They came out of the same Biblical Christianity. The Puritans were, (and are today), politically engaged. They were committed to work within the world system and to change it. The Pilgrims were dubious about this. They were,(and are today), separatists and not as politically engaged as the Puritan Christians on the right and the Ecumenical Christians on the left. Down through the centuries they have always affirmed the teaching of Jesus, “No man can serve two masters.” Accordingly, while attending to their civic duties as good citizens, Pilgrim Christians have been primarily committed to a life of personal consecration to Jesus Christ, the Gospel witness, and missions abroad.
The Puritans and the Pilgrim separatists came to America together. Both of these communions were Christians on a mission. The Pilgrims were Separatists. They were similar to the Puritans in their enthusiasm for Biblical Christianity. But the Pilgrims did not have the Puritan political zeal for hammering out a Christian church-state system. They simply saw themselves as sojourners in the land. They were travelers on a pilgrim pathway leading onwards into history. Their ultimate destination was the Holy City and a destiny far more glorious than anything that the systems of this present world could ever offer. The Pilgrim dream was a holy one and one that would give meaning to their journey through life, even right through to the end of the age. For the Pilgrims their dream was not something that could be attained in this present world system. No political machinations on their part could bring it into being. Pilgrims believed that all their efforts to sanctify their nation, (or any of the kingdoms of this world for that matter), would have only limited success until Messiah came. The city they sought was the one that Abraham looked for. They were looking for a city not made with human hands. They were fellow heirs of the same divine promise given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So the Pilgrims would walk by faith just like the patriarchs of the faith who,
“waited for a city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” Heb.11:10
In England during the 1600’s, the Puritans and the Pilgrim Separatists suffered together. They were persecuted by the state and by the church that had been hired by the state. And yet the Puritans believed in the state and had faith, hope, and love for the state. The Puritans believed that they could work within the system and turn things around. But the Pilgrims were under no such illusions. Because of what they saw in the scriptures, and because of the history they had seen, they were more radical in their Christianity. Many of them believed in the separation of church and state. Pilgrim Non-Conformists had some sharp disagreements with their fellow travelers, the Puritans. And Puritans sometimes saw the Pilgrims separatists as unpatriotic.
Pilgrim separatists, however, had good reasons to be suspicious of entanglement with politics. The Anabaptists, the Amish, and the Mennonites had suffered severely in central Europe during the Reformation wars, Pilgrim separatists in England were also feared and hated by the church-state system. And they were persecuted very severely by their fellow Christians who had become established in the system. The reason is quite clear. Pilgrims showed an unwillingness to “work with” the system. For this they were despised. They were imprisoned, they were burned, and they were hanged. Many were fined to the point of financial ruin. John Bunyan, who had served in Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Army was forbidden to preach without a license. He spent many years in prison at Bedford Jail in England. There he wrote the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress‘ which is still a best seller. Their was no doubt that Pilgrim separatists suffered more than did the Puritans. They were committed to stay within the Church of England. They believed that they could refine it or “purify” it from within.
The Pilgrims and Puritans had similar dreams. Both wanted to see their country blessed. But each had different views of how to go about it. In serving their God they had a different set of priorities. Fortunately the New World was a big land. And America provided a lot of elbow room for people of different persuasions to go about their business. It also offered many new opportunities. And so when they came to America the Pilgrims and Puritans began to flow together and complement one another.
Pilgrims were glad to see their Puritan friends making the effort to set up a Christian nation. In fact, many of the Pilgrims would become politically involved and join the ranks of the Puritans. Many of them signed political covenants and contracts when they reached the New World. A classic case of this was the signing of the Mayflower Compact. The Pilgrims and the Puritans were destined to go out and tame the wilderness together.
The Pilgrims would benefit greatly from living alongside their politically active Puritan friends. They were companions together in the Christian faith. But politics was a secondary issue for the Pilgrims. It did not have the same priority as the Gospel. Politics was not their main burden or motivation. They believed that no matter what the political system was, the country would only be as good as the moral integrity of it’s individual citizens. National politics, to the Pilgrim, was like an egg omelet. The quality of the resulting dish was not so much how the ingredients were mixed as on how good the eggs were. As evangelicals they were going to live peaceably within whatever system they found themselves. They would go along with the politics of the land as much as their consciences allowed. If insurmountable problems were to arise the Pilgrims would not make waves or take up arms in protest. They would quietly step away from all the fracas and move on. They were prepared to pack up and leave the land of their present encampment if they felt that God was calling upon them to do so. Their hopes were not bound up in the land in which they found themselves living. Nor was their ultimate hope to be found in the flags and standards they saw raised before them. After all, they were Pilgrims. They were sojourners in the land. Theirs was not the yellow brick road and a pathways made by men. They were Pilgrims. As evangelicals they were called to a difficult passage through a strait gate and along a narrow way up onto a highway of holiness. They knew that it would not be easy. But in their Pilgrim devotion all this extra effort was no burden at all. In fact it was a joy. Because they were on the road to glory.
The Pilgrims had a long view of history. They believed that they were in a continuous stream of faithful Christian believers extending all the way back to the Apostles. When they were arrested by Roman Catholic or Reformist church authorities, this was the usual testimony they brought. Even under torture, the attempts to find ringleaders among Pilgrim Separatists usually led nowhere, except to Jesus Christ Himself. But He was a radical that church dignitaries could hardly come against. The Pilgrims also pointed to the Gospel as their over arching mission. And they had been commissioned by Jesus Himself in the Great Commission. That commission had been given to the early Church back in the first century. And it extended right on up to the very last day of the age. Even if the political climate of their land turned against them the Pilgrims were going to remain steadfast. They would still keep their peace and operate in the graces. Pilgrims were loathe to pick up the sword against their fellow man.
Many evangelicals were Pilgrim separatists. They had committed themselves to a lifestyle of Christian consecration. Many of them, having gone through the Reformation Wars in Europe, were not impressed with Church politics. They had seen enough Christian blood spilled in the 1500’s to last several lifetimes. They also had a collective memory of past history. Established religion had persecuted devoted Christians during the 4th century after the Council of Niceae. Persecutions of true Christians by the state and by their hired church authorities was the sad legacy of this compromise. So, the Pilgrim Christians were not easily moved by the passionate appeals for the support. That came from the earthly powers. They were wary of religious party spirit and those who came in to manipulate the fears of Christians. Pilgrims were just not trusting of politicians at all, whether they were making their play from within the church or from the outside. Nor were they convinced that the state would deliver on its promises. So Christians of Pilgrim devotion were wary of the political agents of the nation. The knew that the land of their present dwelling was not their ultimate security. It was just their present encampment. The country they now found themselves in was not their final destination. It was historically important, to be sure. But in the long view it was still just a waypoint on the epic journey of the saints toward the Holy City.
It is important to realize that the John Bunyan’s book, ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, was, and is today, the second most popular book in the history of the English speaking people. It was published in the late 1600’s and came out to America onto the frontier with the early English settlers. Like the main character in “Pilgrim’s Progress,” the American Pilgrim separatists were not too embroiled in earthly politics. They had a higher agenda, even the high calling in Jesus Christ. They were headed for that Holy City, the New Jerusalem. And as they grasped their Bibles and walked on their eyes had that faraway look, the ‘thousand yard stare.’ The Pilgrims had chosen the Way of the cross. And they knew what it meant. If a situation arose that called upon them to do so they were not going to get angry or rise up and kill. They had a collective memory of being among people who did that in the past. And they were not going to do it again. They were willing to suffer persecution for their faith, even to the point of laying down their lives for their Redeemer. During the Reformation wars they had seen enough of so-called Christians taking up the sword and spilling blood. And after all the horrors the Pilgrims had seen they were not going to repeat this. Many of them had come through a passage which led through the haven of the Netherlands. And they had found the Prince of Peace. As they came on through England and on to America they had gone through further awakenings. So for the Pilgrims the Way forward was clear. The Gospel mission was now their number one priority.
In this context, the story is told of an incident that occurred during the English Civil War. It was at the Battle of Marston Moor that the Puritan Army had taken their standard, ‘In God we trust’ and their yellow ribbons onto the battlefield against the king. In that decisive battle, the Puritan Army of Parliament had defeated the King Charles I and his royalist Army had been forced to retire. As the battle was coming to its end Oliver Cromwell came upon a young Puritan soldier as he lay dying on the battlefield. Here is an excerpt from the book ‘A Short History of the English People’ by 19th century Oxford scholar John Richard Green.
“A young Pilgrim who lay dying on the field told Cromwell
as he bent over him that one thing lay on his spirit.
‘I asked him what it was’, Cromwell wrote afterwards.
He told me that ”God had not suffered him to be anymore an executioner of His enemies.”
The interface between Pilgrims and Puritans has always been porous.
In that moment of epiphany that young Puritan underwent a transformation.
He crossed over a spiritual threshold to become a Pilgrim.
The Pilgrims and the Puritans came to America together. These twin streams of Biblical Christians can still be seen in the USA to this day. It is the thesis of this series or articles that the Puritans and the Pilgrims are still with us. The two groups overlap to some degree. They are not watertight at all. Many Christians operate in both camps at different times. But the categorization as ‘Pilgrim’ or ‘Puritan’ still provides a helpful way to differentiate Christians in America today. The spirit, essence, and character of the two communions have really not changed in their passage through the centuries.
There was no doubt that the Pilgrims were different from the Puritans. Their main priority was the spreading the Gospel. This was the Good News of personal salvation by faith in Christ. But the scope of the task they had been given went far beyond their own community. The Pilgrims had a responsibility to take the Gospel to the heathen out in places beyond their own shores. They had been commissioned personally by Jesus Christ Himself. He had charged them personally with the Great Commission. They were to be His witnesses to the ends of the earth, – and even to the end of the age.
For the Pilgrims there could be no higher calling than this. Their mission assignment was not limited to the land of their present encampment. They were on a pilgrimage. And their journeying would go on. They would go on beyond this New World in which they now found themselves. They would continue their witness even through the New World Order that would follow.
The geographical scope of the Pilgrim task was a global one. It extended out beyond the Puritan agenda which was set by the Monroe doctrine. Theirs was a global mission. If they were questioned on this by their Puritan friends the Pilgrim Christians would simply point to the book of Acts and the church celebration of the Day of Pentecost. This was also the birthday of the nation of Israel, the day Moses brought the Law down from Mount Sinai. As the New Covenant unfolded on this fourth of the Seven Feasts of the Lord, the birthday of Israel, it would also become the birthday of the Church. Pilgrims would say that the Church was not just a national entity. The Church, and their primary identity, was with a people who went global from that first epic day nearly two millennia ago.
Through the Pilgrims the Christian message was destined to go out beyond the nation. The Pilgrim vision extended out across the mountains and beyond the comfortable valley of their present dwelling. During the 20th century, American Christian believers of both Pilgrim and Puritan persuasion would busy themselves in the Gospel outreach. And after World War II, they would initiate the greatest evangelical outreach this world has ever seen. It would even eclipse the remarkable explosion of missionary activity seen during the former era of the British Empire. The Gospel would go out towards the far corners of the world.
Pilgrims and Politics
For the Pilgrims the exercise of politics to uplift the Christian faith has always been a nice thought, but a questionable one. For them the job at hand was simple and straightforward. They had been given their marching orders in Holy Scripture. Their priorities had been set by Jesus Himself in the Great Commission. If there was any ‘Kingdom of the Church’ to be set up then Christ Himself would be the One to bring it into being. And He would do that when He came back. He Himself would establish His Millennial Kingdom. This would be after the judgment of the wicked and His second coming. Only after His return in judgment and deliverance would Christ’s Kingdom on earth be established. Messiah Himself would officiate in this matter. Only Christ would be capable of establishing a Millennial Paradise. Any attempt by the Church to do so was doomed to failure.
The Pilgrims have been proven to be correct here. History has demonstrated repeatedly that humanistic Utopian Christians, whatever their political flavor, tend to pick up the sword. And when they do so a lot of innocent men, women, and children get hurt and many die. And in those days Christian grace dies with them in the street.
From the Pilgrim perspective it seemed that Puritan Christians, in their politicking, were risking serious compromise. They felt that the Puritans could push too far and probably would. Usurping Messiah’s role as the God-man and King of Kings was a real worry to them. For the Church to try to rule the world before the Second Coming seemed a tall order to Pilgrim Christians. As they read their Bibles the whole idea seemed very dark and dangerous. Jesus Himself said that it would be after the Tribulation that He would return. (Mat.24:29-31) He and He alone, would judge the wicked. He and He alone, would establish His glorious Millennial Kingdom. And His reign upon the earth would last for a thousand years. ~ Rev.20
For the Pilgrims these were fairly simple and straightforward observations. Any diligent Christian could draw these conclusions from a plain reading of the Holy Scriptures. So, job #1 for the Pilgrims, was the Gospel. They had been commissioned to do a job. And that task was to spread of the Good News of salvation across the world.