Puritans, Separatists and the Pilgrim Fathers

Gallery of famous 17th-century Puritan theologians: Thomas Gouge, William Bridge, Thomas Manton, John Flavel, Richard Sibbes, Stephen Charnock, William Bates, John Owen, John Howe and Richard Baxter

Gallery of famous 17th-century Puritan theologians: Thomas Gouge, William Bridge, Thomas Manton, John Flavel, Richard Sibbes, Stephen Charnock, William Bates, John Owen, John Howe and Richard Baxter

So we all know the story… bunch of Puritans, bit of religious persecution and New England was born. Right? Wrong. OK, lets unpick this bit of history and see what happens.

Firstly, we have to remember that the Pilgrim Fathers weren’t the first settlers in the new found lands of America. Some conveniently overlook that America had already been successfully colonised in and around Virginia for a good fifteen years before they arrived. The initial Mayflower plan had been an extension of that colony to the North of Jamestown, however through fair means or foul, they landed much further north in the area of Cape Cod, in what is now Provincetown Harbour.

My next concern is the word “pilgrims”. In the contemporary context, the word “Pilgrim” denoted somebody who undertook a journey to a sacred place of religious spiritualism or faith, such as those who went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, or journeyed to a specific shrine or Church – the Shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury was a popular choice in earlier times as an example. It is only in recent years that a second definition has appeared in dictionaries, that of the Pilgrim to denote one of the “Pilgrim Fathers”. Bit naughty methinks, seeing as they weren’t technically going on a “Pilgrimage”, more than they were moving home. It was one of the leaders of the Dutch-settled contingency in

who coined the term some years later to describe as Pilgrims, those Separatists returning to England from Leiden, as the first stage of their subsequent journey to New England, but the term wasn’t actually commonly used in association with the Mayflower voyage until two centuries later.

Finally, lets annihilate the idea that they were victims of religious persecution. OK a few of them might have been, but not as popular legend would have you believe, in the same way that Jews for example were persecuted. The Pilgrims were in fact for the large part religious dissenters or separatists, to the recently established Church of England. And they weren’t Puritans in the truest sense of the word either, for the most part. Let me explain. In late 16th Century England, Queen Elizabeth, keen to foster a model of religious harmony, had made a few tweaks to the religious mess she had been handed when big sister Mary passed away. Her rule of five years wasn’t long, but it was enough to create a fair amount of chaos as far as the Church was concerned. Particularly following the upheaval of the Church by her father, and the following embellishments under their brother’s rule, led by reformers within his close circle.

Firstly, Elizabeth reintroduced Protestantism, the Anglican Church, back into the lead role, having been brought up as such herself. Then she passed Acts of Tolerance, allowing the peaceful worship of other faiths without (much) prejudice. Provided the followers of other faiths went about it quietly, and didn’t use it as a reason to try and dislodge her from her long-awaited place on the throne of England, she was happy to turn a blind eye. Those who had fled under Mary’s rule, were finally able to return from their exile because let’s face it, whilst remaining a staunch Catholic, Mary was still very much her father’s daughter, and wasn’t averse to lighting a few fires under prominent Protestants. It was for their own good, you understand – she was doing the nation a favour after all, bringing them back to the true faith, as was her duty.

John Calvin

John Calvin

Amongst those returning, were Protestant clergy, whose next task was to purify the Anglican Church once more from its Catholic constraints. This led to the later label of Puritanism; a label which is often misinterpreted as to represent the “moral virtue” of its participants. Modern myth has these people as a group of prudes who shunned anything which could be termed “fun” and particularly disapproved of man’s vices such as sex and alcohol. This is somewhat untrue. Moderation was the key, and sex was actively encouraged within the bounds of marriage, as God’s will for procreation (we see examples of this later on, when certain married women were given leave to divorce their husbands for reasons of impotence, refusal to perform and adultery).

Elizabeth also distanced herself somewhat from her father’s grandiose title of “Supreme Head of the Church of England”, and instead demoted herself to a simple “Supreme Governor of the Church of England”, a title which remains to this day for the Monarch. So what else? Well, following some toing and froing in Parliament, and the resulting Act of Uniformity being passed, and with Cecil’s assistance in putting together the 1558/9 Elizabethan Religious Settlement which included the Act of Supremacy 1558, once again distancing the Church from Rome, and the Act of Uniformity 1559, which included structuring the Church and re-establishment of the Book of Common Prayer, things seemed to begin to get back on an even keel. The Pope however disagreed and excommunicated Elizabeth, calling her a heretic, and anybody who worshiped her new Church doctrines, and opened up the door for Catholics to conspire to kill her with God’s blessing. Changes were made to discreetly introduce the Queen’s initiatives, without trampling on the wishes of the Catholics. Mass could be offered, and by wording of the Rubric, the bread could alternatively be seen as the body of the host OR a representation of him, thereby covering transubstantiation, or not. Kneeling was no longer a sign of accepting the same, instead could be viewed as “reverence”.

Huldrych Zwingli

Huldrych Zwingli

The Godly, as they referred to themselves, felt these moves were not enough, but for the most part felt that they could work to introduce further measures more viably by remaining with the Church and working from within. The term Puritan was coined the following year as a derogatory slur on their efforts, and not used by those it included. Some however felt there was no hope of suitable reform, wishing for a completely free slate away from any hint of Catholicism, which the Anglican masses were unlikely to provide. Their solution was to step away entirely from the Church and start again. They referred to themselves as Separatists. Despite the initial opposition to the work of Calvin, with additions of the theories of Zwingli and others, these separatist movements were somewhat Calvinist in certain areas. These separatists, ardent to introduce their own churches and congregations, sprouted up around the country in various small groups, each with features introduced by their leading ministers. It was initially a small number of these groups of dissenters who particularly followed the teachings of Robert Brown, and known as ‘Brownists’, formed the Leiden parties and later the main body of the Mayflower party, although it has been noted that a small group of Puritans, particularly those from the London Company, were also aboard.

In my next post we will be looking at Robert Browne and other Separatists, and how their movements contributed to the decision to leave the shores of England and make a new home in the New World. ER will also be discussing how the Puritan movement in England developed as the seventeenth century wore on.

Phoebe