Puritans, and Separatists:
What does it all mean?
By Cairril Mills
Christianity has never been an entirely uniform tradition. It was first an illegal, underground movement in the Pagan Roman Empire; illegal because Christians refused to honor imperial gods next to their own, which was not only considered bad form by the Pagans but treasonous as well, since "imperial gods" included former emperors who were designated gods after death.
Division of the Empire
The Emperor Constantine made Christianity legal in 314. In 380 it became the official state religion, which eventually led emperors to be the enforcers of canon law. This resulted in the establishment of breakaway churches such as the Coptic, Syrian, and Armenian churches. However, the first large-scale rift within Christianity came in the 4th and 5th centuries, when due to size, corruption, poor leadership, and exhaustion, the Roman Empire was divided into East and West. Eastern or Orthodox Christianity developed almost in isolation from Roman Catholicism after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476. The Eastern/Byzantine Empire and its attendant expression of Christianity continued mostly uninterrupted, its capital at fabled Constantinople, until the city fell to the Turks in 1453.
Medieval Church quells dissent
Roman Catholicism developed slowly in the chaotic west, but by 1209 it was strong enough to call a Crusade (a holy war where those fighting on the pope's side were guaranteed redemption of sin) against the Albigensians, a "heretic" Christian sect in the south of France. As the Church sought to establish itself as the most powerful political force in Western Europe, it worked to establish clear codes and canons and exterminate all dissent. Over the next few hundred years, persecution of "heretic" sects such as the Waldensians and Huguenots (many of whom shared ideas common in Protestant thought today) was considered necessary.
Protestantism takes root 16th century
By the 16th century, however, secular rulers had developed enough power to be able to challenge the Church. The struggle was never just about theology, but about who would own lands, have jurisdiction over particular legal cases, receive fees, pay what kinds of taxes, retain privileges, etc. When Martin Luther tacked his 95 Theses on the cathedral door at Wittenberg in 1517, he unknowingly started a political, spiritual, and cultural revolution which would have profound and lasting effects. Protestantism took root most strongly in areas of Germany, the Netherlands (eager to free itself from the oppression of Catholic Spain), Scotland (the vituperative John Knox presiding), and England, when in 1534 Henry VIII "deposed" the pope and put himself at the head of the English church.
Protestant issues with the Roman Catholic Church
Protestantism in general had three main areas of contention with the Roman Catholic church: doctrine (such as whether the communion wafer is the actual body of Christ or a symbol), structure (the feudal organization of the church hierarchy), and the incorporation of Pagan/indigenous religious practices into the Church, such as the honoring of saints who were clearly Pagan deities.
Puritanism born in England 16th century
Puritanism arose in England in Elizabeth's reign as part of the more radical trend in Protestantism espoused by Calvin and Knox. Puritans were Protestants who were particularly zealous in their desire to simplify the church, wanting to make it more strictly Bible-based and give the individual a more direct relationship with God.
Puritans believed in the constant struggle between God and Satan for dominion over the world. They believed that humans were fallen beings but could be redeemed through Jesus. Most importantly (and this was the thing which threatened the Catholic Church the most), they believed the Bible was the final authority and believers therefore had direct access to the word of God. They rejected both the hierarchy and temporal powers of the Church altogether. Puritans were viewed as strict, uncompromising, and hypocritical by other groups, much as fundamentalist Christians are viewed by many today.
Separatism evolves late 16th century
During Elizabeth's reign the Marian exiles (Protestants who'd fled England during "Bloody Mary's" reign) had returned from the Continent, full of enthusiasm to set the Anglican church straight. By the end of her reign, these believers were still committed to working within the Church of England to "purify" it (hence the term "Puritans"). However, smaller groups had come to the conclusion that it was fruitless to struggle any more within the C of E. These were named Separatists, and it was this group to which our Pilgrim ancestors belonged.
Separatists not only had given up on trying to reform the Anglican church, they also wanted to separate themselves from the corruptions of the world. They believed they were chosen of God and wanted to set up an environment where they could worship as they wished.
John Robinson and Congregationalism
The Separatists of Plymouth Colony were highly influenced by their chief minister, John Robinson, who was a proponent of religious tolerance. Robinson was the founder of what was later called "Congregationalism." The Pilgrims were therefore less radical than other Separatists and should not be confused with the stereotypical "tyrannical Puritan."
The Plymouth Separatists
The founders of New England unfortunately carried over many of the atrocities and the fanatic intolerance of the Old World, but the Plymouth Colony was never as extreme as their Puritan neighbors to the north. While the Massachusetts Bay Colony was hanging or banishing Christian "heretics," the Plymouth Colony was engaging in interfaith dialogue with other Christians, even Anglicans. Plymouth Colony did not welcome Baptists or Quakers, but these two groups (perceived as radical and sometimes as anarchists) weren't welcome in any English colony or in England herself. That does not excuse the Colony, but it does place their actions within a broader context of what was held acceptable at the time. The Pilgrims treated Native Americans fairly and, while still calling them "savages," do not seem to have attempted to convert them. The Plymouth church followed the standard Puritan procedure of making sure members came to church and behaved according to community standards, but did not force the Anglicans in their company to convert.
In all, the Pilgrims seem to me like a reasonable people, truly trying to live according to their religious beliefs without overly imposing them on others. Their experiments with democracy and religious tolerance were the building blocks of our contemporary pluralistic society, and I am proud to be descended from such decent folk.