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Worshipping like the Pilgrims

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WORLD Radio - Worshipping like the Pilgrims

Christians owe much of our church service structure to America’s early settlers


Photo courtesy of Sarah Schweinsberg

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Thursday, December 2nd. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: worshiping like the Pilgrims.

The Pilgrims were really known as the Separatists when they first left England in 1608 for the Netherlands. They wanted to separate from the Church of England in order to worship simply, as they believed the New Testament taught.

REICHARD: When they came to America in 1620, they brought their worship-style with them. WORLD’S special correspondent Sarah Schweinsberg attended the 400th celebration of the Pilgrim’s arrival at Plymouth to find out what a Pilgrim church service looked like.

AUDIO: [MARCHING DRUM BEATING]

SARAH SCHWEINSBER, REPORTER: Men, women, and children dressed in thick wool skirts, pants, and tall narrow-brimmed hats… slowly march up a hill to the beat of a drum.

AUDIO: [MARCHING DRUM BEATING]

This may sound more like a military exercise, but it’s actually how Sunday mornings began for the Pilgrims in Plymouth. A drummer would go door to door collecting families who would join and walk toward the church.

At the top of the hill here today, the congregation sits in folding chairs. Men on one side of the aisle and women on the other.

This is an outdoor reenactment of a traditional Pilgrim church service. Hundreds of onlookers have come to watch under a gray sky.

JEHLE: We welcome you here to the National Monument to the Forefathers for the American Pilgrimage 400 and a reenactment of a Pilgrim church service. You may be seated.

The Pilgrims’ church service began with prayer. But not with a liturgical, written prayer like a priest or bishop in the Church of England would have made. The Pilgrims prayed extemporaneously or in the spur of the moment—a big departure for the time.

A member of Plymouth’s historical society offers up a prayer like what the Pilgrims might have prayed soon after landing at Cape Cod.

SOUND: Maker of Heaven and Earth. Thank you for blessing us even though we are here losing half our population but here we are. We thank you for who you are, we thank you for blessing us.

After prayer, there was Scripture reading.

AUDIO: Acts Chapter 17 vs. 11. These were also more noble men than they which were at Thessalonica…

The sermon made up the bulk of the service. Preaching could last up to two hours.

A tall man wearing a black Pilgrim suit and a tall top hat takes the stage. This is Paul Jehle, the president of the Plymouth Rock Foundation. Jehle gives a sermon he’s recreated from the notes of the Pilgrims’ pastor, John Robinson.

Robinson gave this sermon in 1620 as a farewell to the 52 members of his congregation who would soon leave for the Americas.

JEHLE: Fellow congregants, we have no guarantee that we will ever see one another’s face again like this. You all have chosen not only a courageous step of faith, but you’ve chosen the potential consequences as well…

Robinson went on to warn the Pilgrims to always put Scripture first.

JEHLE: And I urge you let Scripture interpret Scripture. Do not let ideas come outside of that book, and then tempt you to change its meaning.

Paul Jehle says the Pilgrims believed in simple, practical sermons.

JEHLE: They believed that we should study the Bible as it is, and not bishops telling us what it meant.

A Pilgrim church service also included plenty of singing.

JEHLE: Let’s stand together as we sing.

The Separatists sang Psalters. That’s a Psalm set to music.

JEHLE: Bow down thine ear. Jehovah answer me.

CONGREGATION: Bow down thine ear. Jehovah answer me.

And they could sing for up to an hour.

AUDIO: [SINGING]

HUFFMAN: Worship itself was central to the Pilgrim’s endeavor. They came because they wanted purity of worship...

Mary Huffman is the editor of a new edition of The Pilgrim Psalter by Henry Ainsworth. These songs became a key way the Pilgrims stayed grounded in their faith.

HUFFMAN: They wanted to sing the words of Scripture, just as they wanted to pray according to Scripture, they wanted to preach according to Scripture.

She says the Psalter set all 150 Psalms to music.

HUFFMAN: Even the long Psalms, Psalm 119, Psalm 78.

The Pilgrims’ church services also included taking a voluntary offering.

Paul Jehle says that was another departure from the Church of England.

JEHLE: You would give money, but the Church of England sent it as a bill. It wasn't voluntary. So in this case, it was voluntary tithing.

So prayer, Scripture reading, preaching, and corporate worship. Today, that sounds like a pretty typical Sunday morning in most American churches. But Paul Jehle says at the time, this Scripture-centered, Congregation-driven form of worship was revolutionary.

JEHLE: The Church of England emphasized the protocols of the individual who was the leader, the focus was on the leader, and the leader doing everything in front of the people. Now, the Pilgrims emphasized they wanted the congregation to be participants. So they wanted a preacher to open the Bible, they expected everyone else to open the Bible. They wanted their Psalm singing, they wanted the congregation to be the choir.

The Pilgrims also spread the idea of local church governance—or Congregationalism—instead of taking orders from the top.

JEHLE: We can conduct our own worship service. We can change it as we see fit. Local churches can govern themselves. I think all those things are blessings from the Pilgrim tradition...

Paul Jehle and Mary Huffman say Protestant worship services in America are still influenced by the form of the Pilgrims’ worship. But sometimes the substance of what the Pilgrims were trying to do gets lost.

Huffman suggests American churches would benefit from focusing more on pure Scripture, especially in their worship.

HUFFMAN: The Pilgrims were looking to the Bible for how God commanded to worship. And to sing the Psalms exactly as God has given them to us. It changes us. My hopes are that we will understand the history of the Pilgrims better but also that we will rekindle that same desire for biblical worship.

And Paul Jehle says the Pilgrims can remind us that like the disciples—a small group of lowly people living out the gospel—can make a lasting mark.

JEHLE: I think for the church, you don't have to be large. You don't have to be wealthy, you don't have to be famous. You can just live out your faith and that testimony alone will have influence. I think that's a message that specifically Christians today can learn from.

MUSIC: [Record Psalter]

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg in Plymouth, Massachusetts.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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Aaron Friar

While Pilgrim worship had a bit of novelty, I would stop short of calling its Scripture centered-ness "revolutionary". For centuries, the Church has kept the Liturgy of the Hours with a very robust regimen of Scripture reading. But I am thankful for this article, as it sparked me to write a more thorough exploration into Christian worship:
https://mendicantmonks.org/2021/12/23/search-for-the-missing-jewel-of-worship/

I usually do not beg to differ with your excellent journalism. Kepp up the great work.