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Faith: A lesson about the Puritans and Pilgrims

There were differences between the two groups, just as there are differences between Christians now.

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At the two-room country schoolhouse in the middle of the Nebraska Sandhills, November meant the making of construction-paper turkeys, paper pilgrim hats with a buckle on the front and white construction-paper bonnets. So this is as good of a time to think about how we understand what we learned as children as any.

We all know that the first Thanksgiving took place in the fall of 1621. We may also remember that the people were called Pilgrims, though they never called themselves that—the term was coined around 1800. In England, where they originated, they were disparagingly called separatists. Prior to coming to the New World, they were English citizens. Every British citizen was required to attend the Church of England, but the separatists, heavily influenced by the Protestant reformers like Luther and Calvin, began to worship in secret. If they were discovered, their livelihoods would be stripped from them. Rather than going against their religious understanding, they made the move to the New World, where they founded Plymouth Colony in 1620.

They landed in December, and approximately half of the 102 people who landed perished the first winter. Illness especially affected the women, and about 78% of the women died. Only just over 50 colonists attended the first Thanksgiving, including 22 men, four married women, and more than 25 children and teenagers. They would have been greatly outnumbered by the members of the Pokanoket Wampanoag people, which numbered over 90 men, who may have also had their female counterparts in attendance.

I was recently in a play called “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller, which is about the Puritan witch trials of 1692-1693. I questioned the difference between a Pilgrim and a Puritan. So who were the Puritans? While the separatists believed the only way to live according to Biblical precepts was to leave the Church of England entirely, the Puritans thought they could reform the church from within. Both shared a form of worship and self-organization as congregationalists. In a congregational church, there is no prayer book, no formal creeds or belief statements, and the head of the church isn’t a pope or king but Jesus Christ as revealed in the scriptures. As an organizing principle, congregational churches make decisions democratically, including the selection of religious leaders. The biggest difference between the separatists and the Puritans is that the Puritans believed they could live out the congregational way in their local churches without abandoning the larger Church of England.

The Puritans ultimately decided to journey to the New World too but not for the same reasons as the separatists. The Puritans saw a favorable investment opportunity by owning land. The Puritans also believed that by being far away from England, they could create the ideal English Church. When the Puritans settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, they arrived in 17 ships carrying more than 1,000 passengers. They came with money and resources. Just 10 years later, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was a Puritan stronghold of 20,000, while humble Plymouth was home to just 2,600 Pilgrims. Plymouth was fully swallowed up just a few decades later.

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Over the passage of time, the Puritans and Pilgrims began to merge together in our understanding. While they both had theological underpinnings in Calvinism, they did have significant differences about how to live as the people of God. There are still significant differences between people who call themselves Christians today. And yet each of us is trying to live out what we understand so that we can live our lives as the people of God. In that, and in all things, we give thanks!

Mark Ford is the pastor at Crosslake Presbyterian Church.

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