Separatists are people who separate from the church because of divergent doctrinal beliefs, difference in preferences, or some other reason. In times of religious turmoil ;many who desire to purify the church are rebuffed and forced out of the church, thereby becoming separatists. Another class of people common in all societies are those who despise oversight. There are people who just can’t work with anyone else. Separatist churches who shun collaboration with others are generally unstable, small, and with limited future.
As we come to Thanksgiving time, we think of separatism as a response to the religious climate England during the sixteenth century. Not only did power shift between leaders of the nation, but with changing leaders came required changes of churches and beliefs for the common man. A strong group of clergy, Robert Browne, Thomas Cartwright, Robert Dudley, John Field, John Foxe, Francis Russell, Francis Walsingham, and others began to object, and desired to help the church become more vibrant than it had ever been. They were aware of changes on the continent of Europe under the teaching of Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, Menno Simmons and others. Changes were attempted amidst the turmoil of the faith community, and rebuffed. So the Puritans felt the need to separate.
Some of the Puritans sought total escape and moved to Holland, a nation which offered religious freedom. But they found hardships and persecution in this new land because they were foreigners. The pilgrims returned home, but persecution was worse than when they had left, so they desired to leave again. WIth the continent of Europe out of the picture, a group suggested sailing to the new colony of Virginia, for they might be able to move into the wilderness and start their own community, free of the English government and Anglican church.
Some of them, 103 people left England for good aboard a ship called the Mayflower. But the Mayflower was blown off course, and rather than building a new life close to English neighbors, the religious community picked up life in the real wilderness with only native Americans as neighbors. But in this community they could practice their life and faith.
We begin to see problems at the beginning when the first Plymouth Bay Colony church was run by a state, led by the Puritans who came aboard the Mayflower. Isaac de Rasieres in 1627 described worship in this way: “They assemble by beat of drum, each with his musket or firelock, in front of the captain’s door; they have their cloaks on, and place themselves in order, three abreast, and are led by a sergeant without beat of drum. Behind comes the governor, in a long robe; beside him on the right hand, comes the preacher with his cloak on, and on the left hand, the captain with his side-arms and cloak on, and with a small cane in his hand; and so they march in good order, and each sets his arms down near him.”
It is a fact that when separatists leave a problem and enter the promised land it is only to find another problem looming which they must either solve, remove or escape. The state run church of England was the problem for the English Separatists, yet this is exactly the church they set up when they came to America for religious freedom. People who can not get along with others and escape to avoid the conflict soon find the conflict has come with them to their new community. We often complain about the problems of others, never looking at ourselves to see that we can so easily spot the problems in others because they are also problems in ourselves.
The Pilgrims started churches and practiced their faith, but soon new problems arose. The first problem was laxness, for not all members of the Plymouth community felt it was necessary to attend church every week. Then there was disagreement. Roger Williams had left England where he objected to a state run church. He told the governor it was wrong for the state to use tax dollars to support the church and enforce attendance. He was banished, bought land from the Indians in Rhode Island and started what is claimed to be the first Baptist Church in North America.. Ann Hutchinson thought the new church needed purifying, and started a gathering in her own home. She was arrested and banished for heresy. Others also had problems, were banished, and went away.
In 1645 William Vassall tested the General Court to see if Massachusetts Bay was really open to all and would grant “full and free tolerance of religion to all men that will preserve the civil peace and submit unto the government.” The General Court approved, but the colony’s leadership and ministers including Governor Bradford, Thomas Prence, and Edward Winslow were opposed to outsiders with alien beliefs.
The First Parish Church at Plymouth Bay Colony continues to exist as the oldest church in New England. They have worked hard to overcome many problems. One church history states: “Liberal and conservative factions emerged in the 1790s. A conservative minister introduced a creed, but after his death a majority of members chose a more liberal minister and a dissatisfied minority left to form its own church. The liberals became Unitarians, the conservatives, Congregationalists.”
The Congregationalists believed in congregational rule with no oversight from outside. Many who were congregationalist also stayed to themselves in order to avoid entanglement with outsiders. The Congregational Church, which once existed as a network of churches has ceased to exist, and has now merged with the United Church of Christ.