Pilgrim or Puritan — Which Are You?

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Nov 23, 2010 No Comments ›› John Eidsmoe

Pilgrim or Puritan — Which Are You?

At Thanksgiving we think of the Pilgrims and Puritans who settled New England.

But who were they? What was the difference between them? And which are you?

In the late 1500s and 1600s the Anglican (Episcopal) Church was the official church of England, with the king as head of the church. And England granted a fair degree of tolerance to those who stayed within its bounds. Pastors who accepted ordination and licensure from the Church of England had a fair measure of freedom to believe in Calvinism or Arminianism, Protestantism or Catholicism, so long as they stayed under that Church of England umbrella.

But in the late 1500s a group arose who believed the Church of England was too tolerant of heresy, immorality, and corruption. They were determined to “purify” the Church; hence they were known as Puritans. They garnered much support from the middle class, the merchants and professional people, and they commanded a majority in the English Parliament. In the 1640s the struggle between the parliamentarian puritans and the royalist cavaliers, erupted into actual military warfare, the overthrow of the English monarch, and the establishment of the English Commonwealth under the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. But starting in 1630 many of the Puritans crossed the Atlantic and established colonies in New England, notably Boston, Salem, New Haven, and New Hampshire. Here they sought to establish a Holy Commonwealth, a community of the redeemed under the rulership of the elect, that they might be a “city upon a hill,” a light and a beacon to the world, a model to England of what a purified church should be.

Others in England shared the Puritans’ Calvinist theology and their belief that the Church of England was heretical, immoral, and corrupt. But they believed it was futile to purify the Church of England; rather, the true believer must separate from the Church of England and establish dissenting churches; hence they were known as separatists or dissenters. A group of them from Scrooby in Northern England emigrated to the Netherlands for a time but found that their children were adopting Dutch ways, and while the Dutch shared their Calvinist theology they did not always share their strict moral standards. So this group returned to England and prepared to sail to America, where they established Plymouth Colony in 1620.

In New England the Pilgrims and Puritans were very similar in nearly every respect; the Pilgrims might have been a bit kinder and gentler, having been persecuted themselves. By 1700, however, the Pilgrims had been pretty thoroughly merged into Puritan society.

Earlier I asked the question, which are you — Pilgrim or Puritan? Do you fight within the system, or do you separate from the system? Sometimes God commands separation (see II Corinthians 6:17; cf Numbers 16), but Paul and others regularly engaged the culture they lived in.

Public schools are a good example. Some Christians take the “Puritan” approach, choosing to work within the public schools to restore and/or preserve the teaching of traditional values and the nation’s Christian heritage. Some of these people teach in the schools, serve on school boards, and in other ways exercise a godly influence.

Others choose to separate from the public schools and work with private schools or home schools. These people follow the “Pilgrim” approach.

So who is right — the Pilgrims or the Puritans? I don’t think there is a clear answer to that. I’m thankful for private and home schools, and that’s the way we chose to educate our children. But I’m also thankful for those who choose to work within the public schools, so that the 80 – 90% of children who attend public schools are not left utterly without a witness. I would not send my children to the public schools, but I would be pleased to have my wife teach there. In fact, my wife has been both a Puritan and a Pilgrim, teaching in the public schools, then home schooling our children, and now teaching part time in a private Christian school.

Schools are only one aspect of the culture war, a culture war in America today similar to that of England in the 1600s. Some choose to enter the secular arena and engage their opponents on their own turf. Others choose to establish a distinctly Christian culture or counterculture.

Probably there is some Pilgrim and some Puritan within each of us, and which should play the predominant role may vary with time and circumstances. May the Lord grant us wisdom to know when to be a Puritan and when to be a Pilgrim. And may we all have a blessed Thanksgiving!

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