As we find ourselves looking forward to Thanksgiving most of us know the history but what do you know about the Pilgrims and their faith?
History tells us the Mayflower Pilgrims arrived in 1620 in hopes of making a better life for themselves and their children along with being able to worship freely and in peace. Undoubtedly the most famous colonists in world history, their faith and fortitude are legendary. Their perseverance laid the cornerstone of a new Nation. The Pilgrims' courage, faith in God, and love for one another still inspire people today. The story of Plymouth Colony, with its first winter, treaty with the Wampanoag People and the celebrated First Thanksgiving often seems forgotten today. Regardless of anything that came before or after, Plymouth is the story of the United States -- the symbolic, if not literal, birthplace of our Nation.
This passage from Bradford's manuscript Of Plymouth Plantation makes reference to Hebrews 11:13-16. From the Geneva Bible (1560), the translation preferred by most Pilgrims, this reads: (13) All these dyed in faith, and received not the promises, but sawe them a farre of, and beleved them, and received them thankefully, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgremes on the earth. (14) For they that say suche things, declare plainely that they seke a countrey. (15) And if they had bene mindeful of that countrey, from whence they came out, they had leasure to have returned. (16) But now they desire a better, that is an heavenlie: wherefore God is not ashamed of them to be called their God; for he hathe prepared for them a citie.
If we really want to understand the Pilgrims, we must look beyond the legends and see them as they saw themselves. They were English people who sought to escape the religious and economic problems of their time.
Many of the Pilgrims were members of a Puritan sect known as the Separatists. They believed the Church of England violated the biblical standards of Christianity, they intended to break away and form independent congregations that more strictly met biblical requirements. Second Corinthians 6:16-18 gave a theme to their actions.
At that time their act was treasonous and the Separatists had to flee England. The Pilgrims also shared a vital secular culture, both academic and traditional. They lived in a time that accepted fairies and witches, astrological influences, seasonal festivals and folklore as real parts of their lives. They viewed the world they lived in not as we do today - as quantum physics and psychology - but through the folklore and traditions that stretched back to antiquity. They were both Protestants of the Reformation and inheritors of a medieval worldview that blended the imaginations of William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson.
The Separatists' faith was part of the larger Reformation of the 16th century. This Separatists sought to cleanse the Church of England of its corrupt doctrine and practices; the people in the movement were known as “Puritans.” Separatists were Puritans who no longer accepted the Church of England as a true church, while refusing to work within the structure to affect changes, they “separated” themselves to form a church based solely on Biblical precedent. Puritans rejected Christmas, Easter and the various Saint's Days because they had no scriptural justification, and in their worship services, they also rejected hymns, recitations of the Lord's Prayer and creeds for the same reason.
The Separatists believed that worship of God must progress from the individual directly to God, and form, like the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer, interfered with worship by directing one's thoughts to the prayer book and to one's self. The only exceptions were the Psalms and the Lord's Supper, both of which had scriptural basis. As Pastor Robinson expressed it, even two or three “gathered in the name of Christ by a covenant [and] made to walk in all the ways of God known unto them is a church.”
Services were held twice on Sunday; in addition, sermons were often given on Thursdays, and as occasion required, Days of Thanksgiving or Fasting and Humiliation were proclaimed. These were movable weekday holidays called in response to God's Providence. Both were observed in a manner similar to the weekly Services, with morning and afternoon meetings. The approximate times were from 9:00 AM to noon and from to 2:00 to 5:00 PM.
Once they reached the meetinghouse, the men and boys sixteen and older sat on one side; the women and children sat on the other side.
Prayer was completely extemporaneous. The Lord's Prayer was considered a model to be followed, but not copied. Prayer was given by the Pastor or Teaching Elder. At this point in the service, the congregation rose. The speaker removed his hat, raised his eyes and lifted up his arms toward Heaven, and spoke. At the end, all joined in saying, "Amen." Scripture in the 16th century was often interpreted in a metaphorical sense; scholars searched for hidden meaning. Separatists concentrated on a literal and historical interpretation, generally ignoring the metaphorical interpretations. During this part of the service, a passage of scripture was read and expounded upon in this literal manner by the Pastor or Teaching Elder.
Finally, Psalms were the only music allowed in the service. Hymns were rejected because they had no scriptural basis. The versions of the Psalms used in Plymouth Colony came from Henry Ainsworth's Psalter, in which he had "Englished" the Psalms in prose and metre, and set them to livelier music than had been heard before. These were sung, without musical accompaniment, by the whole congregation. Years later, in the 1670s, when the first generation of settlers--many of whom had musical training--had died, the colonists had difficulty with the music of the psalms. At this point, the practice of "lining" psalms began. In lining, each line of the psalm is first sung by the Pastor, then repeated by the congregation.
Happy Thanksgiving and until next month God bless you is my prayer!
Dr. Terry Cheek
Dr. Terry Cheek has over 20 yrs experience in ministry with 16 of them exclusively in the pastorate. Having an earned BA, MA, and Doctorate in Theology he is a...