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Of Pilgrims and Puritans

A Thanksgiving meditation

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If you need an icebreaker for Thanksgiving ­dinner, ask your guests if the Pilgrims and the Puritans were the same thing.

Spoiler: They were not. In fact, the Pilgrims and the Puritans did not … shall we say … agree.

It seems a depressing truth of human nature that no sooner does a group split off from another in moral dissension than the splitting group itself undergoes a split. The ink on the Augsburg Confession of 1530 was hardly dry before those Protesters against Catholicism broke fellowship with each other over the Lord’s Supper and whether you should hang pictures on church walls.

By the start of the 1600s there were four main ­categories of English Christians: those who stayed with Rome (Catholics); those who were content with the Church of England (Conformists); those who were not content with the Church of England but desired to stay and purify it (Puritans); those who considered the Church of England too far gone to fix and therefore exited it (Separatists, from whence the Pilgrims).

Thus it was that a jangling of jousting plantations settled on the Eastern Seaboard of the New World in the 17th century, and when the dust cleared we had the outlines of today’s American Christianity. Like the making of laws and sausage, the process wasn’t always pretty.

You have to put yourself in their respective shoes, back in England before this whole colonizing business began.

The Separatists felt compelled by conscience to shake from their feet the dust of a corrupt national church they likened to Babylon. The Puritans (who were getting hammered from both sides—the Conformists and the Separatists) thought the national church redeemable, and accused the Separatists of being radicals and schismatics who should have stayed to help them reform it. As a matter of recorded fact, there were noble men and ministers of the gospel in both camps.

The upshot is that this homegrown animosity would cross the pond and wash up 3,700 miles west. In 1607, while the first three little (Puritan) vessels were unloading their supplies at Jamestown, Va., the Pilgrims were just making their escape across the North Sea to Holland. Their next port would be Cape Cod in 1620, without charter or warrant from any government, unlike the nationally loyal Puritans. But not lacking a notion of the necessity of civil government, they made their own social contract in the cabin of the Mayflower.

A day came when the struggling Separatist settlement at Plymouth heard a Puritan fleet was headed their way. Pilgrim Edward Winslow made the remarkable decision to extend the hand of fellowship, in faith that the two nemeses might forge new beginnings on these foreign shores.

It happened this way: The Puritan fleet arrived in Salem full of sufferers from scurvy and other illnesses. Winslow, knowing of a physician at Plymouth named Samuel Fuller, sent for him, and Fuller hastened to help.

An ensuing letter written by (Puritan) Gov. John Endicott of Salem to (Separatist) Gov. William Bradford of Plymouth is as heart-warming a place to end this brief Thanksgiving meditation as I can conceive. What follows is as much as my word limit will allow:

“To the worshipful and my right worthy friend, William Bradford, Esq., Governor of New Plymouth:

“Right worthy Sir: It is a thing not usual that servants to one Master and of the same household should be strangers. I assure you I desire it not; nay, to speak more plainly, I cannot be so to you. God’s people are marked with one and the same mark, and sealed with one and the same seal, and have, for the main, one and the same heart, guided by one and the same Spirit of truth. … I acknowledge myself much bound to you for your kind love and care in sending Mr. Fuller among us. … God willing, I purpose to see your face shortly. In the meantime I humbly take my leave of you, committing you to the Lord’s blessed protection, and rest Your assured ­loving friend and servant, John Endicott.”

Andrée Seu Peterson

Andrée is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine. Her columns have been compiled into three books including Won’t Let You Go Unless You Bless Me. Andrée resides near Philadelphia.


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