It was a dramatic historical moment. A community of devoutly religious Christians traveled across the ocean to a relatively unknown land, radically different from the society they left behind. For these travelers, who called themselves Pilgrims, the journey took on spiritual as well as physical significance. When they arrived on the new continent, it was not simply the vast forests or lack of densely populated areas and developed commercial markets that made it a land of opportunity and rebirth. The New World represented a fresh slate, an ocean away from the sins and corruption of the Old World and a chance to start anew, to build a society from the ground up on firmly pious principles.
Native Americans’ contact with these newcomers was a startling encounter across a vast cultural and spiritual divide. Not only did European settlement encroach upon their lands, but it brought devastating plagues of diseases never before encountered on the North American continent, which soon decimated Indian populations.
Both the English and the Indians survived the setbacks and the ravages of disease and death; different members of both groups approached one another with a range of reactions, from trust and generosity to hostility and suspicion. In their first half century on the new continent, the English settlers learned from, interacted with, and battled against the Indian nations of New England. They also developed the institutions for which they would be forever remembered: the town meeting, the Congregational church, the hard-scrabble farming life of New Englanders, and the Protestant work ethic, which influenced the character and composition of subsequent American societies.
One group was called the Separatists because they demanded a complete separation from the Church of England. They wanted to worship in a very simple manner without all of the ritual and symbols which were used in the Anglican Church. In their study of the Bible they had decided the original church in New Testament times had been a simple church and they wished to follow that example in their own worship. They believed there were so many changes needed to be made in the Anglican Church that it could not be accomplished to their satisfaction. Therefore, the only possibility for them was to “separate” completely from the state church.
Their pastor, Richard Clyfton, had guided this religious community into a form of democratic self-government. Various points of view were tolerated, but the will of the majority ruled in decision-making. The members of this group believed in equal rights and equal duties for members of its congregation. Our modern concepts of a democratic system of government began with Pastor Richard Clyfton. It was their Pastor John Robinson who first coined the word “independent” in the matter of self-government.
The Pilgrims were warm, generous and thoughtful in their dealings with their fellow citizens and with the Indians they met in America.
Their manner of dress was typical of the ordinary fashions in England at that time. We know from Wills and Inventories of that early period that some of the leading men wore brightly colored clothing. Some even wore breeches of red, green or violet. This is a far cry from the dark, somber clothing of the Puritans which we see pictured every Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims were a good-natured, fun-loving people who loved life and insisted on the freedom of choice.
It was the Pilgrims who established Plymouth Colony. It was the Pilgrims who celebrated that first Thanksgiving with the Indians. It was the Pilgrims who brought our American principles of democratic government into being – not the Puritans.