Investigate or do worse.’James I of England The

Investigate the reasons why Separatists sought to leave the Church of England and ultimately preserve their community and religious identity in America.

Afterward, check your understanding with a quiz.

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Who were the Separatists?

There is a lot of mythology surrounding the Pilgrims, who are probably the best-known group of Separatists. The English Pilgrims, as we’ve come to accept, boarded a rickety boat, named The Mayflower, and challenged the frigid waters of the North Atlantic in the early 17th century. To preserve their religious liberty, they landed in America, where they invented Thanksgiving and mashed potatoes and gravy. Let’s look a bit deeper into this story and learn the real history behind these Separatists.

An engraving of The Mayflower, the ship of the Pilgrims
An engraving of The Mayflower, the ship of the Pilgrims

We need to start before the Pilgrims boarded The Mayflower. Our story starts in late-16 century England. The Church of England, or the Anglican Church, had broke from the Catholic Church and became a Protestant institution.

But for many English Christians, the Anglican Church still looked a lot like the Catholic Church, and they couldn’t bring themselves to continue their membership.These were the Separatists – English Christians who wanted to separate from the Anglican Church in the 16th and 17th centuries. Separatists came to believe that rather than one church – such as the Anglican Church – claiming jurisdiction over all believers, there should exist a gathered church, where worshipers in a certain area attended a local parish church. So the Separatists worked to create independent local churches, free of the control of the Church of England.

Needless to say, Anglican leaders did not approve of the Separatists’ actions. Laws were passed requiring all English citizens to attend the services of the Church of England, under the threat of harsh punishment. In 1604, for example, English King James I vowed, ‘I shall make them conform, or I will hurry them out of the land, or do worse.’

James I of England
james i

The Most Famous Separatists: The Pilgrims

This leads us to the Pilgrims.

Made up of mostly small farmers, Separatists from the village of Scrooby fled England for Holland in 1608 and 1609 because they refused to remain a part of the Anglican Church. Many of the Scrooby Separatists feared they were losing their identity in Holland and that their children were adopting Dutch customs. Leader William Bradford suggested their Separatist identity could be preserved in America.So, in 1620, around 100 Separatist men, women, and children set sail for America. Caught in a storm, their ship, The Mayflower, landed by mistake just south of present-day Boston, Massachusetts, in the region of New England. To provide community cohesion in this new land, the Separatists signed the Mayflower Compact, pledging to ‘covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation.’

Embarkation of the Pilgrims, a painting by Edgar Parker after Robert Weir, 1875
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