The Pilgrim Fathers
The English Reformers, while renouncing the doctrines
of Romanism, had retained many of its forms. Thus though the authority
and the creed of Rome were rejected, not a few of her customs and
ceremonies were incorporated into the worship of the Church of England.
It was claimed that these things were not matters of conscience; that
though they were not commanded in Scripture, and hence were
nonessential, yet not being forbidden, they were not intrinsically evil.
Their observance tended to narrow the gulf which separated the reformed
churches from Rome, and it was urged that they would promote the
acceptance of the Protestant faith by Romanists.
To the conservative and compromising, these arguments
seemed conclusive. But there was another class that did not so judge.
The fact that these customs "tended to bridge over the chasm
between Rome and the Reformation" (Martyn, volume 5, page 22), was
in their view a conclusive argument against retaining them. They looked
upon them as badges of the slavery from which they had been delivered
and to which they had no disposition to return. They reasoned that God
has in His word established the regulations governing His worship, and
that men are not at liberty to add to these or to detract from them. The
very beginning of the great apostasy was in seeking to supplement the
authority of God by
that of the church. Rome began by enjoining what God
had not forbidden, and she ended by forbidding what He had explicitly
Many earnestly desired to return to the purity and
simplicity which characterized the primitive church. They regarded many
of the established customs of the English Church as monuments of
idolatry, and they could not in conscience unite in her worship. But the
church, being supported by the civil authority, would permit no dissent
from her forms. Attendance upon her service was required by law, and
unauthorized assemblies for religious worship were prohibited, under
penalty of imprisonment, exile, and death.
At the opening of the seventeenth century the monarch
who had just ascended the throne of England declared his determination
to make the Puritans "conform, or . . . harry them out of the land,
or else worse."--George Bancroft, History of the United States of
America, pt. 1, ch. 12, par. 6. Hunted, persecuted, and imprisoned, they
could discern in the future no promise of better days, and many yielded
to the conviction that for such as would serve God according to the
dictates of their conscience, "England was ceasing forever to be a
habitable place."--J. G. Palfrey, History of New England, ch. 3,
par. 43. Some at last determined to seek refuge in Holland.
Difficulties, losses, and imprisonment were encountered. Their purposes
were thwarted, and they were betrayed into the hands of their enemies.
But steadfast perseverance finally conquered, and they found shelter on
the friendly shores of the Dutch Republic.
In their flight they had left their houses, their
goods, and their means of livelihood. They were strangers in a strange
land, among a people of different language and customs. They were forced
to resort to new and untried occupations to earn their bread. Middle-aged
men, who had spent their lives in tilling the soil, had now to learn
mechanical trades. But they cheerfully accepted the situation and lost
no time in idleness or repining. Though often pinched with poverty,
they thanked God for the blessings which were still
granted them and found their joy in unmolested spiritual communion.
"They knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things,
but lifted up their eyes to heaven, their dearest country, and quieted
their spirits."--Bancroft, pt. 1, ch. 12, par. 15.
In the midst of exile and hardship their love and
faith waxed strong. They trusted the Lord's promises, and He did not
fail them in time of need. His angels were by their side, to encourage
and support them. And when God's hand seemed pointing them across the
sea, to a land where they might found for themselves a state, and leave
to their children the precious heritage of religious liberty, they went
forward, without shrinking, in the path of providence.
God had permitted trials to come upon His people to
prepare them for the accomplishment of His gracious purpose toward them.
The church had been brought low, that she might be exalted. God was
about to display His power in her behalf, to give to the world another
evidence that He will not forsake those who trust in Him. He had
overruled events to cause the wrath of Satan and the plots of evil men
to advance His glory and to bring His people to a place of security.
Persecution and exile were opening the way to freedom.
When first constrained to separate from the English
Church, the Puritans had joined themselves together by a solemn
covenant, as the Lord's free people, "to walk together in all His
ways made known or to be made known to them." --J. Brown, The
Pilgrim Fathers, page 74. Here was the true spirit of reform, the vital
principle of Protestantism. It was with this purpose that the Pilgrims
departed from Holland to find a home in the New World. John Robinson,
their pastor, who was providentially prevented from accompanying them,
in his farewell address to the exiles said:
"Brethren, we are now erelong to part asunder,
and the Lord knoweth whether I shall live ever to see your faces more.
But whether the Lord hath appointed it or not, I
charge you before God and His blessed angels to
follow me no farther than I have followed Christ. If God should reveal
anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive
it as ever you were to receive any truth of my ministry; for I am very
confident the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth out of
His holy word."--Martyn, vol. 5, p. 70.
"For my part, I cannot sufficiently bewail the
condition of the reformed churches, who are come to a period in
religion, and will go at present no farther than the instruments of
their reformation. The Lutherans cannot be drawn to go beyond what
Luther saw; . . . and the Calvinists, you see, stick fast where they
were left by that great man of God, who yet saw not all things. This is
a misery much to be lamented; for though they were burning and shining
lights in their time, yet they penetrated not into the whole counsel of
God, but were they now living, would be as willing to embrace further
light as that which they first received."--D. Neal, History of the
Puritans, vol. 1, p. 269.
"Remember your church covenant, in which you
have agreed to walk in all the ways of the Lord, made or to be made
known unto you. Remember your promise and covenant with God and with one
another, to receive whatever light and truth shall be made known to you
from His written word; but withal, take heed, I beseech you, what you
receive for truth, and compare it and weigh it with other scriptures of
truth before you accept it; for it is not possible the Christian world
should come so lately out of such thick antichristian darkness, and that
full perfection of knowledge should break forth at once."--Martyn,
vol. 5, pp. 70, 71.
It was the desire for liberty of conscience that
inspired the Pilgrims to brave the perils of the long journey across the
sea, to endure the hardships and dangers of the wilderness, and with
God's blessing to lay, on the shores of America, the foundation of a
mighty nation. Yet honest and God-fearing
as they were, the Pilgrims did not yet comprehend the
great principle of religious liberty. The freedom which they sacrificed
so much to secure for themselves, they were not equally ready to grant
to others. "Very few, even of the foremost thinkers and moralists
of the seventeenth century, had any just conception of that grand
principle, the outgrowth of the New Testament, which acknowledges God as
the sole judge of human faith."--Ibid., vol. 5, p. 297. The
doctrine that God has committed to the church the right to control the
conscience, and to define and punish heresy, is one of the most deeply
rooted of papal errors. While the Reformers rejected the creed of Rome,
they were not entirely free from her spirit of intolerance. The dense
darkness in which, through the long ages of her rule, popery had
enveloped all Christendom, had not even yet been wholly dissipated. Said
one of the leading ministers in the colony of Massachusetts Bay:
"It was toleration that made the world antichristian; and the
church never took harm by the punishment of heretics."--Ibid., vol.
5, p. 335. The regulation was adopted by the
colonists that only church members should have a voice in the civil
government. A kind of state church was formed, all the people being
required to contribute to the support of the clergy, and the magistrates
being authorized to suppress heresy. Thus the secular power was in the
hands of the church. It was not long before these measures led to the
inevitable result --persecution.
Eleven years after the planting of the first colony,
Roger Williams came to the New World. Like the early Pilgrims he came to
enjoy religious freedom; but, unlike them, he saw --what so few in his
time had yet seen--that this freedom was the inalienable right of all,
whatever might be their creed. He was an earnest seeker for truth, with
Robinson holding it impossible that all the light from God's word had
yet been received. Williams "was the first person in modern
Christendom to establish civil government on the doctrine of the liberty
of conscience, the equality of opinions before
the law."--Bancroft, pt. 1, ch. 15, par. 16. He
declared it to be the duty of the magistrate to restrain crime, but
never to control the conscience. "The public or the magistrates may
decide," he said, "what is due from man to man; but when they
attempt to prescribe a man's duties to God, they are out of place, and
there can be no safety; for it is clear that if the magistrates has the
power, he may decree one set of opinions or beliefs today and another
tomorrow; as has been done in England by different kings and queens, and
by different popes and councils in the Roman Church; so that belief
would become a heap of confusion."--Martyn, vol. 5, p. 340.
Attendance at the services of the established church
was required under a penalty of fine or imprisonment. "Williams
reprobated the law; the worst statute in the English code was that which
did but enforce attendance upon the parish church. To compel men to
unite with those of a different creed, he regarded as an open violation
of their natural rights; to drag to public worship the irreligious and
the unwilling, seemed only like requiring hypocrisy. . . . 'No one
should be bound to worship, or,' he added, 'to maintain a worship,
against his own consent.' 'What!' exclaimed his antagonists, amazed at
his tenets, 'is not the laborer worthy of his hire?' 'Yes,' replied he,
'from them that hire him.'"-- Bancroft, pt. 1, ch. 15, par. 2.
Roger Williams was respected and beloved as a
faithful minister, a man of rare gifts, of unbending integrity and true
benevolence; yet his steadfast denial of the right of civil magistrates
to authority over the church, and his demand for religious liberty,
could not be tolerated. The application of this new doctrine, it was
urged, would "subvert the fundamental state and government of the
country."--Ibid., pt. 1, ch. 15, par. 10. He was sentenced to
banishment from the colonies, and, finally, to avoid arrest, he was
forced to flee, amid the cold and storms of winter, into the unbroken
"For fourteen weeks," he says, "I was
sorely tossed in a bitter season, not knowing what bread or bed did
But "the ravens fed me in the wilderness,"
and a hollow tree often served him for a shelter.--Martyn, vol. 5, pp.
349, 350. Thus he continued his painful flight through the snow and the
trackless forest, until he found refuge with an Indian tribe whose
confidence and affection he had won while endeavoring to teach them the
truths of the gospel.
Making his way at last, after months of change and
wandering, to the shores of Narragansett Bay, he there laid the
foundation of the first state of modern times that in the fullest sense
recognized the right of religious freedom. The fundamental principle of
Roger Williams's colony was "that every man should have liberty to
worship God according to the light of his own conscience."--Ibid.,
vol. 5, p. 354. His little state, Rhode Island, became the asylum of the
oppressed, and it increased and prospered until its foundation
principles--civil and religious liberty--became the cornerstones of the
In that grand old document which our forefathers set
forth as their bill of rights--the Declaration of Independence--they
declared: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men
are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain
unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit
of happiness." And the Constitution guarantees, in the most
explicit terms, the inviolability of conscience: "No religious test
shall ever be required as a qualification to any office of public trust
under the United States." "Congress shall make no law
respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free
"The framers of the Constitution recognized the
eternal principle that man's relation with his God is above human
legislation, and his rights of conscience inalienable. Reasoning was not
necessary to establish this truth; we are conscious of it in our own
bosoms. It is this consciousness which, in defiance of human laws, has
sustained so many martyrs in tortures and flames. They felt that their
duty to God was superior to human enactments, and that man could
no authority over their consciences. It is an inborn
principle which nothing can eradicate."--Congressional documents
(U.S.A.), serial No. 200, document No. 271.
As the tidings spread through the countries of
Europe, of a land where every man might enjoy the fruit of his own labor
and obey the convictions of his own conscience, thousands flocked to the
shores of the New World. Colonies rapidly multiplied.
"Massachusetts, by special law, offered free welcome and aid, at
the public cost, to Christians of any nationality who might fly beyond
the Atlantic 'to escape from wars or famine, or the oppression of their
persecutors.' Thus the fugitive and the downtrodden were, by statute,
made the guests of the commonwealth."--Martyn, vol. 5, p. 417. In
twenty years from the first landing at Plymouth, as many thousand
Pilgrims were settled in New England.
To secure the object which they sought, "they
were content to earn a bare subsistence by a life of frugality and toil.
They asked nothing from the soil but the reasonable returns of their own
labor. No golden vision threw a deceitful halo around their path. . . .
They were content with the slow but steady progress of their social
polity. They patiently endured the privations of the wilderness,
watering the tree of liberty with their tears, and with the sweat of
their brow, till it took deep root in the land."
The Bible was held as the foundation of faith, the
source of wisdom, and the charter of liberty. Its principles were
diligently taught in the home, in the school, and in the church, and its
fruits were manifest in thrift, intelligence, purity, and temperance.
One might be for years a dweller in the Puritan settlement, "and
not see a drunkard, or hear an oath, or meet a beggar."--Bancroft,
pt. 1, ch. 19, par. 25. It was demonstrated that the principles of the
Bible are the surest safeguards of national greatness. The feeble and
isolated colonies grew to a confederation of powerful states, and the
world marked with wonder the peace and prosperity of "a church
without a pope, and a state without a king."
But continually increasing numbers were attracted to
shores of America, actuated by motives widely
different from those of the first Pilgrims. Though the primitive faith
and purity exerted a widespread and molding power, yet its influence
became less and less as the numbers increased of those who sought only
The regulation adopted by the early colonists, of
permitting only members of the church to vote or to hold office in the
civil government, led to most pernicious results. This measure had been
accepted as a means of preserving the purity of the state, but it
resulted in the corruption of the church. A profession of religion being
the condition of suffrage and officeholding, many, actuated solely by
motives of worldly policy, united with the church without a change of
heart. Thus the churches came to consist, to a considerable extent, of
unconverted persons; and even in the ministry were those who not only
held errors of doctrine, but who were ignorant of the renewing power of
the Holy Spirit. Thus again was demonstrated the evil results, so often
witnessed in the history of the church from the days of Constantine to
the present, of attempting to build up the church by the aid of the
state, of appealing to the secular power in support of the gospel of Him
who declared: "My kingdom is not of this world." John 18:36.
The union of the church with the state, be the degree never so slight,
while it may appear to bring the world nearer to the church, does in
reality but bring the church nearer to the world.
The great principle so nobly advocated by Robinson
and Roger Williams, that truth is progressive, that Christians should
stand ready to accept all the light which may shine from God's holy
word, was lost sight of by their descendants. The Protestant churches of
America,--and those of Europe as well,--so highly favored in receiving
the blessings of the Reformation, failed to press forward in the path of
reform. Though a few faithful men arose, from time to time, to proclaim
new truth and expose long-cherished error, the majority, like the Jews
in Christ's day or the papists in the time of Luther, were content to
believe as their fathers had
believed and to live as they had lived. Therefore
religion again degenerated into formalism; and errors and superstitions
which would have been cast aside had the church continued to walk in the
light of God's word, were retained and cherished. Thus the spirit
inspired by the Reformation gradually died out, until there was almost
as great need of reform in the Protestant churches as in the Roman
Church in the time of Luther. There was the same worldliness and
spiritual stupor, a similar reverence for the opinions of men, and
substitution of human theories for the teachings of God's word.
The wide circulation of the Bible in the early part
of the nineteenth century, and the great light thus shed upon the world,
was not followed by a corresponding advance in knowledge of revealed
truth, or in experimental religion. Satan could not, as in former ages,
keep God's word from the people; it had been placed within the reach of
all; but in order still to accomplish his object, he led many to value
it but lightly. Men neglected to search the Scriptures, and thus they
continued to accept false interpretations, and to cherish doctrines
which had no foundation in the Bible.
Seeing the failure of his efforts to crush out the
truth by persecution, Satan had again resorted to the plan of compromise
which led to the great apostasy and the formation of the Church of Rome.
He had induced Christians to ally themselves, not now with pagans, but
with those who, by their devotion to the things of this world, had
proved themselves to be as truly idolaters as were the worshipers of
graven images. And the results of this union were no less pernicious now
than in former ages; pride and extravagance were fostered under the
guise of religion, and the churches became corrupted. Satan continued to
pervert the doctrines of the Bible, and traditions that were to ruin
millions were taking deep root. The church was upholding and defending
these traditions, instead of contending for "the faith which was
once delivered unto the saints." Thus were degraded the principles
for which the Reformers had done and suffered so much.