Columns Government & Politics Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion Politics

Let’s celebrate the Pilgrims (the Puritans not so much)

(RNS) — This Thanksgiving, let’s take a moment to pay tribute to the 102 immigrants who fetched up on Cape Cod in 1620. Not just because the holiday can be traced back to them but because, unlike the much bigger gang that landed in Boston Harbor 10 years later, they had the right spiritual politics.

Both groups were dissenters from the Church of England — Calvinists seeking a place to practice their religion in peace. But whereas the Bay colonists (Puritans) believed in using the state to keep their community religiously pure à la Calvin’s Geneva, the folks in Plymouth (Pilgrims) were separatists influenced by their sojourn in the Netherlands, then Europe’s bastion of religious tolerance.


READ: The ‘Splainer: Who are you calling a Puritan?


The radical Baptist Roger Williams, banished by the Puritan Bay colony for sedition and heresy, was a kindred spirit who spent time in Plymouth before establishing himself next door in Rhode Island.

In 1645, Plymouth’s colonists proposed legislation for Massachusetts “to allow and maintain full and free toleration to all men that would preserve the civil peace and submit unto government; and there was no limitation or exception against Turk, Jew, Papist, Arian, Socinian, Nicolaitan, Familist, or any other,” as their elected governor Edward Winslow explained in a letter to the governor of the colony, John Winthrop.

Winthrop would have none of it. It would, he wrote, “eat out the power of godliness,” and he kept the proposal from coming to a vote by the General Court. Fifteen years later, they were hanging Quakers in Boston.

In the early 19th century, memory of Puritan intolerance ran strong in Massachusetts, as you can read in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, “The Scarlet Letter,” and his short stories, such as “Young Goodman Brown.” The great historian George Bancroft, whose ancestors came to Massachusetts Bay in 1632, drew the contrast by implication, writing of the Plymouth colonists: “a wide experience had emancipated them from bigotry; and they were never betrayed into the excesses of religious persecution.”

At a time when intolerance is on the rise in America — when a president is elected who proposes a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. and when bigotry against immigrants and minorities has taken to the streets — let us give thanks this season for those first settlers who thought, and acted, differently.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

34 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • “The radical Baptist Roger Williams, banished by the Puritan Bay colony for sedition and heresy…..”
    You should read about Anne Hutchinson sometime and the antinomian controversy of 1636-1638.

    The Puritans could be rather intolerant at times. It sometimes amazes me how easy it is to become that which you fear most. The Puritans were escaping from religious persecution, and ended up being the very thing they were fleeing.

    I will never understand how it is that Trump gets dragged into these conversations, but he does. Fact is that his ‘Muslim ban’ is sensationalist headline stuff. This ban is only against specific countries who have no reliable methods of vetting would be immigrants. Arguments can be made about the effectiveness or fairness of said bans, (at least I argue that) but at least be truthful about what they are. Also, deporting those in America ILLEGALLY is not bigotry. Again, one can argue about the humanity, fairness, or even necessity of such things, (and again, I usually do), but, again, stop mis-characterizing what is going on.

  • This is what was on Candidate Trump’s website: “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”

  • Roger Williams was the spiritual author of our religious liberties. One of the first proponent on American shores who espoused free exercise of religion and the separation of church and state.

    “This ban is only against specific countries who have no reliable methods of vetting would be immigrants.”

    Except that is not true and the WH had yet to demonstrates there are deficiencies in the system of vetting refugees already in place. The ban was limited to countries which wouldn’t cause a diplomatic/political/economic crapstorm if there was a travel ban to them. Like any bully he picked on the easiest targets based on their ability to fight back.

    “Also, deporting those in America ILLEGALLY is not bigotry.”

    It is when one is being very selective about it, employing illegal methods and encouraging institutionalized bigotry of profiling by race/ethnicity. Trump’s efforts concerning legal immigration are entirely bigoted in scope. Desiring to limit family and employment visas arbitrarily by dishonestly claiming to protect American workers. In reality it would tank the US economy and only serve the interests of white supremacists.

  • Is not one of his jobs to protect your country, or is it only from those you disapprove of – like evangelicals?

  • It would sure be nice if they taught this explicitly in school–indeed, emphasized it, instead of glossing over it.

    It would also be nice if Baptists emphasized this stuff, particularly the church/state separation stuff, as they used to some decades ago.

  • There is a world of difference between the religious tolerance espoused by the Pilgrims and religious freedom espoused by Roger Williams.

    The Pilgrims were still theocratic in nature. Only their sect had full rights as members. Other religious groups were proposed to be tolerated. Meaning not full members but not harassed. Existing without penalty at the sufferance and favor of the ruling sect members.

    The Rhode Island charter under Williams guaranteed full rights to all faiths and separated the dominant sect from political favor. Religious freedom does not require listing faiths to be granted rights. It assumes all are.

  • When and if they employ illegal methods, you might have a point. Nor is this administration encouraging institutionalized bigotry. Fact is that the huge majority of illegals here are from south of the border. (I cannot emphasize the word ILLEGAL enough here.) If you want to try logical arguments, such as impractical, in some cases inhumane…you might (depending on how your argument is phrased) have some valid points.

    And ending chain migration is not discriminatory, arbitrary, nor dishonest. In reality, that is a sound, realistic and practical immigration policy.

  • Speaking of puritans, this isn’t too far off topic as far as I can tell.

    Joe Barton, a long time Republican congressman, has long been against gay marriage for all of the usual reason: Christian dominionism, Republican “conservatism”, sanctity of marriage, and all of that.

    It turns out that good ol’ joe is on his second marriage, though for a good Christian, sanctity of marriage kind of a guy, that sounds like adultery to me. As far as I can tell, he divorced his first wife back in 1993.

    Let’s talk about his second wife. He divorced HER in 2015. Someone, but no one important, said something about no divorce. But there you have it. He admits to having what he called “consensual” Affairs with SEVERAL “mature” women prior to his second divorce. Sounds like adultery again, adultery piled atop adultery. Maybe even fornication, but I cannot keep up with the sin catalogue. And besides, who am I to judge?

    Sanctity of marriage, my a$$. Are there any adults in the room?

    Meanwhile, it turns out that there there are naked pictures of him floating around the Internet. (Editorial comment: eeeeeeeeeeewwwwwwwwww). I’m sure that somehow, that’s a sin, though I’m equally sure that there will be some True Christians (TM) claiming at it is not.

    So what does that have to do with the Puritan intolerance discussed in this article? If you need an explanation, you’re not paying any attention. But this is why we MUST have a strict separation of church and state, a wall which our modern day puritans are intent on tearing down, all the while proclaiming how much they love everyone…

    …that is just like them, and believes exactly what they do.

  • There is no when or if involved. Illegal methods were already used regularly. Those detainer orders were unconstitutional. Illegal profiling is praised by supporters of these new ICE tactics and the president.

    Fact is the people most vociferous on the subject are: 1) the least knowledgeable about immigration laws they want enforced, 2) unwilling to see the ongoing flaws creates by many of them making the problem worse and 3) most guided by bigoted appeals against various ethnic and racism minorities. 50 years of catch and deport have nothing to show for it.

    You want to read suggestions?
    1. Make illegal entry or overstay without any criminal law violations punishable by stiff fines. You pay to stay.

    2. A manual labor visa. Demand for illegal alien labor exists and supply of citizens willing to do the work is non existent.

    3. Make employment visas portable to the worker to prevent its abuse as a tool to lock up immigrant labor skills and coercive lower pay scales.

    Attacking “chain migration” is as bigoted as it gets. It is a policy which only serves white supremacists. They are the only ones who use the term. That kind of immigration you decry is a boon for the economy of the entire nation. It has expanded entrepreneurship, expanded skillsets of employees, and brought increased foreign investment to the nation.

  • Fact is that your opinion of ‘facts’ is based on your ideology and world view, and not based on fact. Detaining illegals is not unconstitutional. A fact which, in and of itself derails your argument.
    I could agree on your suggestions, depending on the specifics of how they are worded in any official law. I wonder if you are aware that many have suggested some very similar responses. In fact, if I recall correctly, some of these were in the immigration bill a few years ago…you know. The one the gop torpedoed?

    BTW, there is nothing bigoted about the term chain migration, and ending it has nothing to do with race. And please stop your racist, race baiting nonsense. It serves no purpose, and accomplishes nothing.

  • You really don’t appear to be well informed on the subject.

    “Detaining illegals is not unconstitutional. ”

    Not what I was talking about.

    Detainer Orders are requests by ICE for local law enforcement to hold people who have been released from their custody so they can be picked up on immigration violations. They require a level of 4th Amendment due process to be legal. Virtually all of them issued were not.

    Profiling based on ethnicity was praised by our president when he granted a pardon to the corrupt Joe Arpaio. A man who used immigration issues as a pretext to harass and attack people in an obviously bigoted fashion.

    “BTW, there is nothing bigoted about the term chain migration,”

    Yet the term is only seen from blatantly racist nativist positions, such as those taken up by neo-nazi front Center for Immigration studies.

    There is no foreseen benefit of limiting it besides to favor the majority racial demographic. It has been one of the most successful parts of our immigration system and has reaped economic and political benefits to our nation. You may not have been aware of how the term is used or the position on the subject. But now you are.

    “and ending it has nothing to do with race.”

    Of course it does. Which is why it is so popular among white supremacists. There is no economic or political benefit to any other group. You may not want to discuss the inherent racism of the position, but it exists and is integral to it. I couldn’t care less if that annoys you.
    https://qz.com/1045794/donald-trumps-new-immigration-bill-is-his-latest-effort-to-reverse-the-arc-of-racial-justice/
    https://rewire.news/article/2017/08/03/immigration-advocates-raise-act-inherently-racist/

  • The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the Baptists that support them are very active proponents of the separation of church and state.

  • If we change the words to “discrimination on thebasis of religious belief”, which it so clearly is, I wonder what they would say?

    They certainly would not say, “we assiduously avoided that particular understanding in THIS particular case” unless they wanted to be accused of being godless liberals.

  • Church/State Separation – I vote, Yeah.

    What’s a$$, though?

    I know A$ stands for Australian dollar. C$ for Canadian ducks I mean bucks. And US$ means recession. But a$$?

    Maybe BiO just needs a new keyboard for Thanksgiving Puritan Style tomorrow?

  • Roger Williams was Baptist, though. That’s still A-OK, right-o ?

    If I’m not mistaken, Jerry Falwell was Baptist, too, in a deranged sort of way. Me, too, originally. No, not deranged, but, you know, Baptist.

  • Clutching at Straws is the fourth studio album by the British neo-progressive rock band Marillion, released in 1987. It was the last album with original lead singer Fish, who left the band in 1988, and is a concept album.

    Just wanna throw that in before you guys go at it.

  • Nope. Philips, for example, has admitted, nay, stipulated that the foundation of his behavior is his religious belief– indeed, he is proud of it. He is demanding an exception based upon artistic expression being speech. I don’t think that worked for pole dancers, and so I doubt it will work for him. But it might.
    He has also claimed freedom of conscience, as if that were somehow superior to his religious beliefs, and as if it were true.
    either we allow discrimination on the basis of religious beliefs in public accommodations, contrary to the civil rights act of 1964. Or we don’t. I think it is that simple.

  • Yes, absolutely. I was well-aware of that. Unfortunately, BJC is much smaller than SBC, and I don’t know how it compares in terms of influence. I receive the BJC monthly magazine, and they’re decent, upright, intelligent folks.

  • Ah so you remember how I love name-dropping!

    “Arthur Dimmesdale”? Ne’er ‘erd of’m. But hey Wiki, c’mere mate. What you got for me?

    Arthur “Dimmesdale faces a problem that is both simple and paradoxical: the knowledge of his sin, his inability to disclose it to Puritan society, and his desire for confession. He attempts to ameliorate the pressure of this position by punishing himself (both physically and mentally) and by insisting to his parishioners that he is a base, worthless creature. Without the awareness of his specific crime, however, his flock takes his protestations of worthlessness as further evidence of his holiness (a fact of which he is well aware) since, in the Puritan conception, awareness of one’s sinful worthlessness is a necessary component of whatever virtue is available to humans; thus, Dimmesdale has been taken as an example of a conflict typical of Puritans (or seen as such by Hawthorne from his historical distance).”

    Oh if only Donald Trump is a third of this “Arthur Dimmesdale” character in real life! US President Jimmy Carter was a better comparison. I mean that confession of his to Playboy! Don’t you remember how his “Puritan community” of constituencies overreacted by jumping the Ship of Dems and swam to the Shores of GOP? Didn’t see that coming, did you, Dumb Prez? Look now. Not a single “Puritan” left in the Ship of Dems today. And that’s a good thing?

    US President Mike Pence & US Senator Roy Moore – think on that!

  • “Roger Williams was Baptist, though. That’s still A-OK, right-o ?”

    Why not. I am not a sectarian bigot. I admire his writings and their effect on our laws today.

    “Jerry Falwell was Baptist, too,”

    But Jerry Falwell is a reprehensible human being in both his words and deeds who hates religious freedom.

    Might as well be saying Roger Williams and Jerry Falwell are mammals, therefore they have a deep connection.

  • I must be missing your point, Ben. The BJC thinks that Colorado’s law prohibiting discrimination in places of public accommodation should prevail over Philips’ free exercise claim. I was not talking about his freedom of expression claim and neither is the BJC. Although, I hope neither of his claims are upheld.

  • You know, you’re are right. I went to your link again, and re-read it. They are all over the map in terms of their position, and that was confusing me. but ultimately, they come down on the side of non discrimination laws.

ADVERTISEMENTs