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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

The Separatists of Plimouth

Updated: May 15, 2022

From my years young in days of youth, God did make known to me his truth, And call'd me from my native place For to enjoy the means of grace. In wilderness he did me guide, And in strange lands for me provide. In fears and wants, through weal and woe, A pilgrim, past I to and fro.

William Bradford, Providence and The Pilgrim

The iconic images of the Pilgrims are inextricably linked to our Thanksgiving traditions in the United States. The group of people who arrived on the shores of Massachusetts in 1620 are often conflated with the other group who settled there, the Puritans. Both groups were dissenters within the established church, but they each had a different approach to religious reform.

The first instance of the word pilgrim is by William Bradford, the first governor of the colony, who would describe his fellow colonists later in his book Of Plimouth Plantation: “So they left that goodly and pleasant city which had been their resting place near twelve years; but they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.” The term Pilgrims as a proper noun, used to signify those who settled in Plymouth colony, first became vogue around 1800. There was a movement by the citizens of Plymouth, Massachusetts to create a Pilgrim Society to help with the annual celebration of the town's founding in 1620. The term gained popularity through the 19th century. The Pilgrims would have referred to themselves as "Saints" and everyone else as "Strangers". They were part of the group collectively known as Separatists (also Dissenters or Brownists).

The Separatists are understood in the broader context of the Reformation. King Henry VIII tapped into the general discontent with the Catholic church when he defied the Vatican who refused his divorce. England broke away from Rome when Henry established the Church of England making the monarch the top religious authority in the country. By the end of the 16th century though, there were many who felt that the reforms of the Anglican church did not go far enough and that the Church of England was essentially Catholicism without the pope. People, discontented with the established state church, sought to create better forms of worship that they felt were closer to the practices of the early Church and to the scriptures of the Bible. Many of these reformers thought it would be better to "purify" the Church from within. These were called Puritans. Around 1605, a smaller group decided that the only choice in attaining a "pure" church was to separate themselves. Hence the name Separatists.

Assisting in the emergence of many of these reform sects was the invention of the printing press. The printing press allowed the Bible to be published in the vernacular of the people rather than in Latin. It also enabled large quantities to be easily produced. This helped make the Bible - the Holy Word - accessible to the common man. People began to question why priests or other clerics were needed. For the Separatists, each person had their own individual relationship with God. The hierarchy of the church, whether it be Catholic or Anglican, prevented a person from developing that relationship. The Separatists, as well as the Puritans, refused to celebrate holidays such as Christmas, Easter, or Saint feast days. Nor did they sing hymns or recite the Lord's Prayer. Such things had no basis in scripture. Services were held twice on Sunday with the focus being on each person's spiritual experience.

Conceptual drawing of William Bradford, early 20th century

The Separatists believed in a social contract that could be regarded as democratic. They thought people coming together as a community or congregation should be able to elect their own leaders, both secular and spiritual, and that they should be able to worship as they saw fit. This attitude of self-governance, as later expressed by the English philosopher John Locke, would be one of the cornerstones of American democracy. At the time though, the Separatists were looked upon with suspicion. It was against English law not to attend the Church of England and acknowledge the authority of the monarchy. Therefore, English Separatist congregations began meeting in secret mainly centered in the north of England.

Under James I, widespread persecutions of dissenters increased. By 1607, the situation in England became intolerable especially for the Separatist congregations. They decided to flee to the Netherlands, and led by such notable men as William Brewster, William Bradford, and Pastor John Robinson, they settled in the city of Leiden.

Leiden skyline, 17th century

The Netherlands was noted for being religiously tolerant, and the Separatists were content to be able to worship as they pleased without interference from the state. Within the decade though, as much as they enjoyed worshiping freely in the open, they grew concerned that their children were losing their "Englishness" and become assimilated more into Dutch culture. Also, being foreigners, they were finding it difficult to obtain work and earn a living. Wanting to retain the culture of their homeland and seeking economic opportunity, the Separatists decided to make the voyage to the American continent. In 1620, they made an agreement with a London stock company who would help finance the trip. Originally two ships were commissioned, the Mayflower and the Speedwell. Before they left, the Speedwell was determined to be unseaworthy, and only the Mayflower would make the voyage. The small band of pilgrim Separatists met up with the Mayflower in Plymouth, England, and in September 1620, they began the journey across the Atlantic.

Mayflower II

Their objective was to be the mouth of the Hudson River, where New York City is now, which at the time was considered the northern boundary of Virginia. Bad weather diverted the small Mayflower to the north of their original destination. They first landed at the tip of Cape Cod near today's Provincetown. They were met with hostile Native inhabitants and made the decision to cross the bay to reach Plymouth Harbor.

They landed at a place known to the local Wampanoag tribe as Patuxet. When the Pilgrims arrived, the small native village had already been abandoned due to a series of epidemics that severely impacted the Native Americans in the region. The Pilgrims thought this was a good place to settle and renamed the place Plimouth. There is no record of the actual landing place. The story of Plymouth Rock, now widely recognized as the traditional spot, was first related by Thomas Faunce. In 1741, Plymouth wanted to rebuild and expand the wharf. A large boulder impeded the effort and was slated to be buried. Before construction could begin, Thomas Faunce, then age 94, proclaimed that his father, who had arrived in the colony in 1623, had assured him that this was the very location upon which the pilgrim forefathers disembarked. The old man made such an impression, the wharf was built around the rock which was left intact.

There were a number of non-Separatist aboard the Mayflower. Since they were no longer technically under the jurisdiction of the Virginia colony, the non-Separatist passengers feared being ruled over by the Separatists. Prior to disembarking at Plymouth, those aboard the Mayflower came together and agreed upon a set of guidelines for self-governance. We call this the Mayflower Compact, and it is one of the earliest expressions of the concept that government is decided upon by the people and not divinely ordained.

"Signing the Mayflower Compact 1620", Jean Leon Gerome Ferris,1899

Once established here in America, the Separatists liked nothing better than to be left alone. Their neighbors, the Puritans who settled in the environs of Boston, were more aggressive. They wanted to make the New World into a the proverbial "city upon the hill". They sought to convert the Native Americans, and believing in divine providence, they actively sought to push inland into new territories. The Separatists had a tenuous peaceful relationship with the indigenous tribes. Within a few decades, though, the relationship between colonists and Native inhabitants would deteriorate into open conflict.

And the stereotypical Pilgrim garb of stovepipe hat with buckle, black clothing, and buckled shoes is almost entirely that of the Puritans. Black was an expensive dye, and the Separatists were not as well off as their Puritan counterparts. They wore mostly earth tones with red and green. The hats were more flat with a wide brim.

Plimouth and Patuxet historic site

It would be towards the end of the 19th century when concerted efforts were made to enshrine the story of the Pilgrims and the idyll of the First Thanksgiving into the national consciousness. Around this time, the United States was seeing an influx of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Nativists were concerned about how these cultures were impacting America. They sought to create an identity around what it meant to be American. They wanted to create a unique American culture. The mythos of the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving would be a key component to this new American identity. Like the ancient Greek city-states and ancient Rome, the United States at the turn of the 20th century found its own origin story in the dissenting Separatists of Plimouth.


Further Reading:

Pilgrims' Progress: Simon Worrall (Smithsonian Magazine)

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