The Pilgrims who sailed to North America on the Mayflower in 1620 were religious Separatists who had broken away from the Church of England. They were seeking religious freedom and wanted to establish their own society governed by their own rules and beliefs. The Pilgrims are often considered some of America’s first colonists and helped establish the Plymouth Colony in what is now Massachusetts.
What faith did the Pilgrims follow?
The Pilgrims followed a Puritan form of the Protestant Christian faith. Puritans wanted to “purify” the Church of England and do away with Catholic influences. They believed that the Church of England had become corrupted by adopting too many Catholic rituals and modes of worship. The Puritans wanted a simpler Christian faith based solely on the Bible.
Some of the key tenets of the Puritan faith that the Pilgrims followed included:
- Emphasis on reading and interpreting the Bible for themselves
- Belief in predestination – that God had long ago determined who was saved and who was damned
- Living a righteous life in accordance with Biblical principles
- Strict adherence to Biblical Sabbath observance on Sundays
- Simple style of worship without ornate decorations or rituals
The Pilgrims were part of a Puritan sect known as the Separatists. This group believed that the Church of England was too corrupt to save, so they wanted to break away and form independent congregations. This was illegal in England at the time, so many Separatists fled to the Netherlands for religious freedom in the early 1600s. However, they eventually decided to make the dangerous voyage across the Atlantic to establish their own colony in the New World.
Why did the Pilgrims want religious freedom?
The Pilgrims sought religious freedom because they faced persecution in England for their dissenting beliefs. The Church of England was the official state church, and it was illegal not to conform to its liturgy and teachings. However, the Pilgrims found many of the Church of England’s practices and leadership to be unbiblical.
Some of the religious freedoms the Pilgrims were denied in England included:
- Ability to elect their own ministers instead of using assigned priests
- Separating from the official state church and forming independent congregations
- Reforming worship to remove Catholic elements and strictly follow biblical practices
- Criticizing or challenging the Church of England’s teachings and practices
- Reading and interpreting the Bible for themselves
English authorities cracked down on dissenters like the Pilgrims through fines, imprisonment, harassment, and seizure of property. Some radical Puritans were even sentenced to death for continued dissent. So the Pilgrims fled England to find a new home where they could follow their faith freely.
Where did the Pilgrims settle in America?
The Pilgrims landed in what is now Massachusetts in November 1620. They originally intended to go to the mouth of the Hudson River in modern-day New York, where they had a charter to establish a colony called New Virginia. However, their ship, the Mayflower, ended up off course and made landfall at Cape Cod instead.
After exploring Cape Cod and the nearby coastline, the Pilgrims chose the site of modern-day Plymouth as the best location to establish their settlement. This site offered a good harbor and had previously been cleared of native inhabitants after an epidemic several years earlier.
The settlers officially founded Plymouth Colony on December 21, 1620 after signing the Mayflower Compact aboard their ship. This document established a rudimentary government and legal system for the new colony. Over half of the Pilgrims perished that first harsh winter, but the colony began to thrive after the first harvest season.
Plymouth Colony facts:
- Founded in December 1620
- Located on Plymouth Harbor in modern-day Massachusetts
- Established by Puritan Separatists seeking religious freedom from Church of England
- Had around 100 settlers originally but less than 50 survived the first winter
- Made peace treaty with neighboring Wampanoag tribe in 1621
- Celebrated first Thanksgiving in fall 1621 after successful harvest season
What was the Pilgrims’ society and culture like in Plymouth Colony?
Plymouth Colony was settled by deeply religious people so faith was at the center of their society and worldview. Their whole society was built around their desire to follow the Bible strictly. The colony was essentially a theocracy governed by the initial settlers.
Some key facts about Pilgrim society in Plymouth:
- Literacy was widespread since all were expected to read the Bible
- Church attendance was mandatory; dissenters were fined or flogged
- Sabbath on Sundays was strictly observed based on Bible
- Alcohol, gambling, and revelry were generally prohibited
- Modest, plain clothing was worn; women covered their hair
- Settlers lived in small close-knit communities for defense and support
- Self-governing; leaders were elected by male settlers initially
The Pilgrims tried to recreate the devout society they envisioned from Scripture. Plymouth Colony remained relatively small and isolated, but the Pilgrims’ ideas and faith had an enduring influence on later Puritan colonies like Massachusetts Bay.
How did the Pilgrims practice their religious beliefs?
Faith guided all aspects of life for the deeply devout Pilgrims. Their religious practices and observances included:
- Church services – The heart of their worship. Sunday services often lasted 8-12 hours with 2-3 sermons!
- Sabbath observance – No work or play permitted on Sundays, only Bible reading and prayer.
- Bible reading – The Bible was the ultimate authority guiding their lives and colony.
- Family worship – The father led daily Bible reading and prayer in each home.
- Morning and evening prayer – Each day began and ended with group recitation of prayers.
- Grace before meals – Meals began with prayer thanking God for provision.
- Fasting – Special public fast days of repentance and mourning.
- Psalm singing – Psalms were sung a cappella during worship without instruments.
The Pilgrims avoided any worship elements not specifically described in Scripture. Their faith was the foundation of their entire society and worldview in Plymouth Colony.
What legacy did the Pilgrims leave?
The Pilgrims had an enduring impact on American history well beyond their small Plymouth Colony. Some of their legacies include:
- Inspiring religious freedom – Their daring journey inspired later colonists to seek freedom.
- Advancing self-government – Mayflower Compact established rule of law and majority rule.
- Promoting literacy – High literacy rate due to emphasis on Bible reading.
- Shaping education and culture – Their faith-centered worldview influenced literature, arts, education.
- Promoting Thanksgiving – Their 1621 harvest celebration inspired national holiday.
- Work ethic – Belief that working hard was a spiritual virtue.
- Family values – Emphasis on family devotion and instruction of children.
The Pilgrims were a small group that suffered great hardships, but their strong faith and perseverance in the face of difficulties inspired the new nation that would eventually emerge in the American colonies. They helped plant the seeds for many of the values and principles that would come to define the United States.
In summary, the Pilgrims who settled Plymouth Colony were deeply religious Protestant Separatists seeking freedom to worship and live as they believed Scripture instructed. They followed Puritan teachings and sought to reform and purify Christianity from unbiblical Catholic practices. The Pilgrims prioritized reading and obeying the Bible, which guided all aspects of their society, laws, behavior, and worship. Their perseverance in the name of religious freedom helped plant the seeds for what would become essential values like liberty, self-government, rule of law, and more in America’s founding.