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God in America | Article

People and Ideas: Early American Groups

The Pilgrims

The Pilgrims

During the reign of Elizabeth I, the English Parliament introduced a series of measures intended to reform the theology and rituals of the Church of England established during the reign of her father, Henry VIII. But some Protestants believed that these reforms had not gone far enough. These Protestants believed that the Church of England was hopelessly corrupt and incapable of reform. They felt their only option was to leave the church and create new, separate churches.

Known as "separatists," these Puritans left their homeland and in 1609 moved to Leiden, Holland, where they hoped to worship freely, without harassment from church authorities. Some members of the Leiden church returned to England, and on Aug. 5, 1620, they sailed for America on the ship the Mayflower. Only 44 of these passengers were Pilgrims, or "Saints," as they called themselves.

Over time, the Pilgrims who clung to Plymouth's rocky shores were absorbed into the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Like the Pilgrims, the Puritans believed that the Church of England needed to be reformed, but they elected to remain within the church, rather than separate from it. They arrived by the thousands, then the tens of thousands, building a thriving religious community that profoundly shaped American ideas of liberty of conscience, the nature of individual spiritual experience and the notion of Americans as a chosen people. The Pilgrims' legacy is less robust, yet they live on in historical memory, immortalized by a national holiday that commemorates their thanksgiving, but forgets the hardships they suffered and their eventual betrayal of their Indian allies.

The Puritans

Like the Pilgrims, the Puritans were English Protestants who believed that the reforms of the Church of England did not go far enough. In their view, the liturgy was still too Catholic. Bishops lived like princes. Ecclesiastical courts were corrupt. Because the king of England was head of both church and state, the Puritans' opposition to religious authority meant they also defied the civil authority of the state.

In 1630, the Puritans set sail for America. Unlike the Pilgrims who had left 10 years earlier, the Puritans did not break with the Church of England, but instead sought to reform it. Seeking comfort and reassurance in the Bible, they imagined themselves re-enacting the story of the Exodus. Onboard the flagship Arbella, their leader John Winthrop reminded them of their duties and obligations under the covenant. If they honored their obligations to God, they would be blessed; if they failed, they would be punished.

Arriving in New England, the Puritans established the Massachusetts Bay Colony in a town they named Boston. Life was hard, but in this stern and unforgiving place they were free to worship as they chose. The Bible was central to their worship. Their church services were simple. The organ and all musical instruments were forbidden. Puritans sang psalms a cappella.

The Puritans believed God had chosen a few people, "the elect," for salvation. The rest of humanity was condemned to eternal damnation. But no one really knew if he or she was saved or damned; Puritans lived in a constant state of spiritual anxiety, searching for signs of God's favor or anger. The experience of conversion was considered an important sign that an individual had been saved. Faith, not works, was the key to salvation.

But it was not only individual salvation that mattered; the spiritual health and welfare of the community as a whole was paramount as well, for it was the community that honored and kept the covenant.

Over time this religious fervor diminished. Scholars disagree about when and why this happened. The Puritans themselves found it difficult to maintain a society in a state of creative uncertainty.

The Pueblos

Following Christopher Columbus' voyage, Spain moved swiftly to claim and expand her territories in the New World, embarking on a moral crusade to spread Spanish culture and Catholicism to the non-Christians in present-day Mexico and the American Southwest. Here in the brooding desert and high mesas, two sacred worlds collided: the Catholicism of the Spanish friars and the spirit-filled religion of the indigenous peoples known as the Pueblos.

The Pueblos’ religious rituals, beliefs and practices were deeply embedded in their culture and way of life. As Porter Swentzell of the Santa Clara Pueblo observes, "Our whole world around us is our religion -- our way of life is our religion. ... The very moment we wake up in the morning to the moment we go to bed, even when we are asleep, that's our religion."

The Pueblos first encountered Franciscan friars in the 15th century, but in 1630 the friars began a period of intense mission building and conversion. Thousands of Pueblos converted, but most did not abandon their old religion; they simply added new elements to it. But for the friars, there was only one true religion: the Catholic faith. When persuasion failed to get the Pueblo people to abandon their old rituals, the friars reverted to coercion and force. In the friars' view, their all-consuming goal of saving souls justified these extremely harsh means.

By the 1670s, Pueblos began to stage sporadic revolts. The Spanish cracked down, rounding up Native shamans, whipping them and choosing several for execution. Following the arrest and hanging of spiritual leaders, one of those leaders, a man named Po'pay, organized an uprising. Not all Pueblo communities chose to participate, but those that did killed 400 Spanish and 21 friars. The Spanish fled, and the Pueblos could once again honor the religious practices that their ancestors had sustained for generations.

Twelve years later, the Spanish friars returned; this time, they were more willing to accommodate Native religious rituals and practices.

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