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Until 1534, England fully embraced the Roman Catholic faith. However, during the rule of King Henry VIII, he contested the right of divorce and remarriage. When the leaders of the Catholic Church did not respond positively to his demands, he organized a new church, the Church of England and named himself as its head.

In response to this change, a backlash occurred and other religious movements began to form. Among them was a group called the Separatists– considered the most radical fringe of the Protestants – and defined as any of the English Christians who wished to "separate" from the Church of England. They believed the Church of England had violated the basic biblically-based precepts for "true" Christians and chose to break away in order to more strictly adhere to what they understood as the "simpler divine requirements."

The Congregational Church grew out of one of these offshoots. One of their important tenets was the right to govern their affairs locally. This practice allowed individual members to respectfully speak their opinions without fear of retribution. The ministers held presiding positions; yet all ultimate power resided in the congregation. They believed each local congregation embodied a complete and autonomous unit of the Church of Jesus Christ. In practice, the ruling powers were balanced between the minister, a local lay ministry and members.

England and the Church of England were not kind to reformers. In 1559, the government passed very strict laws for missing a Church of England service. It was the beginning of a long and intense period of persecution. Penalties for conducting unofficial worship included fines, imprisonment and even death. In 1593, England executed two Separatist leaders, Henry Barrowe and John Greenwood, for sedition.

In 1603, King James I ascended to the throne and dealt with the continuing unrest and reform groups even more harshly. By 1607, although meetings were now held in secret, many members of the Scrooby Congregation were arrested. One of the king's key allies, the Archbishop of York and those loyal to him had been monitoring the Scrooby congregation's activities "night and day".

Originally, most of the Pilgrims who came to Plimoth
(written Plymouth in today's English) were from this Separatist-Congregational parish located in the town of Scrooby, Nottinghamshire, England. They followed beliefs taught by Richard Clyfton, a Brownist preacher from the All Saints' Parish Church in Babworth, near East Retford, Nottinghamshire. A few of the more famous members were the young William Bradford and William Brewster. Bradford, a well-tempered sort, later served as the second Governor for 30 years. Brewster, tender-hearted and compassionate, was their minister in the New World until 1629.
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The group decided to immigrate to the Dutch Netherlands where they could fully exercise their rights to religious freedom without fear of persecution. The first attempt to leave England was thwarted, when the Captain they hired turned the entire group over to English authorities. After spending almost three months in prison, the Scrooby congregation managed to escape during early 1608, slipping away in smaller groups.

Upon their arrival in Holland, the Separatists lived in Amsterdam for a short time before finally settling in the City of Leiden, where they resided for more than a decade. They found work in the cloth trades, and as carpenters, tailors and printers. Although they had found the religious freedom they longed for, daily life was still very difficult. Many worked long hours and six days a week. A number were aging and no longer physically able to find gainful employment. Some of the adolescent immigrants were influenced by the Dutch culture and strayed from the group's core beliefs or enlisted in the military. Parents became concerned that their children were being "drawn away by evil examples into extravagance and dangerous courses". Others, having spent their savings, ran out of money and in desperation returned to England. Those who stayed found both the language and customs very challenging. The faltering truce of the Eighty Year War was another ongoing concern.

The stories of harrowing personal circumstances and harsh physical conditions experienced by earlier "American" settlers in the New World raised significant fears. But by going to America, the Separatists also envisioned greater opportunities to preach their "gospel". Eventually, in spite of great uncertainty and what many considered incredible odds, the decision to emigrate was made.

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Those willing to invest in America were hard to find, because of huge losses already incurred with the Jamestown settlement. Edwin Sandys, a key force in the London Company, first spoke with Robert Cushman and John Carver in the winter of 1617 with the intent of convincing the Separatists to immigrate to Jamestown. While internal conflicts within the London Company led to delays; other investors sought the Separatist's ear.

Thomas Weston finally convinced them he could resolve the delays with the London Company. In time, Weston, representing the Merchant Adventures [a company in which he was an owner] instead returned with a very different proposal. He told them he had obtained a new patent for land in New England– a claim only partially true. Eventually, he delivered a patent in the name of John Wincob on June 19, 1619, but one without official recognition of their religious status.

When Cushman and Carver left the Netherlands for the purpose of negotiating for an opportunity to emigrate, they were given clear instructions "not to exceed the bounds of your commission." In particular, they were not to "entangle yourselves and us in any such unreasonable [conditions as that] the merchants should have half of men's houses and lands at the dividend."

The initial agreement required that the investors provide funding for tools, clothing, and other necessities. Seeking additional protection, the investors demanded that all property be held in common ownership for the first seven years. Grudgingly, the Separatists agreed even though it confirmed their fears. After the seven years, all property would then be divided equally between investors and colonists, half returning to the investors (50% tax). In addition, the colonists agreed to send back to England some of the New World's natural resources—fish, timber and fur.
The demand for held in common property remained an ongoing argument– knowing if they were not permitted private dwellings, "the building of good and fair houses" would be discouraged. Worried, the Leiden brethren accused Cushman of "making conditions fitter for thieves and bondslaves than honest men".

The younger, stronger members would go first–and only those who were able to settle their affairs quickly in Leiden. Most, including John Robinson, their pastor, stayed behind. Brewster would attend to their spiritual needs in America. The investors also arranged for other "strangers" to accompany the Separatists. One of those "strangers" was Myles Standish who was hired by the Separatists as their military advisor. They purchased a small vessel, the Speedwell, and hired a crew for one year to stay in the New World. The group leased a second boat, the Mayflower.

In August of 1620, the ships made two attempts to leave the Southampton port, only to return because the Speedwell was leaking so badly. Years later, documents were found which confirmed deliberate actions on the part of the captain and crew to cause the leaks. With the loss of the Speedwell, additional drastic reductions in passenger numbers were made and additional families planning to travel together were separated.

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Finally, on the third attempt, the Mayflower set out alone on September 6, 1620 with 102 passengers and about 30 crew members aboard. The Mayflower's master, Christopher Jones, was well within his rights to simply declare it too late to depart, but chose not to do so.

The conditions during the trip were daunting. After an unanticipated month's delay, provisions were even lower and westerly gales were beginning to howl across the Northern Atlantic. The passengers, who had spent a month on board, were unfit for the long and arduous voyage that lay ahead. The original plan was to move the entire congregation to the New World. Now, with this unforeseen turn of events, there were only about 50 Separatists on the ship–less than a sixth of their total congregation.

Besides being confined in such small, cramped quarters, the physical and the psychological effects of the seasickness soon descended. For much of the voyage, huge waves crashed across the top deck. The continuous battering seas severely damaged one of the ship's main structural supports.

The amount of accurate information available about the New World was limited and even if they did survive the 3,000 mile journey, there were a daunting number of unknowns: not least among them was whether they would be greeted by hostile Indians. Under these conditions, they sailed for sixty-five days before sighting land.

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Having been driven by the storms and now finding themselves on Cape Cod, rather than along the Hudson as originally anticipated; some sought to invalidate the patent/agreement. Leaders aboard the Mayflower recognized the danger of dissent at such a critical point and held a lengthy and heated discussion. Following the general instructions written in a farewell letter from John Robinson, concerning the formation of a civil government, they crafted The Mayflower Compact. In modern English, it reads:

"In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King, defender of the Faith, etc.
Having undertaken, for the Glory of God, and advancements of the Christian faith and honor of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the Northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents, solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic; for our better ordering, and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience."

Forty-six members signed the Compact on November 11, 1620. It was the first legal governing document officially drafted in the New World and endured until 1691. Once signed, the colonists elected their first Governor, John Carver. For the very first time the power and bounds of government lay in the hands of the people, setting a new precedent.

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After the shallop had been reassembled, a small advance party left the Mayflower to explore. Following several excursions, they landed near Plymouth Rock on December 21, 1620. They surveyed the surrounding land and selected a spot situated near both a creek and a hill; a site known among the Native Americans as Patuxet. It had been cleared and settled, then abandoned three years before when the most of the Wampanoag population died from disease spread by European fishermen. (Thought to have smallpox, it had devastated their population.) Among other things, this location provided the high ground needed for both surveillance and protection.

Work began immediately on constructing adequate shelter. The first dwelling, called the Common House, was completed by the middle of January, 1621. Though unintended, its first use was housing the growing number of sick. The building continued in spite of rampant illness. At one point only seven of the original 140 were not ill and by March, half of the original colonists had died of the "great sickness." The survivors buried their dead on Cole's Hill, hiding the graves from the Native with grass cover.

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On March 16th, a tall Native named Samoset walked into the colony and introduced himself in English. He was an Abenaki Indian and had learned broken English through conversing with English fishermen. Samoset spent a night in the new settlement with the Pilgrims. Two days later he returned with Squanto, an English-speaking member of the Patuxet tribe. Squanto represented Chief Massasoit, a leader of the Wampanoag tribe. (Squanto is also credited with teaching the Pilgrims how to fish and grow corn.)

Because Chief Massasoit seemed distrustful of Squanto and his dealings with English colonists, he sent a second emissary to the pilgrims named Hobbamock. On April 1, 1621, Massasoit, now convinced by both Squanto and Hobbamock that the Separatists meant the native people no harm; signed a treaty of peace with the Governor. Besides ensuring peace, the treaty enforced a right to prosecute should one party harm the other, and an agreement to come to the aid of the other, in case of war with third party. Massasoit faithfully honored the treaty until his death in 1661. Governor John Carver, "considered a gentleman in every respect," died of exhaustion a few weeks later. The English then elected William Bradford as the new governor, a position he held for most of the rest of his life.

In September or early October, the Pilgrims held a feast with local natives. By this time only four of the original women colonists had survived. During November, a second ship, the Fortune, arrived from England bringing but a few provisions and 35 adult men. The Fortune's arrival was both joyous and trying as the new members increased the consumption of already strained supplies. The ship departed for England loaded with goods intended for paying payment on their debt; but the French captured her and confiscated the cargo. Because the investors never received payment, this thievery significantly lengthened the Pilgrim's financial burden.

During the first year, the Merchant Adventurers learned that the Separatists were not in Virginia. Wanting to assure their rights of ownership, the company hurried to the Council of New England for a new patent. The result was the issuance of the "John Pierce Patent of 1621."

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The settlers spent the winter of 1621-22 enclosing the colony because of their fear of native attacks. They conducted their first military muster. In the spring, Miles Standish accompanied by Hobbamock set out on a trading expedition. After being interrupted by rumors of a native uprising, they continued their expedition and achieved some success in developing trading relations.

Several ships visited
Plimoth in 1622. In late May, the Sparrow arrived bringing seven passengers and some letters, but no provisions. The Charitie and Swan arrived in June-July carrying approximately fifty men; part of a separate private venture to establish another new colony, Weston.

The community failed shortly thereafter, suffering from the same issues which plagued others: lack of work ethic, dishonesty, stealing from the natives, and generally being of dishonorable character. John Pierce, arrived on this vessel, carrying with him a second patent – one which later proved to have been fraudulently created without the knowledge of the rest of the investors. The fraudulent patent was disregarded leaving the first Pierce patent in force. The Sparrow delivered correspondence, but brought no supplies, leaving the Pilgrims once again to fend solely on natural resources.

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The Pilgrims suffered greatly from lack of food during the winter of 1622-23. The shallop, now retrofit for fishing, stayed constantly at sea porting only to unload its catch or change crews. They lived on fish, clams, and game supplemented with a little corn. Unlike previous attempts to colonize the New World, they were finally learning through trial and error how to work the lands.

During the spring of 1623, an invaluable paradigm shift took place. After barely surviving the first two years, Governor Bradford wrote, "So they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery." He noted the community was suffering from "unwillingness to work, confusion, discontent, a loss of mutual respect, a sense of slavery, and injustice." And this among "godly and sober men".

Together, the colonists sought a solution. From the governor's record: "At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advice of the chiefest amongst them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves; in all other things to go in the general way as before, And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of them number…:" Although their contract required common ownership of goods and homes, Bradford made the bold move of privatizing their farms. He later wrote that this decision brought "very good success".

Tom Bethell summarized its significance: "In short, the division of property established a proportion or 'ratio' between act and consequence. Human action is deprived of rationality without it, and work will decline sharply as a result." Plimoth was living proof of the value of this principle".

In spite of the privatization, trials continued. June 1623 brought severe drought and for six weeks, there was no rain. The anguished colonists watched their fruits of their labor wither; fully expecting to starve. In July, Governor Bradford called for a day of community fasting and prayer and all willingly took part. The next morning, rain began and continued for two weeks of which the governor later wrote: "Such softe, sweet and moderate showers…it was hard to say whether our withered corn or drooping affections were most quickened and revived."

Divine intervention accompanied by temporal hard work and newly-acquired wisdom produced a fall harvest that was the best since arriving in the New World. Shortly after their day of fasting and prayer, two ships, the Anne and Little James arrived– fully loaded with provisions and 60 more settlers. The Pilgrims expressed gratitude and thankfulness for their bounties granted from heaven. In time, they would repay their debts in full and see their efforts finally rewarded.

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The population of Plimoth grew very little in its first years, expanding primarily from ships arriving with new colonists. By 1630, the privatizing trusts created in 1623 were executed, granting complete private ownership. Yet, from their humble beginnings, the Pilgrims created an active government with demands for complete accountability to the same laws by all people. The Congregationalist approach of local control combined with the Separatist philosophy of respectful public partitioning also found its way into their government. Like Jamestown, Plimoth became a solid witness of freedom’s innate power—unleashed when fostering personal accountability and private ownership.
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Not far south from Plymouth Rock, exists an almost perfect replica of the Pilgrim's Plimoth. At Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum, the 1620's come alive with authentic structures, residents in period clothing, and gardens adorning the dirt streets. The experience at the Plantation is self-guided and enriched by conversations with Plimoth residents– all played by volunteers.

On one visit, alone, I found myself wandering downhill along the main dirt street. I walked in through the entrance of a modest wood-framed structure just short of an intersection. Inside a Plantation volunteer was seated mending clothing. Being the only visitor present, I asked what she was doing. She explained.

Then, for some unbeknownst reason, the conversation shifted and she shared how difficult and trying the voyage from England had been, and how much they suffered. Intrigued, I asked, "Why did you come?" She replied, simply: "The Spirit constrained us." We continued to talk, again I asked, and again she replied, "The Spirit constrained us." After additional conversation, I asked a third time. She answered, quietly yet firmly, "The Spirit constrained us." God asked, they answered, and then they came in faith.

In one of William Bradford's manuscripts, he recounts an emotional worship service conducted by Reverend John Robinson with the Separatists before their departure from Holland:
"So they left that goodly and pleasant city which had been their resting place for near twelve years, BUT THEY KNEW THEY WERE PILGRIMS and looked not much on those things…"

(Hebrews 11:13-16)
13 These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.
14 For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country.
15 And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned.
16 But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.

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In the 1600’s, days of thanksgiving– which traditionally included prayer and fasting– were often held to offer gratitude for divine assistance and acknowledge God’s hand in their lives. Today, we think of that initial harvest feast held in America in 1621 as the first Thanksgiving. As the colonists and Native Americans peacefully gathered to share a meal and give thanks for their bountiful yield, Edward Winslow, one of the original pilgrims, wrote the following:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, so that we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company for almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king, Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed upon our governor, and upon the captains and others. And although it was not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

In July of 1623, a drought withered their crops. In response, Governor Bradford, exercising his civil authority, called for this first recorded day of fasting and prayer. It was the government, not the church who made this request, and all citizens in this brave new land eagerly participated.

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