The Puritans’ pursuit of ‘further light’ has been abandoned by much of modern American evangelicalism

Image Credit: The Mayflower Compact 1620, Jean Leon G. Ferris

By Tim Wyatt

The religious convictions of the Mayflower Pilgrims continue to shape America today, 400 years after they set sail from England to the New World.

Speaking during a Religion Media Centre web discussion, Professor Frank Bremer, an historian who specialises in the Puritans, said the few dozen Christians who landed at Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in 1620, left a profound legacy.

Just before the men and women alighted on the shores of New England they agreed what has become known as the Mayflower Compact, a document committing each member of the new colony to make decisions collectively.

This radically egalitarian form of government, derived from their Congregationalist church structure and faith, ended up inspiring much of modern American democracy, Professor Bremer, emeritus professor of history at the Millersville University of Pennsylvania, said, almost 400 years to the day since the Mayflower left England.

“This is why we have governance in New England by town meetings. This is why in Massachusetts you had annual elections and every leader could be removed by the people. I think this participatory democracy is a critical element in the Puritan legacy.”

As well as leaving their mark on political structures, the Mayflower Pilgrims also shaped the emerging American story through their religious convictions, something that has often been overlooked by historians studying these early settlers, Professor Bremer suggested.

They had abandoned the Church of England and left for the New World in part because they rejected the authority of bishops and priests to tell ordinary believers how to read the Bible and relate to God.

Aspects of this outlook can be traced through to contemporary evangelical Christianity in the United States, he said.

“You can probably draw some direct lines between some of these splits down into modern evangelicalism. Certainly we’re going to find modern conservative evangelicals in the United States take political positions that you could find parallels to among the Puritans.”

But there were also key differences: the Pilgrims believed in a strongly communitarian way of life, where individuals put aside their own needs for the common good. This “social gospel” has been in large part abandoned by much of modern evangelicalism, along with the Puritans’ emphasis on “seeking further light” through science and education.

But it was probably no coincidence New England had often been the soil from which movements for social progress had grown, Professor Bremer noted.

When it came to the abolition of slavery or the cause of women’s suffrage, often those at the forefront had come from the northeastern corner of America to bring these ideals to the rest of the developing nation.

Contrary to popular belief, the Puritans, including those aboard the Mayflower, were not deeply reactionary bigots or joyless zealots who considered all fun to be sinful, the professor said.

Indeed, this was one of the myths he hoped his recent book, One Small Candle: The Plymouth Puritans and the Beginning of English New England, would scotch. Instead, the Puritans believed in the goodness of God’s creation, as long it was used as the Creator intended.

“The Puritans were fine with drinking; they were against drunkenness. They were fine with sexuality, in its proper place within a marital union. They believed that the individual good cannot subsist in the failure of the common good. Everyone has to share in each other’s disappointments and shortages of food. It’s a concern for the other who is part of your community.”

Just as, a century later, the Founding Fathers’ principles of all men being born equal had been gradually expanded to include women and those from other ethnicities, so too has the Pilgrims’ way of life inspired social change through American history, Professor Bremer concluded.

“We can take the values of the Puritans on helping one’s neighbour, on community, and we can apply those while we seek to expand the composition of the community to include everyone.”

When asked whom he regarded as being among the modern Puritans, in the truest sense of the word, today, he hailed John Lewis, the civil rights activist turned congressman who  died in July.

“He is a person who is driven by spirituality, whose goal — which he shared with Martin Luther King — was to create a ‘beloved community’, in his words” Professor Bremer said.

“His non-violence, his attempt to love those who were beating him almost to death, struck me very much as an example of people who were trying to be shining lights, such as the Pilgrims, during the civil rights movement.”