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The Pilgrims’ Bible

All of America’s great historical men of letters wrote in a style that owed much to the King James Bible. That book was, for many pious early American families, the only book from which children were taught to read and write, the only one from which children were read to on dark winter evenings. Its soaring, yet earthy prose helped to shape the sound of American rhetoric back in the days when public figures were expected to speak and write with intelligence, clarity and precision.

So it is a surprise to find that the Pilgrim Fathers themselves did not use the King James Bible.

King James’ Authorized Version, completed in 1611, was that monarch’s attempt to reconcile the various factions that existed within the English church, each of which was passionately devoted to its own special translation of the Bible. By including in his translating committee representatives of the various religious groups, he hoped to create a translation that all English Christians could use and love. In this he was more than successful.

Of course, you can’t please everyone. And it was particularly difficult to please the Puritan Separatists. Their Bible was the Geneva Bible, a massive encyclopedia of Calvinist thought that included extensive notes, maps and diagrams. Many of its explanatory notes were contentious and explicitly anti-royalist: for example, the word “tyrant,” which does not appear in the King James Bible, occurs over 400 times in the Geneva Bible.

When the pilgrims left the distastefully liberal religious atmosphere of England for the Netherlands and thence to Plymouth Rock, it was the massive Geneva Bible they toted along.

Interestingly, some Puritans believed that Biblical names should not be translated; the name Adam should read “Red Earth,” and Timothy, “Fear-God.” The Geneva Bible included a list of the meanings of all those ancient signifying names at the back. In imitation of the great figures of scripture, the Puritans took to naming their children after moral qualities, such as Lament, Eschew-evil, Fear-not, and the very popular name Sin-deny. Among William Brewster’s own children were Fear, Love, Patience and Wrestling Brewster.

(Nicolson 74-75)

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Roger Williams and the Separation of Church and State

It is often said that when the Puritans first settled in Massachusetts Bay Colony, they were seeking religious freedom. It should more properly be said that they were seeking freedom from religious freedom.

The stated purpose of these Puritans was to establish a City on a Hill, dedicated to their particular vision of God and the performance of what they regarded as God’s laws. They allowed no room for individual interpretation. Puritan ministers were compelled to wear the surplice and use the Book of Common Prayer, or face imprisonment. Everyone was compelled to attend approved church services, or suffer painful consequences. The colony’s leaders believed that it was the responsibility of the State to prevent error in religion; they believed the success of the colony depended on it.

Roger Williams was a young English clergyman, and a graduate of Cambridge. He brought his family to Massachusetts Bay Colony a few months after its establishment, and the Boston church immediately offered him a post.

At first he turned it down. Williams was convinced that preventing error in religion was not the responsibility of the State. He did not believe preventing such error was even possible, for when people interpreted God’s law, they would inevitably err. It was his belief that a society such as the Puritan leaders envisioned would corrupt the church.

Yet he eventually accepted a position at a church in Salem. Soon he had gathered about him a like-minded congregation. The authorities continued to keep a wary eye on him, and eventually his free-thinking interpretations of Scripture became too much for them. In October 1635, the General Court banished him and gave him six weeks to leave the colony.

Because Williams was ill, and winter was coming, they agreed to extend his stay in the colony until spring, provided he did not speak publicly during that time. He complied, yet continued to promote his views privately, among his friends and family. The authorities considered this a violation of their terms, and in January they sent soldiers to arrest him and have him shipped off to England. Warned of the impending arrest, Williams quickly put on his warmest clothes, stuffed his pockets with provisions, and fled into the snow.

For 14 weeks he survived in the wilderness, helped only by some Indians with whom he had previously traded. Eventually he found his way to a likely spot for settlement, and purchased it from the Narragansett Indians. He called the place Providence.

His family and a dozen or so others soon joined him, and quickly he realized they would need some form of government. He drafted up a political contract, a remarkable document that showed just how free-thinking he had become.

Although all English and colonial precedent gave him complete political control over the settlement on the land he had purchased, he relinquished almost all the land to the common stock of the town, and with the land any special political rights to which it would entitle him. He reserved for himself only a vote equal to that of the others. And in stark contrast to the founding documents of every other European settlement in the New World, the compact made no mention of God’s kingdom, God’s will, or God’s blessing. It didn’t mention God at all.

This omission was no accidental oversight. Even Williams’ worst enemies knew how pious he was. Devotion to God informed everything he did, or wrote, or said. By leaving God out of the compact, he was intentionally limiting the government of Providence to matters purely civil. Unlike every other English settlement, this one would neither set up a church nor require church attendance. All this was completely revolutionary.

Massachusetts did not take kindly to having this godless colony at its borders. The authorities began to claim more and more land in an attempt to swallow up the new colony. So Williams sailed to England to convince Parliament to grant him a legal charter.

At first, Parliament was no more receptive than Massachusetts to the idea of divorcing church from state. Tradition and universal public opinion still demanded the death penalty for heretics. But Williams was relentless, promoting his views tirelessly wherever he could get an audience. In February 1644 he published a pamphlet in which he used for the first time a phrase which continues to echo through public debate in America today: “(the) wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the world.”

His efforts paid off. Since Rhode Island was a tiny settlement, safely separated from England by a vast ocean, Parliament agreed to let him perform his revolutionary experiment. His charter was granted in March of 1644. The charter gave the colonists complete self-rule, as long as their tiny government conformed, more or less, to English law. Amazingly, it left religious decisions up to the majority of Rhode Island settlers.

Williams had created freest society the Western world had yet seen.

(Barry 72-90)

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Plymouth Colony as Failed Experiment

The story of the pilgrim fathers began in 1593, when a band of radical Protestant Separatists fled religious persecution in England, emigrating to the more tolerant religious atmosphere of Holland. But the Dutch people went too far in the other direction. They tolerated all kinds of religions, as well as atheism, and allowed a lot of secular behavior – drinking, gambling, dancing, etc. – that the Puritans found offensive. Fearing for the spiritual development of their children in this pagan setting, the Puritans fled again, this time to the New World.

Despite the loss of half the first Puritan band during the disastrous winter of 1620-21, two more boatloads of Separatists followed them to Plymouth. These were in turn followed by about 20,000 non-Separatist Puritans, who settled at Boston. These two groups of religious ideologues hoped to found a theocracy far from Europe’s godless influence.

They were disappointed. It turned out that new immigrants as well as their own children took a dim view of their narrow-minded doctrine. In 1691, King Charles II amended the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In the new version, religious dissenters were to be protected, rather than banished or worse. Men’s voting rights would be based, not on Puritan church membership, but on ownership of property.

(Sass 9-10)

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