During the Thanksgiving Day season it is appropriate to reflect on how this day came about. I am not talking about the nice, sanitized visions of turkeys, corn and peaceful Indians. I am talking about the reason the Pilgrims came to the New World in the first place: religious freedom (sort of). In the present political and religious climate, where certain Christians would like their particular god, religion and morality enshrined in our laws, we should pause and reflect on what happens when one religion gets the upper hand in politics and government.

First a little history. The term “Pilgrim” was not used for the settlers until William Bradford, the governor of the Plymonth Colony, published his Of Plymouth Plantation, but I will use the term here for convenience. Pilgrims were originally a splinter group in the English Separatist Church movement which basically was a radical splinter group of Puritanism which in turn was a splinter group in the Church of England.

Confused? You should be, so let’s take it step by step.

The Church of England (Anglican Church) officially separated from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534. While there were forces, theological and political, that were driving England in this direction, the catalyst was Rome’s refusal to give King Henry VIII a divorce from Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn (Ahhh.. What a King could do for love!) The Wikipedia article on The Church of England has a good summary for those wanting more details. While separated from Rome, the Anglican Church retained many of the theological and ceremonial trappings of Rome, essentially substituting the King of England for the Pope. The Puritans were a group of Protestants within the Anglican Church that were strong Calvinists, disagreeing with much of the doctrine, ceremonial practices, and clerical training of the Church of England; however, they had no desire to leave their mother church. They felt they should work within the Anglican Church to be a force for good and, more importantly, change. They wanted the church to largely conform to their theology and practice. The English Separatist Church was basically a group of Puritan leaning theologies, such as Adamites, Anabaptist, Barrowists, Brownists, Diggers, & Sabbatarians (English Dissenters from Wikipedia, English Dissenters from ExLibris), that recognized that the Anglican Church was not going to change and adopt to their theology and ways. In a sense, they were even more radical than the Puritans, advocating separation and distance from their Church of England “brethren.” A summary of the Pilgrim Calvinistic beliefs can be found here: Religious Beliefs of the Pilgrims.

The story is, as we have all heard it, that the Pilgrims came to the New World in pursuit of religious freedom – the freedom to practice their brand of Christianity without fear of persecution or even death. Like many stories, there is some true to this one.

The Church of England was not only the official church of England, it was the only correct church. As such, it had the full weight of the government behind it and the government (aka the King) was also the head of the church. Thus church doctrine and government mixed, in a way that some Christians in the United States would love to have happen today. Of course, it is one thing to have a government-sponsored church IF your particular belief system is aligned with it. It is quite another, though, if you happen to disagree with the official state religion. In that case, you aren’t only disagreeing with the church, you are going against the state itself. Such was the case in England.

For example, Church attendance was mandatory and you were fined for failing to attend and fines were also leaved for unofficial services and preaching, which could also lead to imprisonment. The Book of Common Prayer had to be used in worship. For the crime of sedition, the death penalty was imposed (1559 Act of Uniformity, Full Text). Two men that influenced the Pilgrims, Henry Barrowe and John Greenwood were executed in 1593 for sedition.

The mixture of church and government can be explosive, so the fears of the English Dissenters were not unfounded. They originally fled to Holland, which was more religiously liberal than England, but was culturally very different. Afraid of losing their cultural underpinnings and dismayed by the economic outlook, they decided to go to the New World where they could practice their religion without fear, instill their cultural heritage upon their children and gain some measure of economic success. (See Pilgrim Fathers for a brief overview)

The Pilgrims experience as a persecuted minority and their favorable treatment in Holland (even though they were outsiders) seems to have influenced their relationships with native peoples:

The Pilgrims’ experience of tolerance and accommodation in Holland would greatly influence their encounter with both Native Americans and dissenters. The colonists’ fortuitous meeting with Samoset and Squanto, and their warm relations with the sachem Massasoit, led to a peace treaty with the Wampanoag that would endure for forty years. In contrast to the too-common pattern of European paternalism and mistreatment of native peoples, the Pilgrims respected the inhabitants who, Edward Winslow wrote, “considered themselves caretakers of this land […] owned by none, but held and used with respect by all.” Unlike later Puritans, the Pilgrims did not engage in witch hunts or persecute dissenters. Following John Robinson’s farewell injunction at Delfshaven—that “If God reveal anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as you were to receive any truth from my ministry, for I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from His holy word”—Plymouth would stand as the most liberal and tolerant religious community in the New World. (Pilgrim Fathers).

However, this rosy picture of the peaceful, tolerant Pilgrims is not entirely accurate. While gentler than their Puritan brethren to the north, if a person did not give at least outward adherence to Pilgrim ways they were punished. Worship on Sunday was required. People who were absent could be rounded up and forced to attend. Several ministers including the controversial John Lyford where removed from the community. Freedom of conscience often meant freedom only if you worshiped in the correct manner – the Pilgrim manner! It is well worth reading Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation as you can read the details in Bradford’s own words.

Free copies of this work can be downloaded from American LibrariesProject GutenbergACLS Humanities if you have a University account, and Early America’s Digital Library. In addition various paid editions, some with more modern wording, can be obtained from Amazon.com. A very brief summary, from a religious point of view, can also read at Freedom of Religion in the Myth of the Pilgrims)

The Puritans were even worst and they eventually overtook and engulfed the Pilgrims. As Kenneth Davis said:

The much-ballyhooed arrival of the Pilgrims and Puritans in New England in the early 1600s was indeed a response to persecution that these religious dissenters had experienced in England. But the Puritan fathers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony did not countenance tolerance of opposing religious views. Their “city upon a hill” was a theocracy that brooked no dissent, religious or political. The most famous dissidents within the Puritan community, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, were banished following disagreements over theology and policy. (America’s True History of Religious Tolerance)

Roger Williams was indeed a famous dissident. He was forced to leave the Plymouth colony because, as Governor Bradford said, he fell ”into some strange opinions which caused some controversy between the church and him”. Ideas like concern over the treatment of the Indians as well as some very strict theological issues such as:

”it is not lawful for an unregenerate man to pray, nor to take an oath, and in special not the oath of fidelity to the civil government; nor was it lawful for a godly man to have communion, either in family prayer, or in an oath, with such as they judged unregenerate; also, that it was not lawful so much as to hear the godly ministers of England, when they occasionally went thither.” (Religious Controversies in Plymouth Colony)

Williams moved back to Salem where he was eventually convicted of sedition and heresy. Not to be dismayed by such action he founded the colony of Rhode Island (Providence) in 1636. The Rhode Island charter was based on complete separation of church and state as well as religious tolerance and freedom.

Anne Hutchinson was a woman who challenged the religious authorities at Boston both theologically and because of her gender. She was also convicted and banished from the Colony and eventually joined Williams in Rhode Island. Hutchinson became a symbol of religious tolerance, freedom, courage and women’s rights. The State House in Massachusetts has a monument to here stating that she was a “courageous exponent of civil liberty and religious toleration.”

It is a shame, given the history of Rhode Island, that in 2011 Cranston High School West refused to take down a prayer banner forcing 16 year old Jessica Ahlquist to sue the school and eventually win the case. The way she was treated for standing up for the separation of church and state would have made the Puritan’s proud.  It probably had poor Williams and Hutchinson rolling over in their graves. (Rhode Island town shows ugly side to teenager Jessica Ahlquist)

Both Williams and Hutchinson and the Pilgrim and Puritan Colonies illustrate the importance of the separation of church and state. The importance extends not only to atheists, such as myself, but should also be of prime importance to the religious.

The differences between Williams, Hutchinson, the Pilgrims, and the Puritans were not one of belief vs. unbelief but strong belief vs. strong belief. One person’s clear orthodoxy is another’s heresy. One person’s clear conscience is another’s sin. One person’s religious god enshrined in laws and rules of a government is another’s refusal to bow the knee to obvious wrong.

Those Christians who want their theology and their god promoted in the public square, especially as we enter this Christmas season, should think hard and fast about what they really believe. Do they really want the government to endorse those beliefs Of course they do BUT they should consider this:

What if their particular belief system is not the one in power?

What if Catholic theology ruled, as it once did. Would Protestants feel comfortable with the supposed idolatry and theology that lead to their separation in the first place? What if a Calvinist denomination were to rule and their view of keeping the Sabbath became the rule of the land? What if Mormon theology ruled? Or Islamic? The Founding Fathers were wise in there insistence on keeping church and state separate. Unbelievers as well as believers should promote, encourage and make sure that this separation is maintained. They should fight against those who would like to see their particular theological bent become the rule of the land. Rightly did James Madison say:

”It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure.”  (Federalist Paper 51)

Please join me in supporting the Freedom from Religion Foundation, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, or other like organizations as they fight vigilantly to maintain the separation of church and state.