Massachusetts was first settled by English Pilgrims (see Pilgrims and Puritans). Dissatisfied with the strictures of the Church of England, these Separatists migrated to Holland in 1608–09. Fearing loss of their English identity, in 1617 a group committed themselves to moving to America. Receiving a land patent from the London Company, 41 Pilgrims and 61 other English settlers set off for America aboard the Mayflower and made landfall in November 1620 at Plymouth Bay, owing to an error in navigation. Without authorization to form a civil government but too late in the season to continue voyaging, the Pilgrim leaders signed the Mayflower Compact, establishing an agreement for “the generall good of the Colonie.” Through years of hardship, the Plymouth Colony was sustained by the leadership of William Bradford who served as the colony’s governor between 1622 and 1656 (excepting 1633–34, 1636, 1638, and 1644). Limited economic opportunities kept immigration small. After 20 years the population was still only about 2,500.
Whereas the Pilgrims of Plymouth had removed themselves from the Church of England, the Puritans who settled north of Plymouth sought to purify the church from within. The Puritan settlement of Boston, some 40 miles north, was more prosperous than Plymouth and was the center of the Massachusetts Bay colony. In 1629, John Winthrop and a group of wealthy Puritans who had become convinced that reform of the Church of England was impossible, secured a charter from King Charles I. Curiously omitting the standard requirement stipulating where meetings of the joint-stock company were to be held, the charter enabled the 12 associates to move to America where they could settle with little royal interference. The Arbella carrying Winthrop and other Puritan leaders was one of 17 ships carrying more than 1,000 settlers in March 1630. By the early 1640s, the Great Migration had brought about 20,000 settlers, less than one-third the total number of Britons coming to the New World but enough to make Massachusetts Bay the largest colony on the northern Atlantic seaboard. Although immigrants came for many reasons, religion played a larger role in New England than in other colonial regions. Population pressure and religious dissent eventually spawned three colonies from the Boston center that lasted to the American Revolution: New Hampshire colony, Connecticut colony, and Rhode Island colony. In 1691, the Pilgrim colony at Plymouth, with a population of only about 7,000, was absorbed into the Massachusetts Bay colony. By the time of the American Revolution, in the 1770s, the New England colonies remained the most British in ethnic character, though a small number of French Huguenots (see Huguenot immigration) did rise to prominence there in the 18th century.
Massachusetts Bay was not governed as a theocracy, as is sometimes portrayed. Church members did have responsibilities for disciplining their members and choosing ministers, but church membership was voluntary. In 1631, all adult male church members were declared freemen, giving some 40 percent of the adult male population the right to vote for governor, magistrates, and local officials. The Puritans viewed their form of society as an experiment, a “city on a hill,” providing an example of godly living. Immigrants were urged to go forth “with a publicke spirit, looking not on your owne things only, but also on the things of others.” Town life predominated, with men and women voluntarily covenanting to follow local ordinances. A small amount of land was provided free to each family, though all were expected to pay local and colony taxes, and to contribute in support of the minister. Eventually the Puritans developed a church structure known as Congregationalism in which each village church was independent, with members agreed in “the presence of God to walk together in all his ways.” Ministers were influential but were not always listened to and could not hold civil office.