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

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