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Genealogy - Historical Context - Pilgrim and Puritan Roots in Religious Dissent in England


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Type: Article
Prepared by: Katrina Haney
Word Count: 1044 (approx.)
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While the British Colony in Virginia was in it's early days, there was a bitter persecution going on in England against those whose religious views differed from the accepted Church of England, as proclaimed by Queen Elizabeth I. The people who lived in this time had endured decades of religious upheaval, beginning with Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII, who broke from the Catholic Church in Rome only because he wanted to divorce his wife and marry Anne Boleyn.

After Henry died the various rulers that followed played tug-of-war with the churches, going back and forth between Catholic and Protestant, until Elizabeth finally proclaimed the establishment of the Church of England as it would exist for many decades afterwards. While it was considered Protestant, it still carried many of the traditions and trappings of the Catholic Church that was its forerunner.

From Henry to Elizabeth though, the one thing all the rulers had in common was an inherent belief that whatever the religion of the nation was, everyone in the realm had to follow it. It never even occurred to them that it could be otherwise. The unity of the county was paramount, and their lives were ruled by religion, so it was was the most natural thing in the world for them to try so desperately to force the established religion upon everyone. They believed it would be the downfall of their nation to allow it to be any other way.

The problem was, the cats were already out of the bag, so to speak, and no matter how hard Elizabeth and her adherents tried to grab them and stuff them back in, the movement away from the established order was spreading just too fast to contain. But try she did. And her clerics did their very best to achieve the desires of their queen. Unfortunately, this resulted in some pretty harsh treatment for the miscreants. Steep fines, loss of property and possessions and constant harassment were just the beginning. Many were imprisoned, whipped, and some, in a few extreme cases, were even put to death. At a time when a person could be fined simply for neglecting to attend regular church services, bucking the system could be dangerous.

After the death of Elizabeth and the ascension to the throne of James I, things got even worse. Some of the most vocal opponents of the church were known as the "puritans," so called because they wanted to "purify" the Church of England. For them this meant getting rid of all the ceremonial accoutrements left over from the centuries of Catholic influence.  Things like the attire of the clergy, infant baptism, and many of the sacraments were not how they believed God intended things to be. They wanted to go back to the earlier time of the apostles, when worship was more individual and definitely much simpler.

But nevertheless, the Puritans still remained a part of the Church of England. They were just trying to  make the changes within it that they thought should be made. A more radical segment of the dissenters believed that the church was just too far gone to be changed enough to matter, and they wanted to totally separate from it and worship in the ways they believed were the right ones. They became known as "separatists" and were harshly treated because of this.

Some of them decided that the treatment was just too hard to bear and they fled, usually in secrecy, to other countries. They were quite welcomed in Holland, a land where religious differences were much more tolerated. However, after a number of years there they became concerned for their children, fearing that they would become too much like the Dutch, and that they were losing their identity. As word started spreading about the possibilities of a new start in the New World, dreams of having a place where they could live and worship as they liked began to take hold among them, and eventually they found a way to turn the dreams into a reality.

One hundred and two people known as "pilgrims" sailed in the Mayflower and, after a long and stormy passage, landed at Plymouth Rock in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, December 21, 1620, in the midst of a blinding snowstorm. Much of their story has been romanticized in our histories, but there is little doubt that these were determined people, willing to face incredible hardships for what they believed in. They lost half their number during that first winter, which is said to have been one of the harshest ever known. But from them, and those who joined them over the next decade, have sprung millions of proud Americans, who still carry their spirit of conviction and the fortitude to go through the hard times when it matters. I am proud to be among them.

By the way, the pilgrims did not call themselves that. They referred to themselves as "saints" and those who were not of them were "strangers." They were first referred to as Pilgrims by Governor Bradford in his journal, using the term in the sense of a people making a journey for religious reasons, known as a "pilgrimage." They were not referred to as "Pilgrims" again for many years afterward. But that is the name for them that has survived now for almost 400 years.

Katrina Haney is a Family Historian and a Digital Scrapbook Artist who pursues both her passions at GenScraps, where you can find scraps of genealogical wisdom, and information on scrapping your family history, as well as digital products to be used to make your own Family History and Genealogical Scrapbooks. These digital designs can also be used in Ancestry's book printing section.

At GenScraps you can find:

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