Which early settlers wanted religious freedom?

The Pilgrims, in 1620

In 1543, Henry VIII created the Church of England and broke from the Catholic Church so that he could divorce his first wife and marry his second.

With the creation of the Church of England, the next question became – what should it look like? How should God be worshipped? The Protestant Reformation of 1517 took the work of earlier thinkers and their critiques of the Catholic Church, and catalyzed a broader discussion about religion.

The Puritans were a sect within the Church of England and they thought that, while the Church of England had done a good thing with getting rid of some of the trappings and ceremonies of the Catholic Church, it hadn’t gone far enough. They wanted a focus to be on personal and group piety and less on ceremonies.

Of course, there were other groups within the Church of England who wanted services to be more like the Catholic Church and they resented the Puritans for looking to change things.

In meetings and committees and convocations during this period, the Puritans got some of what they wanted in terms of changing the Church of England, but they also didn’t get much of what they were looking for.

A group of Puritans got fed up with trying to work with the Church of England and felt that they’re only course was to worship separately from all other congregations, and so became known as Separatists. But this was a problem because, under the 1559 Act of Uniformity, it was illegal not to attend official Church of England services or a Church that was aligned to the Church of England. The Puritans were aligned and the Separatists weren’t.

And the fines and penalties were steep – with a fine of one shilling (or about £17 today) for each missed Sunday and holy day. The penalties for conducting unofficial services included imprisonment and larger fines. Under the policy of this time, two founder of the Separatists, Barrowe and Greenwood, were executed for sedition in 1593.

Many Separatists went to Leiden, Holland and started their lives anew there. There were some successes in this course – some people taking up their trades and merging into the town, but others ended up spending their life savings and having to go back to England.

Then followed a series of decisions and actions – leaving Holland, finding a place to go to, how to get there, having a land grant, and the rest of it (all quite complicated but written in detail in the link below) – which brought the Pilgrims to Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620.


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