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Pilgrims and Puritans
As Thanksgiving gets closer most people think of turkey, the beginning of the Christmas season (let’s be honest), and Puritans. Wait a minute, Puritans? You might know them by another name, that of Pilgrims. Yet they are connected and here’s how.
For this most American of holidays we have to go back to, well, to England in the 1500s. Early in that century Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church and formed the Church of England. Martin Luther and others had already made the break, and so this was not a new idea. Yet it was new enough that not everyone who broke from the Catholic Church formed the same type of new Christian group. Of all the new groups in the 1500s, the Church of England was the closest to the Catholic Church in form and thought.
Many in England complained that the Church of England did not go far enough in making the break and wanted the Church of England to be even more different than the Catholic Church. Different groups formed in opposition to the Church of England, and most became lumped together under the name of "Puritan." Why Puritan? Because they wanted to purify the Church of England. Most did not break from the Church of England, thinking it better to work for change from within than from outside.
Yet one group did break from the Church of England. But then they could not remain in England because the state church, namely, the Church of England, would have persecuted them. They are known as Separatists since they wanted to separate from the Church of England.
They traveled to Amsterdam in search of religious freedom in 1608. The next year they moved to Leiden (not far away) where they enjoyed relative peace. After twelve years, though, about half decided to leave. They knew that if they returned to England they would face persecution. Therefore, they decided to go to the next best place: the newly discovered America.
Those who decided to leave boarded a ship and sailed to Southampton, England (just for a layover). Eventually this group joined another group of Separatists and they boarded the Mayflower. They set sail on Sept 16, 1620 with 102 passengers. They saw Cape Cod on Nov 19, but did not stop there. Instead they continued to Plymouth Harbor, on the western side of Cape Cod, and landed on December 21. They formed the Mayflower Compact and settled in their new land.
But they were still known as Separatists. As a matter of fact, none of those on board would have recognized the name "Pilgrims." They thought of themselves as Separatists. So who came up with the name "Pilgrims"? A guy named Chandler Robbins. In 1793 he preached a sermon at Plymouth commemorating the Separatists. While preparing for his sermon, he read William Bradford’s account of the departure of the Separatists from Leiden. Bradford mentioned that, although they were somewhat reluctant to begin the voyage, "they knew they were ‘pilgrims’ and looked not much on those things, but lifted up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits." Robbins found what he was looking for in this quote, and referred to them as "Pilgrims." The name stuck and so they have been known as "Pilgrims" for over 200 years.
Oh, and by the way, Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.
©2005, 2014 Mark Nickens
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