Pilgrims fled Old World religious persecution in 1620. Once settled in the New World however, they persecuted those who broke biblical rules.
English writer G. K. Chesterton quipped about the Pilgrims' scolding attitude: "In America, they have a feast to celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims. Here in England, we should have a feast to celebrate their departure."
That's because the Pilgrims perfected a cycle: First, they treasured personal freedom; then, they gained power to govern; and, once elected, they persecuted dissenters.
Historically, the Anglican state church dominated England. After losing confidence in the Anglican regime, Pilgrims started independent churches. British rulers responded by threatening prison if the Pilgrims didn't cease their separatists acts.
Pilgrim preacher Richard Clyfron warned his small congregation to stay pure by not associating with Anglicans.
He repeated the Apostle Paul's advice. God wants believers to separate from the wicked world. "Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them," says the Lord, "and touch nothing unclean" (II Corinthians 6:27). This text probably gave "Separatists" their name.
They found the Anglican Church heavy-handed, ecclesiastically rigid and full of themselves. Anglicans believed God revealed his will through church traditions. Pilgrims disagreed. They believed in direct contact with God. Disdaining archbishops who ruled with iron fists, Pilgrims chastised bishops for wearing showy embroidered vestments.
After wearing out their welcome in England, some Pilgrims moved to Leiden in the Netherlands. But these Separatists found Hollanders too worldly. Consequently, in 1620, 102 settlers returned to Plymouth, England, where they boarded the Mayflower. This port furnished the name for their new colony in Massachusetts.
Are some contemporary religious activists sounding like Pilgrims? Their aim is to purge America of its "errant ways," especially in sexual ethics. The government, they argue, must intercede to prohibit citizens from making reproductive choices about contraception and when life begins. Planned Parenthood must be run out of business. The cycle of achieving personal liberties, gaining power and stamping out dissent rolls on.
Such contemporary Pilgrims talk of cleansing society by trampling on dissenters' rights. Do we really want society run the Pilgrims' way?
Historian George Marsden thinks not. He writes of the Pilgrims, how "they were very much people of their times, so that many practices they regarded as normatively Christian would not be so regarded by most Christians today.
"For instance, most Christians today would not approve of their very close association of church and state or their efforts to base civil law directly on the Old Testament precedents. They made good-faith efforts to get along with and to convert the Indians, but they also believed they had a God-given right to take their lands. Their firm belief that the pope in Rome was the Antichrist shaped much of their foreign policy. They accepted enslavement of Africans. They were often harsh in the treatment of dissenters."
A century after Pilgrims landed in the New World, Ben Franklin rebelled against the Pilgrim instincts of government overreach. In Boston, officials restricted personal liberties to keep themselves in power.
Puritan preacher Cotton Mather believed God revealed right conduct through twin revelations: the Bible and scientific discovery. Mather advocated getting inoculated against smallpox. Most conservatives considered it satanic to insert smallpox toxin under skin. Benjamin Franklin's brother James, publisher of the New England Courant, lambasted Mather for endorsing inoculations.
After the small pox epidemic subsided, the Massachusetts General Court punished James Franklin for being sarcastic toward the government and Mather. They threw him into prison for a month in order to silence the Courant.
Ben Franklin took his brother's place, wielding a sharp pen against tyranny. He invented Silence Dogood, a literary figure who voiced his disgust. She roared against the authorities and espoused freedom of speech. "This sacred privilege is so essential to free governments," she asserted, "that security of property and freedom of speech always go together; and in those wretched countries where a man cannot call his tongue his own, he can scarcely call anything else his own."
Beware of the Pilgrim spirit that motivates thought police. They limit citizens' liberties by controlling personal choice in reproductive planning. It's a punitive morality which collapses the separation of church and state and uses civil law to squelch dissent. Restricted freedom is a disguise tyranny uses.
Be wise. Carve away portions of the Pilgrim legacy, much as a chef disposes of turkey gizzards this Thanksgiving.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God's history come alive. Van Ens' book, "How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes," is available in local bookstores for $7.95.