Pilgrims and Puritans—Who Were They?
ON THE North American seashore at Plymouth, Massachusetts, lies a large granite stone with the number 1620 carved on its surface. Called Plymouth Rock, it is widely believed to be close to the place where a group of Europeans landed almost 400 years ago. You may know them as the Pilgrims or the Pilgrim Fathers.
Many know the stories of the hospitable Pilgrims inviting their Native American friends to rich harvest meals. But who were the Pilgrims, and why did they come to North America? For answers, let us go back to the time of the English King Henry VIII.
Religious Upheavals in England
Less than 100 years before the Pilgrims set sail, England was a Roman Catholic land and King Henry VIII held the papal title Defender of the Faith. But a breach developed when Pope Clement VII refused to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, the first of the king’s six wives.
While Henry pondered his domestic problems, the Protestant Reformation was causing upheaval in the Roman Catholic Church throughout much of Europe. Reluctant to lose the prestige that the church gave him, Henry at first kept the Reformers out of England. Then he changed his mind. The Catholic Church would not annul his marriage, so Henry would, in effect, annul the church. In 1534 he severed the pope’s control over English Catholics and had himself declared supreme head of the Church of England. Soon he was closing monasteries and selling their vast properties. When Henry died in 1547, England was becoming a Protestant nation.
Henry’s son Edward VI maintained the break with Rome. After Edward’s death in 1553, Mary, Henry’s Roman Catholic daughter by Catherine of Aragon, became queen and thereafter tried to make the nation submit to papal authority. She forced many Protestants into exile and had over 300 people burned at the stake, earning herself the name Bloody Mary. But she could not hold back the tide of change. Mary died in 1558, and her successor and half sister, Elizabeth I, made sure that henceforth the pope would have little say in English religious life.
Some Protestants, however, felt that mere separation from the Church of Rome was not enough—all vestiges of Roman Catholicism had to be removed. They wanted to purify the worship of the church, so they were called Puritans. Some Puritans saw no need for bishops and felt that each congregation should govern itself, separate from the national church. They were called Separatists.
The contentious Puritans came into the open during Elizabeth’s reign. The relaxed dress of some clergymen irked the queen, and in 1564 she commanded the Archbishop of Canterbury to hold them to a dress code. Foreseeing a return to the vestments of Catholic priests, the Puritans refused to obey. More controversy arose over the old hierarchy of bishops and archbishops. Elizabeth retained the bishops and required that they swear allegiance to her as head of the church.
From Separatists to Pilgrims
James I succeeded Elizabeth in 1603, and he put great pressure on the Separatists to submit to his authority. In 1608 a Separatist congregation in the town of Scrooby fled to Holland for the freedom offered in that country. In time, however, Dutch tolerance of other religions and loose morals made the Separatists less at ease there than they had been in England. They decided to leave Europe and take up life in North America. The willingness of this group of Separatists to travel far from home for the sake of their beliefs led in time to their being known as the Pilgrims.
The Pilgrims, which included many Separatists, obtained permission to settle in the British colony of Virginia and embarked for North America in September 1620 on a ship called the Mayflower. Approximately 100 adults and children spent two stormy months on the North Atlantic Ocean before arriving at Cape Cod, hundreds of miles north of Virginia. There they wrote the Mayflower Compact, a document that stated their desire to establish a community and submit to its laws. They settled at nearby Plymouth on December 21, 1620.
Starting Life in the New World
The refugees arrived in North America unprepared for winter. Within months, half the group died. With spring, though, came relief. The survivors built adequate houses and learned from the Native Americans how to grow indigenous food crops. By the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims were so prosperous that they set aside time to thank God for his blessing. From that occasion developed the Thanksgiving holiday now celebrated in the United States and other places. More immigrants arrived, so that in less than 15 years, the population at Plymouth surpassed 2,000.
Meanwhile, in England some Puritans also decided, as the Separatists had, that their “Promised Land” lay across the Atlantic. In 1630 a group of them arrived at a point north of Plymouth and established the Massachusetts Bay Colony. By 1640 about 20,000 English immigrants were living in New England. After the Massachusetts Bay Colony absorbed Plymouth in 1691, the Separatist Pilgrims were no longer so separate. Boston became the spiritual hub for the region, as the Puritans now dominated New England religious life. How did they carry out their worship?
The Puritans’ Worship
The Puritans in the New World first built wooden meetinghouses in which they gathered on Sunday mornings. Conditions inside were endurable in good weather, but winter services tested the forbearance of even the flintiest of the Puritans. The meetinghouses were not heated, and the shivering faithful were soon freezing. The preachers often wore mittens to protect their gesticulating hands from the frigid inside air.
The Puritans based their beliefs on the teachings of the French Protestant Reformer John Calvin. They embraced predestination and held that God had foreordained which humans he would save and which he would damn to eternal hellfire. No matter what people did, they could not change their standing before God. A person did not know if at death he would enjoy heaven’s gentle breezes or burn like a lampwick forever.
In time, Puritan ministers began preaching repentance. They warned that although God was merciful, those who disobeyed his laws were going straight to hell. Those preachers stoked the inferno’s fires, keeping them hot, in order to hold the people in line. An 18th-century preacher named Jonathan Edwards once spoke on the subject “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” His descriptions of the abyss were so frightening that other clergymen had to give emotional help to the distraught congregation who heard that sermon.
Evangelizers from outside Massachusetts who preached there did so at their peril. The authorities banished a Quaker preacher named Mary Dyer three times; but each time, she returned and kept voicing her views. They hanged her in Boston on June 1, 1660. Phillip Ratcliffe apparently forgot the zeal with which the Puritan leaders handled opposers. For his speeches against the government and against the church of Salem, they had him whipped and fined. Then, to help him not to forget, they cut his ears off before sending him away. Puritan intolerance drove people out of Massachusetts and contributed to the growth of other colonies.
Arrogance Brings Violence
Considering themselves to be the “elect” of God, many Puritans viewed the native peoples as subhuman squatters on the land. This attitude created resentment, and some natives began making attacks. So the Puritan leaders relaxed laws involving the Sabbath enough to allow men to carry guns on the way to worship. Then, in 1675, things got worse.
Seeing the loss of his people’s territory, Metacomet, also known as King Philip, of the Wampanoag American Indians started raiding Puritan settlements, burning down houses, and massacring settlers. The Puritans retaliated, and the fighting went on for months. In August 1676, the Puritans captured Philip in Rhode Island. They beheaded him and had his body drawn and quartered. Thus ended King Philip’s War and independent life for the native peoples of New England.
During the 18th century, Puritan zeal found a new outlet. Some ministers in Massachusetts decried English rule and helped to kindle a desire for independence. They mixed politics and religion into their discussions of revolution.
The Puritans were often hardworking, courageous, and devoted to their religion. People still speak of “Puritan character” and “Puritan honesty.” But sincerity alone does not purify someone of wrong teachings. The mixing of politics and religion is something that Jesus Christ avoided. (John 6:15; 18:36) And brutality is a contradiction of this vital truth: “He that does not love has not come to know God, because God is love.”—1 John 4:8.
Does your religion teach hellfire, predestination, or other unbiblical doctrines? Do your religious leaders get involved in political campaigns? A sincere study of God’s Word, the Bible, will help you to find “the form of worship that is clean and undefiled,” truly pure and acceptable to God.—James 1:27.
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THE PURITANS AND HELLFIRE
By preaching hellfire, the Puritans contradicted God’s Word. The Bible teaches that the dead are unconscious, unable to feel pain or pleasure. (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10) Moreover, the true God never had ideas of torture ‘come up into his heart.’ (Jeremiah 19:5; 1 John 4:8) He entreats people to change their lives, and he deals with unrepentant wrongdoers in a humane way. (Ezekiel 33:11) Contrary to these Scriptural truths, Puritan preachers often painted God as cruel and vindictive. They also promoted a heartless view of life that included the use of force to silence opposers.
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Pilgrims landing in North America, 1620
Harper’s Encyclopædia of United States History
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Celebrating the first Thanksgiving, 1621
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Puritan meetinghouse, Massachusetts
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Armed Puritan couple on their way to church
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Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division
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Top left: Snark/Art Resource, NY; top right: Harper’s Encyclopædia of United States History; John Calvin: Portrait in Paul Henry’s Life of Calvin, from the book The History of Protestantism (Vol. II); Jonathan Edwards: Dictionary of American Portraits/Dover
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Photos: North Wind Picture Archives