Thanksgiving in America celebrates the first arrival of a band of Puritans in the New World in 1620, having survived an arduous sea passage from England in a vessel called The Mayflower.

These Pilgrim Fathers had a distinct ambition of founding a godly kingdom on earth, away from the profane society which – in their eyes - the Church of England tolerated.

Departure of the ‘Mayflower’, 1620; British School.  Photo credit: Southampton City Art Gallery

Puritans needed to band together with other ‘godly’ people to stiffen their resolve against temptation. They sought to fortify their own individual bond or ‘covenant’ with God by making a communal bond.  According to theologian Richard Rogers, who wrote an early Puritan book called “Seven Treatises” (published in 1603), it was necessary to form into groups “for our reprooving, exhorting, and comforting one another”.

From this notion grew the idea of having closed, ‘restricted’ or ‘particular’ congregations. In English society, the Anglican parish church had to be open to everyone within its boundaries; the church was a cornerstone of governance and a vehicle of social control.  But Puritans were not happy to be lumped together with bawdy, swearing, lewd people who made no effort to improve themselves.  They formed closed groups, from which persistent sinners could be expelled.

Puritans exhorted one another to keep a diary – a daily record of their personal failings and struggles against temptation - in the hope of seeing a gradual elevation of moral standards through prayer and penance.  They aimed to forge bonds with others doing the same.

Boston: Pilgrim Fathers aboard the Mayflower (British Railways Poster Artwork) by Lance Cattermole (1898-1992).  Photo credit: National Railway Museum/Science and Society Picture Library

Reading extracts from Puritan diaries, it’s easy to see how they struggled against their own fun-loving drives and desires.

In “Religious Experiencia”, Mayflower Pilgrim John Winthrop describes making a resolution to be a better man:

“ …My heart beganne to breake, and my worldly delights which had heald my heart in such slaverye before, beganne to be distastefull and of meane account with me, I concluded with prayer in teares; and so to my family exercise, and then to Churche, my heart beinge still somewhat humbled under Gods hand, yet could not get at libertie from my vaine pleasures.”


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