Why did the Plymouth Colony not have a church?

400 Years of Mayflower: The Pilgrims of Plymouth

Europe is not God-fearing enough for them; a few dozen Puritans seek their salvation in America. 400 years ago, on November 19, 1620, you reached the east coast of America on board the "Mayflower". Half of the settlers don't even survive the first winter. Nevertheless, the 'Pilgrim Fathers' persevere - and their sense of mission continues to shape the USA to this day.

No, that's not how they imagined the Promised Land. So threatening and repellent. There it lies, the new home, a winter coastal strip, dark, dense forest without borders and ends. For this inhospitable piece of earth they left civilization behind and undertook the dangerous crossing of the autumnal Atlantic.

The people whose ship "Mayflower" anchored off Cape Cod on the North American coast on November 19, 1620, are in miserable condition. Storms, disease and hunger have afflicted them. And now they also feel abandoned and lost. "Whichever direction they looked, there was nowhere to find comfort," notes one of the passengers, William Bradford.

It has been two months since these 102 men, women and children left the English port of Plymouth. On the crossing they shared the small space with pigs, goats and chickens. Two people died, a sailor and an emigrant. But a child has also been born, Oceanus Hopkins.

The passengers are not the first Englishmen to want to start a new life in North America. As early as 13 years earlier, in 1607, daring settlers had settled in the new colony of Virginia: mostly aristocrats who were driven by greed for gold and the hope of quick fortune, but also the desire to increase England's power.

The Puritans come to America on board the Mayflower

The people on board the "Mayflower", on the other hand, are neither noble nor rich. They are poor artisans and farmers with their families. They did not take the risk for their country, but as the persecuted. And it is not the hope of earthly wealth that drives them, but an experiment: The dream of America should give them space for their own utopia. A better England, a new Jerusalem is to be created here - a shining example for the old continent.

They are puritans, and they bring with them what will shape America: their trust in democratic votes, their distrust of worldly power, and the certainty that they are instruments of divine providence. "Saints"call themselves, saints, God's chosen people."Pilgrims"William Bradford will later call them - travelers to the Promised Land like the people of Israel.

This artisan with learned inclinations becomes the chronicler of the settlers and the beginnings of their colony. His book "Of Plymouth Plantation", published in 1650, is one of the earliest works of American historiography. And testimony to the self-image of these chosen ones.

William Bradford was 16 years old when, in 1606, a small group began to hold secret services in the English village of Scrooby near York. He is an orphan boy from a neighboring town, a sickly young man who showed a deep interest in the Bible from an early age. He becomes part of the underground church that rallies around the preachers Richard Clyfton and John Robinson.

Both are Puritans and, like several hundred other clergy at the time, were suspended or resigned from their pastoral positions because they did not profess to the Anglican state church. They preach a community of the elect, a pure church, freed from rituals and the power of the bishops, freed from the influence of the state.

In England the Puritans wanted to promote the reform of the "Church of England"

In the previous century, King Henry VIII broke with Rome and tried to resolve the question of the direction of the church with a compromise: he retained the official structure and the old rituals, but set himself head of the new, "Anglican" church a.

Puritanism emerged during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) as a movement within the newly created "Church of England". The Puritans want to continue reform where the Anglicans stopped after the break with Rome.

In the spirit of Johannes Calvin from Geneva, they want to cleanse the church from the inside out, from immorality, the splendor of images of the places of worship and from the Catholic ritual, which in their opinion stands in the way of an individual encounter with God. The church is to be led to that purity that once existed in the early church instituted by Christ. At first, however, the Puritans did not want to part with the state church.

Nevertheless, this fundamentalist movement is increasingly perceived by the authorities as a threat. In 1593, Queen Elizabeth passed a law threatening imprisonment or even the death penalty for those who refuse to recognize the authority of their majesty in ecclesiastical matters. Hundreds of Puritans flee to the Netherlands, where they do not have to fear persecution.

When King James I came to the throne in 1603, the Puritans' expectations of greater tolerance were not fulfilled. They are giving up hope of reforms - and some are finally breaking away from the state church. Like the members of the community in Scrooby, they will become separatists, recognizing ecclesiastical authority only within their own community.

As followers of Calvin, they believe in the unconditional predestination of the individual for eternal life or death, which man cannot avert. Only the saints, the elect, are redeemed from the state of sinfulness.

The separatist congregations choose their pastors and members themselves. Only those who undergo a thorough examination by pastors and congregations and can demonstrate the authenticity of their spiritual awakening are accepted into the community of saints.

The authorities quickly became aware of the group from Scrooby. The small community decides to flee to the Netherlands. After the first attempt failed in the summer of 1607, around 100 men, women and children succeeded in emigrating to Amsterdam in August 1608, and the following year they moved on to Leiden. There the refugees set up their own congregation, which soon grows to more than 300 people when more Puritans arrive from England. Although they are now safe from persecution, the community remains poor even though its members work hard.

But whether someone lives up to the divine commandments is not shown for these people in wealth. They suffer much more from the strangeness. They fear that their children will lose the English culture and language and slip away from the close community. They decide, according to Bradford, "to look for a new place".

But where should they go? After lengthy discussions, they decide on North America. The isolation of the saints from sinners and the establishment of a free church of Christ seem to be more possible in the wilderness than in a European country. The coast of North America has been known for several years. Cape Cod was first visited in 1602, and Plymouth and the Massachusetts coast were explored in more detail in 1603. And a reliable map of the New England coast has existed since 1616.

Still, America is a continent of which one only has a rough idea - especially of its indigenous people. For many Puritans America belongs, Bradford reports, to "those wild and unpopulated countries which are productive and suitable for settlement and where there are only wild and beastly people". The majority of the Leiden community cannot decide to move and will stay behind. Many women and children should only come after the existence of the new branch is assured.

The Puritans are too poor to finance the crossing and the establishment of the settlement. You need donors and a patent for a settlement area. Both of these could be offered by one of the trading companies that are the main instrument of colonization in England. The Krone gives you concessions for a specific area, so-called charters. The people of Leiden do business with the London hardware dealer Thomas Weston, who has set up a joint-stock company with other merchants to invest in a new colony.

The terms of the contract for the emigrants are tough: they have to work exclusively for society for seven years. For this they are provided with the bare essentials. All profits and the land should be shared between the shareholders and the settler group after this time. Personal land ownership is not provided for the settlers until then.

On September 16, 1620, the Mayflower sets sail

On February 2, 1620, Weston's company was granted a patent for a territory in Virginia. Six months later, on the morning of August 1st, the emigrants set sail on the ship "Speedwell". Four days later they reach Southampton, where a second ship, the Mayflower, is waiting for them.

The Leiden community provides the company's leaders - but just under half of the passengers. The others are strangers, Strangers who do not follow their beliefs but are supposed to help finance the company. A total of 120 passengers set off with the two sailors.

After just a few days, the "Speedwell" proves to be unseaworthy. Plymouth is called and the ship is left there. Some of the pilgrims switched to the "Mayflower", 18 stayed behind. On September 16, 1620, the "Mayflower" set sail with 102 passengers in Plymouth. Time is running out. It is autumn and the stormy months are approaching.

Two months later, when they cruise off the coast of North America, winter is imminent. And the land in front of them is not their destination at all. They missed the Virginia area and are further north off Cape Cod Bay in an area they don't have a patent on.

The "Mayflower Compact" is signed as the colony's first government document

Already during the crossing some have strangers do not want to submit to the pilgrims. Now that they are not patented, they insist on not taking instructions from anyone. Negotiations were held, and on November 21st, 41 men signed the Mayflower Compact, the "first foundation for government in this place," as Bradford writes.

In the document, the authors state their intention to jointly found a colony. With this agreement they form a "civill body politick" and declare that they will enact laws on this basis "which are most appropriate and most suitable for the general welfare of the colony".

The "Mayflower Compact" is - even if it is later glorified as a symbol of democratic self-government - above all an instrument intended to create unity and order in a critical time. A provisional regulation that is to remain in effect until the colony receives a patent that is valid for it. Upon signing, John Carver is appointed governor for the first year. He is the first freely elected colonial governor. And in future too, all important positions in this colony will be filled by election.

The men will explore the area from November 25th to find a suitable place for their settlement. On their forays through the snow-covered country, they meet Indians for the first time. Once there is an exchange of fire, but nobody is injured. Usually the locals flee as soon as they see strangers.

The scouts find abandoned wigwams, Indian graves, corn buried in the ground, which they take for themselves. For Bradford it was a divine providence, "a great mercy for these poor people that they found corn here to plant next year, otherwise they might have starved to death".

The first settlement is established in Plymouth

A month after landing, suitable territory has been found - an area that has already been named Plymouth. On December 25th, the settlers start building a meeting house. The "Mayflower", which lies off the coast, will stay with many for the entire winter.

Plymouth is Indian country inhabited by the Wampanoag and where probably more than 20,000 people lived before the first contact with Europeans. Epidemics, however, decimated the tribe in the years before the arrival of the pilgrims - as did the slave hunts by European captains. For the surviving Indians, the whites are threatening intruders. For the settlers, on the other hand, the greatest danger is not the indigenous people, but disease and hunger. In the months that followed, half of the colonists died, including most of the Mayflower crew who overwintered in Plymouth.

There are no houses that offer protection from the weather. And the "Mayflower" is still excruciatingly confined. Most of the settlers are emaciated from the crossing and suffer from scurvy and other diseases. Women in particular fail to survive. The dead are buried in as inconspicuous graves as possible so that the Indians cannot find them.

When it finally comes spring and the "Mayflower" leaves, the great dying subsides. Corn can be sown. Within a few weeks, a small settlement was built, consisting of a warehouse, the assembly center, and twelve other buildings - little more than huts made of wickerwork clad with clay. They are intended for the transition until the pilgrims have built more solid houses.

The meeting house, in which the congregation meets for worship, dominates the village not only because of its size. The Bible is often the only book in the home. For the Puritans it is the law that provides answers to all questions about politics, money, marriage, even clothing. Work stops on Sundays. It is the day of worship and meditation. Going to church is compulsory for everyone, including non-members.

The future of the colony is still uncertain. There was a shortage of grain until late summer. The settlers lack the skills necessary to fish and trade in fur.

Land disputes lead to war between Indians and colonists

On April 1st, an Indian from the Wampanoag tribe appears in the settlement; his name is Squanto and he speaks English. Squanto had been abducted to Europe a few years earlier, probably to Spain; from there he got to England. When he later returned to his country, not a single resident of his village was still alive. All had been carried off by a plague.

For Bradford this Indian is a "special, God-sent tool" because it not only shows the settlers how to grow corn and how to catch fish, it also serves as an interpreter and intermediary with other Indians.

Although the Indians are "barbaric savages" for Bradford, he wants a peaceful livelihood. The colony needs security. And both Indians and settlers are interested in intensive trade contacts. Squanto arranges a meeting with the Wampanoag tribe, the largest in the area, and their chief Massasoit.

It leads to a peace treaty in 1621 that lasts for 50 years. After that, however, the land hunger of the settlers, which continues to narrow the tribal area, will lead to a brutal war in which at least 3,000 Indians and 600 colonists will fall victim.

In the spring of 1621, Governor Carver died, probably of a stroke. Bradford, 31, will be his successor. This makes him the chief judge and treasurer of the colony, manager and foreign minister. Until shortly before his death he was elected to the highest secular office of the colony a total of 33 times.

The supply situation for the pilgrims remains critical and life is difficult

The first wedding in the colony takes place in May. The Puritans recognize only two sacraments: Baptism and the Lord's Supper. The marriage is concluded with them as a civil contract, without the presence of a pastor. A peculiar custom in advertising for the bride is bundling, in which the husband and wife lie under a blanket in bed to explain themselves.

According to the Puritans, the natural depravity of man naturally also applies to the body, which to them is no longer "a pot full of putrid excrement". Curbing the instincts and feelings is of course expected. A good Puritan holds his feelings in check even in love letters.

Nevertheless, the joyless severity and sexual hostility of the Puritans is probably not nearly as pronounced as they are said to be. Because the community is concerned with population growth, it accepts early, quick, and repeated marriages. Singleness is frowned upon, impotence even a reason for divorce. Premarital and extramarital intercourse are punished, but illegitimate children are tolerated.

In autumn, the pilgrims celebrate the first Thanksgiving Day on American soil. The settlers brought this custom with them from the Netherlands. The Wampanoag are also invited; 90 Indians bring killed deer and turkeys with them.

The relationship between the pilgrims and the Indians, however, remains ambivalent. On the one hand, they owe them their survival.And marriages between English and Indian women will soon no longer be uncommon. At the same time, however, the Indians embody a nature and instinctuality for the Puritans, which they reject and fight against. And they fear its influence on the community as they fear contracting a dangerous disease.

In November 1621 a ship from London unexpectedly appeared off the coast with 35 settlers on board, including twelve pilgrims from Leiden. The newcomers are disillusioned when they see this "bare and barren place".

But the old settlers are also appalled. The newcomers brought almost nothing with them, no dishes, hardly any clothing, hardly any supplies. When two more ships reached Plymouth in the summer of 1623, the settlement consisted of about 20 houses, which are much more solid than the first accommodations, if still modest. They are clad in clapboard, have a garden, but are mostly still on one floor.

Despite the help of the Indians, the supply situation remained critical in the first few years. The harvests are small, the stock corporation mostly sends inferior goods. Above all, however, the system of collective farms enforced among the pilgrims prevents high productivity. Bradford fears that this system will encourage laziness and negligence. And: it creates dissatisfaction.

"The young men," Bradford reports, "who were particularly fit and fit for work and service, were dissatisfied that they should give their time and energy to work for other men's wives and children without any compensation Women who served other men, clad them, had to wash their clothes, etc., considered it a kind of slavery. "

With famine still looming, Governor Bradford began in 1623 allotment of land to individual families. This is in contradiction to the agreements made with the London donors, but they are beginning to withdraw anyway because the expected profits are not being made.

Nevertheless, the colony is consolidating: Grain production is growing and the fur trade is becoming increasingly important for the survival of the settlers. With the Indians, the white skins trade for jewelry, blankets, schnapps and - despite the express prohibition of the English crown - for weapons. The skins are brought to Europe by supply ships, where they are a coveted commodity at the royal courts.

Thanks to the growing prosperity, the colonists succeed in acquiring the shares of the London merchants. In 1627 the joint-stock company was liquidated and the entire property was divided among the pioneers. All "suitable and free" settlers receive land and livestock - except for those who work as domestic and agricultural employees. And probably also some that are not found to be worth possessing.

Bradford and a few others take over the outstanding debts to the company's financiers in exchange for a six-year fur trading monopoly. Not until 1642 were all obligations paid off.

The colony of Plymouth is growing - and with it the problems

Plymouth has grown significantly now. Almost every year ships with new settlers came. According to Bradford, the colony consisted of 124 members in 1624. Six years later there are 300, and then 550 in 1637. New settlements are built to expand the colony's territory, set up trading posts and provide land for the new settlers.

Often these start-ups go back to the initiative of individual pioneers who leave Plymouth. A group settled in Duxbury before 1630. In 1636 the city of Scituate was incorporated into the colony, and around 1650 eight more cities were founded.

Bradford and other settlers view this development with concern because a true communion of God needs a narrow and closed settlement policy. Like a sad refrain, his lament pervades the later chapters of his book: "I fear this will be the fall of New England, at least of God's churches, and will arouse God's displeasure."

With the growing population, the colony faces new problems. From the very beginning there was no homogeneous community in Plymouth - they also belonged to the first "Mayflower" group strangers. And in the following years the newcomers often also include settlers who belong to the Anglican state church or who do not share the community ideal of the first settlers. More and more often the saints are in the minority in their communities.

In addition to the differences between the saints and the damned, there are those between the haves and the haves. Although the saints are supposed to pursue their calling diligently, they are not allowed to love wealth. The temptations are considerable: the newcomers need cattle and grain and are also willing to pay high prices.

Many Puritans also succumb to the seductive power of the empty, undeveloped land, especially young people who prefer a secure economic existence on better soil to a close community.

Many settlers therefore migrate to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which was founded in 1629. The young Puritan neighboring colony had better starting conditions right from the start. The settlers from England are wealthier and bring tools and goods with them. And already in 1630 their number increased to more than 1000 inhabitants. Four years later, 4,000 people live in 22 settlements. One of them, Boston, is becoming the center of a buoyant trade with other colonies, with England, Spain and Portugal and the Caribbean.

The colony of Plymouth, on the other hand, lacks good ports and capital; connections to English trading centers are poor. Economic centers do not develop in the first place. Plymouth continues to thrive on agriculture, especially as the fur trade wanes.

The first generation of settlers is gradually dying. And for old folks like Bradford, the younger generation's indifference in matters of faith is hard to bear. Didn't the pilgrims leave the Netherlands because they wanted to preserve their identity? "And so this church was left behind, like an old mother, forgotten by her children. She made many rich and became poor herself through it."

Puritan rigor and exclusivity continue to weaken. Children of the chosen are now also considered chosen without having to undergo an examination first. The reasons for this are rather profane in nature: You want to fill the pews and assert yourself against the growing number of non-Puritan settlers.

The dissolution of the community and the softening of the original ideals do not lead to the complete disappearance of the puritanical idea. But over several generations to their gradual reinterpretation, delimitation and change. The American Puritans, who are concerned with permanence and isolation, avoid the sin of leisure and pursue their calling diligently, are later given the nickname yankee, which is associated with ingenuity, ingenuity and thrift.

The community of the chosen saints is transformed into the chosen nation. From the mission goal of completing the Reformation and being a lighthouse to the world through their own example, the Americans also derive the missionary mandate to bring freedom and democracy to the world much later.

In the place of the sinners, against whom the elect must distance themselves, there are always new enemies who embody an evil world principle - first the Indians, then the French, and finally the British and Mexicans. And the expectation of redemption becomes - in the Declaration of Independence - a license for everyone to seek happiness "pursuit of happiness".