Pilgrims (Separatist) Background
by Stan Griffin
The actions of Martin Luther sparked the "Protestant Reformation" in 16th century Europe. By the end of that period, Spain and Italy were the only remaining Catholic countries (France was Catholic also, but it allowed a Protestant group called the "Huguenots" to remain.) Germany, Holland, and Scandinavia embraced the beliefs of Protestantism.
In England religious change occurred independently of the Protestant movement. King Henry VIII, in 1534, broke with the Roman Catholic Church because of a dispute with the Pope. He declared himself to be the supreme head of the Church of England (also called the Anglican Church).
Henry cared nothing about religious freedom. He required all people to be church
members and to
believe what its clergy told them. Monarchs who followed him continued this principle of government-controlled churches.
As the 16th century ended, the clergy in England was divided. Those in higher offices conformed to the dictates of the king or queen. However, in country parishes, there was additional independence as ministers followed more liberal doctrine. They hoped that they could continue their practices unnoticed and unbothered.
A tiny settlement named Scrooby, on the road between London and the Scottish border, became the birthplace of a Dissenting (Separatist) church. It was organized by a small group including William Brewster in (approximately) 1605. Brewster became its ruling Elder, and John Clyfton was their pastor. Membership at its largest ranged from an estimated 40-50 worshippers.
Fifteen years later, William Bradford (another important leader) used the word which would become their historic name when he wrote: "... but they knew that they were pilgrims... (and) lifted up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits."
Among other things, the Pilgrims felt that the Anglicans had retained a number of Roman Catholic elements that should have been discarded.
The basis of the Pilgrim movement was centered in three propositions. These were stated as follows:
Every church congregation should have the right to:
(1) choose its own pastor and officers;
(2) discipline its own members; and
(3) control all actions of its officers by a
vote of its members.
The Pilgrims were demanding their legal right to freedom of thought and independence of judgment.
To slow the spread of these ideas, Anglican authorities forced into law a provision stating that anyone who didn't attend services in the established church or who went to an unlawful religious meeting would be imprisoned, exiled, and (should they persist) eventually face death.
The members of the congregation in Scrooby were constantly harassed. Their homes were watched night and day, they were fined, and they were sometimes imprisoned.
To escape this persecution and find peace, the people arranged to leave England for a
friendlier religious climate in Holland.
Pilgrims remained there for eight years. Then they became restless and decided to look for another home. There was a fear of losing their identity as Englishmen. The life in Holland was very difficult, and some of the members returned to England. When this happened, it was very difficult to find new emigrants as replacements. In addition, parents feared that children were being "...drawn away by " (the) evil examples..." of their Dutch playmates.
Some of the Pilgrims returned to England and were joined by others wishing to leave. They were able to work out a deal with a trading company which agreed to furnish a ship and supplies. In return, the Pilgrims agreed to work for seven years as servants of the company. This meant that everything they produced, except for supplies needed to stay alive, would be turned over to their sponsors.
Some observers might think that his was an unfair arrangement, but the Pilgrims were
desperate. The New World offered them the freedom to worship away from the restraints of
the Anglican Church.
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