IN March 1629, Charles I abruptly dismissed a rancorous Parliament and embarked on an era of personal rule. For Puritans throughout England, the royal decision signaled the defeat of the forces of reformation. Nervous about the future of their country, many of these disenchanted men now began to consider the possibility of departing, from their native land to erect a godly commonwealth in America. As they projected their hopes to the lands beyond the Atlantic Ocean, the vision of the New World captivated their imaginations and excited their minds. Influenced by promotional literature and inner expectations rather than by concrete experience, the Puritan colonizers articulated their notions of America in ambiguous language. The wilderness continent meant different things to different people, and Puritan views of America ranged from a paradise to a wasteland.
Separating the vision from the reality lay the Atlantic Ocean. This vast sea played a dual role in the formation of New England society. It led the colonists into new realms of experience and, at the same time, sealed them off from the familiar world of the English countryside. Thus as a channel and as a barrier the Atlantic influenced the colonial mind from the beginning of settlement and figured prominently in the Puritans' quest for identity in New England.
The European vision of America, nevertheless, provided limited preparation for the initial contacts with the virgin continent. When confronted by the wilderness, the Puritans' ambiguous notions of the New World produced contradictory