Early American Faith: Puritans vs. Separatists

Last week’s article discussed the rise of Puritanism which sprung from a desire to reform the Church of England and remove all influences of Roman Catholicism.  Ultimately this caused a split in the Puritan movement – non-separatists vs. separatists.  The non-separatist Puritans wanted to reform the Church while the Separatists sought to completely remove themselves from the Church.

These two groups had a contentious relationship in England which continued when they immigrated to America.  In American history books the Separatists were referred to as the “Pilgrims”.  Before Separatists immigrated to America they had fled to Holland and remained there until it became evident that they would again be persecuted when Holland’s truce with Spain expired in 1621 (which would lead to another round of persecution if Spain took over control of Holland).

bradford_wThe Separatists who sailed on the Mayflower were led by William Bradford, but some of the passengers were members of the Church of England (Anglicans) who sought better opportunities in America.  Separatists tended to be lawyers and merchants, but because they knew they would need other professions such as farmers, carpenters and blacksmiths to build their new society, they recruited people of another faith to accompany them (the Jamestown colony had failed in some ways because it was settled by those who had no idea how to farm and work with their hands).

So, ultimately, the Separatists were outnumbered on the Mayflower and that led to contentiousness arising over religion – Separatists were more strict and Anglicans were more lax in their belief system, perhaps seen as mockery to the more stern Separatists.  Of course, the disagreements continued when the group arrived in America.  William Bradford notes one such incident over the issue of working on Christmas Day (Separatists did not celebrate holidays) in his History of Plymouth Plantation:

BradfordChristmasWorkMeanwhile, the Puritans immigrated to America in 1630 and founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony (MBC) and they didn’t bring Anglicans with them, so in a way there colony might be considered more “pure”.  The Puritans also had no intention of settling among the Separatists, whom they thought of as both heretics and traitors to the King.  Even after settling the MBC, Puritans were positioned precariously since they were in danger  of losing the original patent.  Archbishop Laud was not their friend and he rather hoped to be able to thwart the Puritans from continuing to pursue religious freedom in America.

MBC+PLColoniesIn order to win favor with the Archbishop and King, the Puritans constantly made it clear they were loyal to the King and openly opposed the Separatists.  When Separatists proposed a joint venture with Puritans to establish a trading post close to the French Canadians in what is today the state of Maine, MBC declined.  The Separatists proceeded without the Puritans and when their post was attacked by Indians (three times), Puritans refused to help them.  Governor Winthrop of MBC and Governor Bradford of Plymouth exchanged letters (and accusations) – neither was pleased with the actions of the other.

JohnWinthropWith the failure of the Separatist venture they turned their sights toward Connecticut, offering again to settle with the Puritans – unsurprisingly, the Puritans weren’t interested because they felt the land was not suitable, nor could the colony ever sustain itself.  Separatists did settle a few posts, but didn’t encourage their own to settle there.  In the meantime, members of the MBC started migrating to that area, seizing land that Separatists had purchased from the Connecticut Indians (guess these settlers didn’t get the memo about the land being unsuitable!).  MBC settlers saw the situation like this: if no one was occupying the land and there was no garden then it was free to settle.  In the end, MBC won the argument and began to create the Connecticut Colony, further minimizing and isolating the Plymouth Colony.

Ultimately, in 1691 England forced MBC and Plymouth to merge, but it was not a good marriage for the Separatists, as Puritans still treated them with contempt.  One history web site pointed out that was more than evident due to the fact that when all was said and done, Plymouth was merely a county in Massachusetts.  Before the 1691 edict to merge, the Pequot War occurred with another “civil war”, a religious one, concurrently running – called the Antinomian Controversy or Crisis – and next week’s topic.

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