

In some instances, men and women with little active interest in a new life in America were induced to make the move by the skillful persuasion of promoters. William Penn publicized the opportunities awaiting newcomers to the Pennsylvania colony. Ships' captains, who received large rewards from the sale of service contracts of poor migrants, used every method from extravagant promises to actual kidnapping to embark as many passengers as their vessels could hold. Judges and prison authorities were encouraged to offer convicts a chance to migrate to America instead of serving prison sentences.