Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Charlotte County
"The Pilgrims weren't Puritans"
Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore November 23, 1997


Exodus 3:7-10

And the LORD said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows; And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good and a large land, unto a land flowing with milk and honey; unto the place of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites.

Now therefore, behold, the cry of the children of Israel is come unto me: and I have also seen the oppression wherewith the Egyptians oppress them. Come now therefore, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt.

2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1

Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Be-lial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

Therefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you. And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.

Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.


If you are like me, you got your information about the Pilgrims from the popular perception of them as bland men, women and children in drab attire wearing hats with buckles on them and large white collars. We imagine the Pilgrims celebrating the first Thanksgiving as we do today with turkey and pumpkin pie which was almost certainly not the case. More likely they gorged themselves for three days on venison, roast duck & goose, clams and other shellfish, and other "sallet herbes" with wild plums and dried berries for dessert--all washed down with wine, made of the wild grape, both white and red, which the Pilgrims praised as "very sweete & strong."[2] I was surprised to learn the Pilgrims abhorred drinking water for fear of water-born disease and mostly just drank beer and wine. As you might imagine with this much alcohol in their blood, these people's temperament was anything but moderate and were always getting into arguments.

Until the middle 1800's, little was actually known about the small community of colonists who settled in Plymouth in 1620. While the heritage of Thanksgiving was passed down from generation to generation in New England and the places these restless Yankee's settled to the west, it wasn't until 1863 that Thanksgiving became a national Holiday during the Civil War by order of President Abraham Lincoln. Several books had been written describing the colony but not until the discovery in 1855 in Fulham Palace on the outskirts of London of the chronicles of Plymouth's first Governor, William Bradford, did we begin to get an intimate look at the origins and lives of these early English colonists.

The little band of Pilgrims who settled near but probably never landed on the Plymouth Rock, get so easily mixed up with the Puritans because the Puritan's migration less than 10 years later was much better organized and came in waves of people escaping oppression by King Charles. To be sure, both the Pilgrims and the Puritans had a great deal in common. Both shared a sharp critique of the Church of England and had suffered oppression because of it. Both shunned ostentatious displays of wealth in their churches and preferred simple meeting houses devoid of candles, gold, paintings and stained glass windows. The both railed against the corruption of the hierarchy of the church. Inspired by the forward views of John Calvin, they pushed for an educated clergy who could read, understand and interpret the Bible for their congregations in their own language.

Looking back with 20th Century eyes, it is hard to enter the world in which these people lived and understand their passion for these reforms. In our increasingly secularly oriented world, we can be mystified as to why people would be put to death for objecting to the kind of vestments the priests wore. It is hard for the literate today, overwhelmed by information, to understand the Sixteenth Century people's hunger for the words of the Bible in their native tongue.

Because of the invention of the printing press, the Bible was now much more widely available. The sacred book locked in Latin was now available in English with the official King James translation (a concession to the reformers). It was common at the time for the clergy simply to read from the Bible to the congregation since many were illiterate and wanted to understand the sacred text for themselves. People's minds were being engaged to think about their religion rather than blindly rehearse the Catholic sacraments in a foreign tongue. Religion wasn't something you received without question anymore. Now the ordinary person could read or hear the text and come to their own understanding of what the text said and use it to guide their actions.

And so they did! England was a pretty tranquil place in the Sixteenth Century compared to the upheaval in Europe Martin Luther unleashed by nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Whittenburg Cathedral. The ideas sweeping across the Continent came to England and spread through the learned folk at Cambridge. Henry the Eighth's separation of the English church from Rome engaged those long dissatisfied with the Roman Church to call for reforms, for the New Church of England to be purified. This call for purification of the Church was the origin of the Puritan's name--hung on them at the time with contempt. Henry wasn't interested in changing the church so much as expelling Rome from his dominion and grabbing the wealth of the Catholic Church that fell within his borders.

After Henry's death, the reformers were encouraged by the rise to the throne of King James. Unfortunately, the reformers, like ideologues everywhere, had little understanding of the dynamics of power. Once the church became a source of wealth and control of the people by the state, the monarchy had no interest in handing any of it to these scholars with grand ideas about how religion should properly be practiced. The reform movement, as it faced oppression, split into two groups. The first were the trades people, the merchants, the upper middle class, the educated, who wished to reform the church from the inside. These are the ones commonly referred to as the Puritans. They didn't come to our shores until after they lost all hope of reforming the Church and suffered under a royal crackdown by then King Charles who didn't take kindly to their meddling in his church's affairs. The second group, the Separatists, felt that the church could not be reformed from the inside as far back as the reign of Elizabeth in the late 1500's. The Separatists felt that the best way to reform the church was to abandon it and return to the description of the early Christian church they read about in the Bible. They responded to Paul's exhortation in scripture to, "Come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord and touch not the unclean thing."[3] It is from the ranks of these separatists we find our Pilgrim forebears.

The Separatist movement got its start at Cambridge. Their leaders listened to and debated with the dons at Cambridge where the Protestant reformation on the Continent was stirring the students and faculty from the drunken, lazy stupor of medieval academic life. The Puritan call for an educated clergy was breathing new mental fire into the institution. Scholars exiled abroad during the reign of terror by Bloody Mary, who followed King James' more friendly rule, were bringing back Calvinist ideas which challenged the Church status quo. One of those importers of Continental ideas was a fellow named Robert Browne. Some have labeled Browne as one of the earliest expounders of the ideas which would later evolve into American Democracy via Congregationalism. Unitarianism and Universalism were born out of the Congregational Way advocated by Robert Browne.

While Robert Browne was by no means a great theologian, and there is some evidence to suggest he was mentally unbalanced, he was a great creative thinker who synthesized the ferment of the times in a catalytic way[4]. Influenced by the ideas of the Dutch Mennonites and the Anabaptists, a European movement practicing a radically egalitarian form of Christianity, he realized that the institutional church couldn't be reformed. The only way to recover the Christian tradition was for the worthiest of the community to secede, to separate, as Paul had instructed, and form a congregation centered on a free, mutual covenant among the worthy and God.

This freely formed congregation would select its own pastor and officers in a democratic manner with each member having one vote. There would be no bishops, no archbishops, no rectors, no vicars, no chancellors, no central organization. Each congregation would be independent. The Bible had no bishops. The Bible had no Pope. If these human inventions weren't in the good book, get rid of them!

Not everyone would be recognized as a member of this gathered community. Browne rejected Calvin's doctrine of the "true" church embracing the entire baptized population. Character mattered. Browne envisioned a "priesthood of believers," a church of saints, from which the irreligious were to be excluded, whether baptized or not![5] Since character was to be the gravitational center of the group, all the sanctified members would need to constantly scrutinize themselves and criticize the behavior of the other saints seeking to improve their character. This later turned out to be practically the undoing of all the separatist congregations since human nature can only stand so much prying into the most intimate details of one's thoughts and behavior.

It was the young William Brewster who arrived in Cambridge in the midst of the short lived Brownist influence which likely formed this youth's path which would eventually lead the Pilgrims to the New World. Brewster came from the little town of Scrooby in the center of England on the historic Great North Road between Scotland and London in Nottinghamshire not far from Sherwood Forest. The little village wasn't much more than a rest stop and the road much more elaborate than a cow path. Brewster's father was the Postmaster which allowed him to service a large, dilapidated manor and take in a handsome salary while maintaining several stables, a tavern and inn. When his father died, William was able to take over for his father after a stint of employment in the London which allowed him to mix with the high and mighty in the Elizabethan court. Returning to the simple life must not have been easy for him but he returned with new ideas and a will to put them into practice. He began a separated congregation that met in the manor and soon felt the wrath of his countrymen and king which had outlawed the Separatist meetings.

Unlike the educated, influential and well heeled Puritans, the flock who gathered with Brewster were mostly the common folk without title. They came together not seeking social advantage or intellectual satisfaction but rather because there was a spirit in this little group which engaged them and drew them in. The sermons stirred the religious impulse in them that the Church of England could not. Rather than having to subject themselves to temporal authority, the only authority they needed to recognize was Christ as revealed in the Bible and their hearts.

This kind of radical behavior was very disturbing to the ecclesiastical system which also threatened the power, prestige and income of the king. The royalty could barely tolerate the Puritans but had no truck with the Separatists. Rather than abandon their religion which moved their hearts, the Pilgrims chose exile.

If the way was preordained for these Pilgrims, the way was made anything but smooth for them. Several abortive attempts to escape England thinned their ranks of those weak of will. A year in Amsterdam in the fractional exiled Separatist community convinced the Pilgrims they needed a more removed setting which for them became Leyden. Life was very hard for the group because they had few skills beyond the ones they learned on the farm and were forced into low wage work which barely brought in enough to survive. The prospect of grinding poverty and the gradual assimilation of their children into Dutch culture convinced them they had to leave for the New World.

Their luck was about as bad trying to secure a ship across the Atlantic as the English Channel. The Mayflower got them to the American coast in time for the onset of winter during which they lost about half their number. Every step of their Exodus was paved with hardship and disaster. How different would be the migration of the Puritans less than 10 years later who arrived in the New World at the height of the strawberry season. While the Pilgrims struggled to scratch out an existence, the Puritans arrived in a fleet of ships laden with supplies.

The Pilgrims came to escape oppression and practice their religion in peace. The Puritans came to conquer the land and set up a theocracy centered on their ideas.

Given the eventual dominance of the Pilgrim's congregational ideas sowing the seeds of democracy, it is amazing the carrier of that seed was such a small and fragile settlement. That they're ideas were not overwhelmed by the Puritan migration also is a source of wonder. Whatever the reason, when the Puritans did come, they chose to adopt some of the Congregational ways the Pilgrims had already established. The two movements found common ground in the Cambridge Platform of 1648 which defined the relations within and between the New England Congregational churches.

It is through this institutional genealogy we Unitarian Universalists inherit a system of organization from which we have deviated little. The power to govern continues to rest solely with the members of the congregation. The members of the congregation select their own minister. While the congregation may elect a governing board or appoint elders, their decisions are subject to will of the congregation. Almost all congregations jealously guard this power to rule themselves even today.

But what is more remarkable is the theological underpinning which supports the system. Our forebears knew that power corrupts. Even the most just can yield to the temptation offered by the power of high office. For the Congregational system to work at all, requires the members to vote with some sense of the will of God. The ordinary individual is vested with this power to know the will of God, to be a direct expression of the Almighty in time and space. It is through this radical trust in the gathered community that we inherit the idea of the inherent worth and dignity of all people--directly from that little Pilgrim group gathered in Scrooby

So as you sit down to your Thanksgiving dinner this year, take a moment to remember these pioneers to whom we owe our freedom. It was through their confidence in the sanctity of the individual and the need for the locus of power to reside with the governed that we inherit the great democratic system of government we enjoy today. The trials, tribulations, and triumph of the Pilgrims encourages us to never underestimate the power of an idea whose time has come.

Let us renew our Pilgrim faith. May we take courage that within us is a light, if we seek it, which can wisely guide this congregation. When we gather for our Annual Meeting in March, you will have an opportunity to set the course of this congregation as we try to articulate our mission. Today, you can participate in that process by attending the Mission Statement Committee meeting after the service. As you are called upon to participate in the governance of this congregation, I hope you will recognize its spiritual dimension.

It is only with all the voices of the saints of this communion we are best guided as we chart the course ahead.

Copyright (c) 1997 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore. All rights reserved.

[1] Some unmentioned sources used for this sermon:

Hall, David D., Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgement: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England,Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, (c) 1989 ISBN 0-674-96216-8

Starkey, Marion L., The Congregational Way: A Narrative of the Role the Pilgrims, the Puritans and Their Heirs Played in Shaping American History., Doubleday, Garden City NY, (c) 1966, (In Port Charlotte Library)

Bender, David L., et al., Puritanism: Opposing Viewpoints, (also in Port Charlotte Library)

Hall and Willison books highly recommended to get a flavor of how these people lived and believed.

[2] Willison, George F., Saints and Strangers: Being the Lives of the Pilgrim Fathers & Their Families, with Their Friends & Foe, & an Account of Their Posthumous Wanderings in Limbo, Their Final Resurrection & Rise to Glory, & the Strange Pilgrimages of Plymouth Rock, 1945 (1983 ed), Parnassus Imprints, Inc. Orleans, Massachusetts 02653, p 189. (Many of the words here are informed by this book)

[3] 2 Corinthians 6:17

[4] Willison, p.30-33 is my source for this.

[5] Willison, p 33