Religious Self-Determination - The New England Theocracy

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012


The settlers of Jamestown had been practical people who traveled westward in search of financial opportunity and adventure. The groups who settled Plymouth and the Massachusetts Bay Colony had entirely different motives in sailing west.

Until 1517, there was only one Christian church in Western Europe—the Roman Catholic Church. This religious unity was broken when Martin Luther founded the Lutheran Church. Frenchman Jean Calvin favored a much stricter form of Protestantism, called Calvinism after its founder. In England, Parliament created the Anglican Church, also called the Church of England.

Two distinct forms of Anglicanism eventually developed. A high Anglican service was similar to a Catholic mass. Low Anglicans, frowning on this similarity, preferred to worship along the spartan lines favored by the Calvinists. Churches were plain and unadorned, services were conducted in the language of the people, and attendance was mandatory. During the week, it was for- bidden to dance, sing, or play cards. Clothing was as plain as possible. These low-church Anglicans were called Puritans because they wanted to purify the Anglican Church. The Pilgrims were the most extreme among the Puritans.

Because English society was strictly conformist, religious separatists soon found themselves ostracized. Many Pilgrims fled to Holland, where their habits of worship were tolerated. However, they did not like the Dutch culture and customs, and they cast about for a better solution. The New World provided them with an answer.

In 1620, the Mayflower set sail from Holland, with a full company of Pilgrims aboard. Virginia was their goal, but their ship was blown off course and they landed in Cape Cod Bay, where they established the colony of Plymouth. The men in the company agreed that their first priority was to set up a government by which all could agree to be ruled. The result of this was the Mayflower Compact, an early exercise in a republican system that called for a council of male church members who would rule by majority vote. It stated, in part:

We, whose names are underwritten . . . Do by these Presents, solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politik, for our better Ordering and Preservation and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid; And by Virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Officers from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general Good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due Submission and Obedience.

During the first winter, nearly half the Plymouth settlers died of disease, extreme cold, and a poor diet. The local Wampanoag people came to their rescue; luckily for the colonists, a Wampanoag named Squanto spoke some English, having lived in England at one time. Squanto served as mediator for a peace treaty between the two groups, who celebrated the first English harvest together.

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