The Pilgrims were about 100 people who arrived at Cape Cod in what is now Massachusetts in 1620 and became the first permanent European settlers in New England. The Pilgrims were Puritan Separatists from England who believed that the Church of England was hopelessly corrupt and sought the freedom to practice their religion apart from government interference. They established the famous Plymouth Colony upon their arrival in the New World, but their story began nearly a century earlier.
The story of the Pilgrims traces back to the decision by King Henry VIII to seize control of the English church in 1534. The king’s action sparked decades of deadly conflict between Roman Catholics and Protestants. King Edward VI, son of Henry VIII, took the side of the Protestants and continued to drive Catholicism out of England. However, upon his death as a teenager, he was replaced by Mary I, who brutally attempted to reestablish Catholicism as the dominant religion in England. Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth I succeeded her as queen and strove to stabilize Christianity in England. Elizabeth I redesigned the Church of England as a compromise between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, granting it the full backing of the state.
This compromise calmed the fires of religious conflict in England but was not acceptable to everyone. A group of Protestants known as Puritans believed that the Church of England retained too many elements of the Roman Catholic Church. They strongly disagreed with the governance and liturgy of the Church of England. While all the Puritans agreed there was a need to “purify” the Church of England, they attempted to achieve this goal through different methods. Some Puritans chose to operate within the Church of England and work to achieve change from the inside. Others, believing that the Church of England was beyond hope of reform, chose to withdraw and form their own congregations. A group of these Separatists, as they were called, would later come to be known as the Pilgrims. Under English law, it was illegal for the Separatists to practice their faith outside of the Church of England. In 1607 a congregation of Separatists, seeking to escape persecution, moved from England to Holland, which was more religiously tolerant. These Separatists established a successful community in Holland, and for several years were happy with their newfound religious freedom.
However, as the years passed, the Separatists became concerned that their children were becoming secularized and losing their English heritage. They began to face economic struggles and were concerned that their small community would collapse. They could not return to England, where they faced persecution, but they did not believe they could stay in Holland. Therefore, believing that it was the will of God, they consolidated their resources and set sail for North America, purchasing passage aboard the Mayflower. They set out to join the already-established Virginia Colony, but storms and rough seas forced a landing in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where they established the Plymouth Colony. It is worth noting that a sizable portion of the Mayflower’s passengers were not Pilgrims; in order to finance and facilitate the journey and the new settlement, the Pilgrims needed to bring a considerable number of non-Separatist Puritans, indentured servants, and sailors with them.
The Pilgrims were Calvinists and Congregationalists. They were radical Puritans and held mostly Puritan beliefs about God, the Bible, church government, morality, and the world around them. The difference between the Pilgrims and the non-Separatist Puritans who remained in England was their perspective on the Church of England. The Pilgrims were unwilling to compromise with what they believed were the Church of England’s unbiblical doctrines and practices. The Church of England was just as unyielding and had the force of law on their side. The Pilgrims chose to flee persecution and establish a new community, governed by their religious ideals.
As some of the first English settlers in North America, their beliefs and actions had an enormous impact upon the United States of America. Their self-reliance, resistance to authoritarianism, and love of freedom are woven into the American fabric. The Mayflower Compact they drafted laid the foundation for the U. S. Constitution. And their harvest celebration in 1621 set the standard for our modern-day Thanksgiving holiday. “The General Society of Mayflower Descendants has identified more than 82,000 Pilgrim descendants,” including nine American Presidents, astronaut Alan Shepard, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and actor Clint Eastwood (Reid, R. “How much do you know about the Pilgrims and their legacy?” Stars and Stripes, 11/25/15).