In the town square of Plymouth, Massachusetts, at the base of the old Pilgrim cemetery, stands First Parish Church. It is a large and beautiful stone building, and it claims to be the oldest continuous church in New England. According to the church’s website (http://plymouthuu NULL.org/History NULL.htm), “We trace our origin back to the year 1606 when a group of dissenters from the Church of England banded together in Scrooby [England]. In 1620 part of the Leyden congregation set sail about the Mayflower, seeking the freedom to worship according to the dictates of their own conscience in the New World.” The First Parish Church continued through the colonial period, the War for Independence, the drafting and ratification of a Constitution for the new nation, and the administration of our first President, George Washington. The Church considered itself Congregational, because, like the Pilgrims, it stood for the autonomy of the local congregation and against the hierarchical tendencies of the Church of England.
But the 19th century brought great changes for First Parish Church. On January 1, 1800, the Church installed a new pastor with Unitarian theology that denied the Trinity and the basic creeds of the historic Christian church. The church today claims a connection with the Pilgrims based upon their commitment to religious freedom and their shared desire to be free from state control. But the Pilgrims wanted to be free to worship God as His Word commands; First Parish Church today stands for (according to its website (http://plymouthuu NULL.org/Unitarian_Universalism NULL.htm)) “acceptance of one another,” “the right of conscience,” and “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part,” drawing from Buddhism, Judaism, “Native American and other earth-centered traditions,” and Humanism.
But some stood firm for the faith of the Pilgrim fathers. On October 1, 1801, fifty-two persons withdrew from First Parish Church.They formed The Third Church of Christ in Plymouth, now called The Church of the Pilgrimage. Their building is adjacent to First Parish Church. It is a wooden structure painted white, not ornate like the stone First Parish Church, but for more than two centuries (http://www NULL.8townsquare NULL.org/History NULL.html) the Church of the Pilgrimage has stood firm for the Word of God, the historic creeds of the Church, and the Trinitarian faith of the Pilgrims.
If the old Pilgrims could revisit Plymouth today, they would be saddened to learn that many of their descendants have abandoned the faith of their fathers. But they would be heartened to know that 52 persons separated from First Parish Church in 1801, just as the Pilgrim dissenters separated from the Church of England, and have maintained the true faith through the Church of the Pilgrimage.
And they would not have been surprised. Recognizing as they did the total depravity of human nature, they knew that all human institutions, churches included, are subject to decay and apostasy. Despite all they did to instill their faith in their children, they knew the day might come, sooner or later, when their children’s children would abandon the faith. They knew, as many today have forgotten, that we must always “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3), and that we must recognize when the time comes that we are to “come out from among them, and be ye separate” (II Corinthians 6:17).
Last weekend I again traveled to Plymouth for the annual Board meeting of the Plymouth Rock Foundation (http://www NULL.plymrock NULL.org/), and on Sunday afternoon I attended a beautiful and moving service at the Church of the Pilgrimage titled “A Pilgrim Canticle: The Story of the Pilgrims in Words and Music,” somewhat modeled after the Festival of Lessons and Carols used by many churches at Christmastime. As I left, I read once again with emotion the stone tablet on the front of the Church:
THIS TABLET IS INSCRIBED
IN GRATEFUL MEMORY OF THE PILGRIMS AND
OF THEIR SUCCESSORS WHO AT THE TIME
OF THE UNITARIAN CONTROVERSY IN 1801
ADHERED TO THE BELIEF OF THE FATHERS
AND ON THE BASIS OF THE ORIGINAL CREED
AND COVENANT PERPETUATED AT GREAT
SACRIFICE IN THE CHURCH OF THE PILGRIMAGE
THE EVANGELICAL FAITH AND FELLOWSHIP
OF THE CHURCH OF SCROOBY LEYDEN AND THE
MAYFLOWER ORGANIZED IN ENGLAND IN 1606.
First Parish Church kept the building, but The Church of the Pilgrimage kept the faith. To them, and to their Pilgrim ancestors, I am especially grateful this Thanksgiving.