The Pilgrims: Laying America’s Foundations, Part 1

The early 1600s in England was a time of spiritual bankruptcy.  In the book, One Small Candle, the author Thomas J. Fleming describes the state of English morals and society in 1620.  His description begins with King James I and those in the highest level of society:  “James I had done little since 1603 but drain the treasury with his extravagance, shock the nation with his morals, and embitter those who yearned for religious liberty. The manners and morals of the court were appalling. Banquets frequently turned into riots.  A Venetian diplomat described one repast at St. James Palace with its usual shoving, brawling crowd. ‘At the first assault, they upset the table and the crash of glass platters reminded me precisely of a severe hailstorm at midsummer smashing the window glass.’ When the lord mayor of London gave a dinner for the new Knights of Bath, the so-called gentlemen behaved outrageously with the citizens’ wives.  The sheriff finally broke open a door and found Sir Edward Sackville in such a scandalous position that the entire banquet was forthwith abandoned.”[1]

Landing_of_the_Pilgrims_fThere were other serious problems going on in England. “Men and women were regularly hanged for stealing as little as a loaf of bread.  No one seemed to think twice about it.”[2]  There was a lack of compassion for people.

Thomas Fleming also mentioned the kind of things Pilgrim supporter Robert Cushman would encounter as he walked the streets of London.  “All around him swirled the cruel vitality of the great city, the gallants with their ‘bombasted’ or ‘beer barrel’ breeches and gorgeous ruffs, the great ladies in their chaises with braces of footmen dashing before them to clear a path through the rabble.”  Notice here, the desire to wear clothing which impressed others and the accouterments of status such as chaises and footmen clearing a path through the rabble.

But that wasn’t all Cushman could see.  Sadly, there was more, much more. “There went a swirl of roaring young apprentices, fresh from the tavern, on the way to Paris Gardens across the Thames, where they would watch a Russian bear fight for his life against a swarm of mastiffs, or howl as an ape was dismembered by another pack of maddened dogs.  Men and women staggered past, so drunk they could hardly see, bellowing bawdy verses. Drunkenness was so common in 1620 London that it was almost respectable. Ladies of the evening, wearing gowns cut low enough to make imaginations superfluous, called invitingly from convenient doorways.”[3]  Clearly, many of the people of England had become so corrupt and immoral at that time, that it could be said, “England had become a nation without a soul.”[4]

Because England had become a nation without a soul, the Church of England had also become corrupted. According to William Bradford, one of the historians of the Pilgrims, this corruption began in the time of Queen Mary, who died in 1587, thirty-three years before the Pilgrims set sail for New England in 1620.

In his book, Of Plymouth Plantation, in explaining how it began, Bradford starts by telling the reader about two parties which existed in the Church of England in the time of Queen Mary. “The one party of reformers endeavored to establish the right worship of God and the discipline of Christ in the church according to the simplicity of the gospel and without the mixture of men’s inventions, and to be ruled by laws of God’s word dispensed by such officers as Pastors, Teachers, Elders, etc. according to the Scriptures.”

Woodrow Wilcox


Now, keep in mind, Queen Mary was a Catholic who, most likely, was not happy with the Church of England to begin with. Therefore, no doubt, she wasn’t interested in those who thought the Church of England had become too much like the Catholic Church, and needed to be reformed. Hence, she supported the other party.  Bradford describes the other party as follows: “The other party, the episcopal, under many pretenses, endeavored to maintain the episcopal dignity after the popish manner, with all its courts, canons, and ceremonies;…and other means of upholding their anti-Christian greatness, and of enabling them with their lordly and tyrannous  power to persecute the poor servants of God.” [5]

William Bradford then says, “And this contention did not die with Queen Mary (who was  replaced by Elizabeth, a Protestant).


“And  why did the contention not die with Queen Mary?  Because Mary’s death did not favor the reformers.  For Bradford says: At her death the episcopal party of the Protestants returned to England under gracious Queen Elizabeth, many of them being preferred to bishoprics and other promotions.”[6]

The episcopal party members under Queen Mary were simply replaced by episcopal Protestants who returned to England under Elizabeth and were given control of the church.  And these episcopal Protestants did not have any love for the reformers either. The result was “their inveterate hatred towards the holy discipline of Christ in his church, represented by the dissenting part, (the reformers) has continued to this day.[7] (which would bring it up to the time of King James who reigned from 1603 to 1625 and to the time of the Pilgrims).    

In describing this hatred toward the reformers in the time of Queen Elizabeth which continued to the time of the Pilgrims, Bradford goes on to say: “Furthermore, for fear it should ultimately prevail (the dissenting part prevail), all kinds of devices were used to keep it out, incensing the Queen and State against it as a danger to the commonwealth…and that in order to win the weak and ignorant it was necessary to retain various harmless ceremonies; and that, though, reforms were desirable, this was not the time for them.  Many such excuses were put forward to silence the more godly, and to induce them to yield to one ceremony after another, and one corruption after another.  By these wiles some were beguiled and others corrupted, till at length they began to persecute all the zealous reformers in the land, unless they would submit to their ceremonies and become slaves to them and their popish trash, which has no ground in the word of God, but it is a relic of that man of sin.  And the more the light of the gospel grew, the more they urged subjections to these corruptions.” [8]  This was William Bradford’s explanation as to how the problems in the Church of England, which existed in his day, came to be.

This conflict between the hierarchy of the Church of England and the dissenters led to the rise of two groups of believers in Bradford’s day who were opposed to the corruption within the church.  They were seen by the hierarchy as “two movements of fanatics.” [9] One of these was a group that was for purifying the church from within.  These were called the Puritans.  The second, which was seen as more radical, were called the Separatists.  This was the group to which Bradford belonged.  And it was from the Separatists that the Pilgrims came. The Pilgrims then were simply Separatists who went to New England in 1620.

The Separatists held: “that the Church of England was already corrupted beyond any possibility of purification. Moreover, they believed that the church could only be under the headship of Jesus Christ, and hence, no person, not even the queen, could take the title,  “Head of the Church.”  They chose to separate themselves from the church and conduct their own worship.” [10]

Notice the importance here of the headship of Jesus Christ.  One of the reasons, I am sure, that this was so important to them was they “spoke enthusiastically of experiencing a personal encounter with Christ.” [11] And for people who have had such an encounter, Jesus Christ must be the head of the church.

Secondly, when people accept the headship of Jesus Christ, the following Scripture becomes very important: Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him. “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”—John 8:31-32

Notice here, the thing which makes you a disciple of Jesus in His eyes, is if you abide in His word.  This means the life of the church as well as the lives of individual believers must be governed by the word of God. The Separatists did not see the Church of England doing this.  It was not abiding by the truth.  And so, it had become corrupt.  In speaking of the concern that the hierarchy had about the Separatists, Marshall and Manuel describe their attitude when they say:  “If this sort of thing were tolerated, other ‘believers’ who spoke enthusiastically of experiencing a personal encounter with Christ—might take it in their heads to follow their lead.  Before long you would have little churches of fanatics being raised up everywhere—with no semblance of order or conformity (and totally out of the control of the Bishops!)” [12]

Notice here that while the growth of both the Puritans and the Separatists troubled the Church of England, the growth of the Separatists were especially troubling because they began to form their own churches.  That could not be allowed.

Now, since we are so distant in time, it is hard for us to see the issues of their day through their eyes.  Some of us might be moved to say, “Why couldn’t they get along?”  Others might want to say, “Why couldn’t the leaders of the Church of England just let the Separatists form their own churches?” The answer from the church leaders’ side would be “this is about power and authority.”  “For before long you would have little churches of fanatics being raised up everywhere with no semblance of order or conformity, and totally out of the control of the Bishops.”  From the Separatists’ side, this was about purity and truth.

[1] Thomas J. Fleming, One Small Candle (New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. 1963) p. 10-11.

[2] Ibid., p. 12

[3] Ibid., p. 22

[4] Peter Marshall and David Manuel, The Light and the Glory, (Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 1977), p. 148. Used by permission.

[5]  William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, (San Antonio, TX: Vision Forum, Inc., 2005) p. 3-4

[6] Ibid. p. 4.

[7] Ibid.

[8]  Ibid., p. 4-5

[9] Peter Marshall and David Manuel, The Light and the Glory, (Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 1977), p. 108. Used by permission.

[10]  Peter Marshall and David Manuel, The Light and the Glory, (Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 1977), p. 108. Used by permission.

[11]  Ibid.

[12]  Peter Marshall and David Manuel, The Light and the Glory, (Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 1977), p. 108. Used by permission.

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Bob Wittstruck was a pastor for 33 years, was the associate director of the Black Hills Creation Science Association, and is a supporter of both Christian schooling and home schooling. His latest book, The Forgotten Factor of History God Rules, is being printed in February or March of 2016. His email address is [email protected]
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