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Pilgrims and Puritans

Bill Benson

November 26, 2020

The first people to live in eastern Massachusetts were the Native Americans. A tribe called the Wampanoags lived on that rocky coast for perhaps 10,000 years.

The Mayflower arrived at Plymouth Harbor on Nov. 11, 1620, and aboard that ship were about 35 people who belonged to a small but extreme religious faction called the Pilgrims.

These were Separatists, Englishmen and women who chose to illegally separate themselves from the Church of England. If not for the Wampanoags, more Pilgrims would have starved that first winter.

A third group arrived in eastern Massachusetts, in 1630. Called the Puritans and led by Jonathan Winthrop, this religious faction settled 40 miles north of Plymouth, at Boston. These Puritans chose to remain within the Church of England and purify it from within, rather than separate from it.

The Puritans wanted to remove all traces of the Catholic Church from England’s Anglican Church: services spoken in Latin, a priests’ vestments and fine clothing, and elaborate churches with shrines and statues. Instead, the Puritans believed in simplicity and plainness in their worship and churches.

Roger Williams and his wife Mary arrived in Boston on February 5, 1631, part of the Great Puritan Migration to what became a New England. Winthrop had known Williams back in old England and considered him a young Puritan minister, one of their own.

Winthrop and the other Puritans leaders offered Roger a prime position as Teacher in the Boston church. Imagine their shock when Roger turned them down. He said that first the Puritans had to renounce all association with the Anglican Church, and beg God for forgiveness forbeing Anglicans.

After quizzing Roger, the Puritans discovered he had converted to Separatism.

Roger though took the principle of Separatism to an extreme degree, far further than did the Pilgrims. He permitted people to worship as they please, the idea of liberty of conscience, but he did not want to join in worship, in the same room, with any others who did not believe as he believed.

He went so far as to refuse to pray—an act of worship—before his meals, with his wife Mary.

After months of debate, the Puritans banished this ultimate Separatist, Roger Williams, who fled to Narragansett Bay, where he established a new colony, Providence at Rhode Island.

This early colonial American history demonstrates how ideologies change over time. In America, the Native Americans’ religion yielded to England’s Christian faith. Out of the ancient Israelites’ Old Testament faith came the Christian faith that Europe adopted in the form of the Catholic church.

Reformers of the 16th century, like England’s King Henry VIII, split apart from the Catholic Church. Then, the Puritans sought to reform the Church of England from within, but the Separatists, like William Bradford and Roger Williams, wanted to institute a new and purer church.

Confusing it is, but most ideologies change over time. A challenge to the ideology arises, and the ideology can respond in one of three ways: 1) disapprove and avoid any change, 2) compromise with the change, or 3) separate from the change and begin a new thought, a new school of thinking.

Hegel, Engels, and Karl Marx, described a “dialectic method,” as a means to seek truth. First, present a thesis, then submit a contradictory thought called an antithesis, and then propose a synthesis.

Socrates pursued truth in like manner. “He states a proposition, finds a contradiction to it, and, correcting it in the light of this contradiction, finds a new contradiction. This continues indefinitely.”

In most cultural arenas—in religion, politics, literature, science, music, etc.—there are schools of thought, then a contradictory school, and then either a melting together or a further splintering apart of the several schools. Branches can join together to form a single river, or they can split into streams.

For example, in music, there is classical, big band, hymns, rock, country, disco, rap, bebop, or a host of others. Sometimes one music style remains solitary, but at other times, it will borrow from another.

All of this change in ideology can confuse and disorient the wisest people. How to keep it all straight? What to believe? How to identify the truth? What school of thought creates the greater good?

In politics and religion, the sponsors of one school dislike those of another, and vice versa. Liberal vs. conservative. Fights commence, battles erupt, and wars drag out. When the smoke clears, one ideology will claim a win, but only temporary, until the next challenge.

No matter the ideology that our minds might subscribe to at a given point in time, our natural bodies still demand food at regular hours every day. It is then that we, like the Pilgrims, set aside the ideology and for a moment feel grateful and thankful.

Have a great Thanksgiving this week!