The Pilgrim Fathers

A Journey to the New World to be Able to Practice their Faith Freely

Freedom to Worship

In 1620 one hundred Puritans boarded the ‘Mayflower’ bound for the New World. These people were the Pilgrim Fathers. The Pilgrim Fathers saw little chance of England becoming a country in which they wished to live. They viewed it as un-Godly and moving from a bad to worse state. The Pilgrim Fathers believed that a new start in the New World was their only chance.

The Pilgrim fathers were seeking religious freedom in the New World, and set sail from England on the Mayflower in September 1620. That November, the ship landed on the shores of Cape Cod, in present-day Massachusetts. A scouting party was sent out, and in late December the group landed at Plymouth Harbor, where they would form the first permanent settlement of Europeans in New England. These original settlers of Plymouth Colony are known as the Pilgrim Fathers, or simply as the Pilgrims.

A Voyage of Faith

The Mayflower Voyage

The group that set out from Plymouth, in southwestern England, in September 1620 included 35 members of a Puritan faction known as the English Separatist Church. In 1607, the split from the Church of England over differences in doctrine and governance. 

The Separatists settled in the Netherlands, first in Amsterdam and later in Leiden, where they remained for the next decade under the relatively lenient Dutch laws. Due to economic difficulties, as well as fears that they would lose their English language and heritage, they began to make plans to settle in the New World. Their intended destination was a region near the Hudson River, which at the time was thought to be part of the already established colony of Virginia. In 1620, two small ships the Mayflower, a three-masted merchant ship, and the Speedwell, set off. Sadly the Speedwell proved unseaworthy and was forced to return to port by September.


The leader were Myles Standish, a professional soldier who would become the military leader of the new colony; and William Bradford a leader of the Separatist congregation and author of “Of Plymouth Plantation,” his account of the Mayflower voyage and the founding of the Plymouth colony  .

The Mayflower Compact

Rough seas and storms prevented the Mayflower from reaching their initial destination in Virginia, and after a voyage of 65 days the ship reached the shores of Cape Cod, anchoring on the site of Provincetown Harbor in mid-November. Discord ensued before the would-be colonists even left the ship. The passengers who were not separatists–-referred to as “strangers”—argued the Virginia Company contract was void since the Mayflower had landed outside of Virginia Company territory.

The Pilgrims knew if something wasn’t done quickly it could be every man, woman and family for themselves. While still on board the ship, a group of 41 men signed the Mayflower Compact, agreeing to join together in a “civil body politic.” This document would become the foundation of the new colony’s government. Signed on November 11, 1620, the Mayflower Compact was the first document to establish self-government in the New World.

Life in the New World

Settling at Plymouth

After sending an exploring party ashore, the Mayflower landed at what they would call Plymouth Harbor, on the western side of Cape Cod Bay, in mid-December. During the next several months, the settlers lived mostly on the Mayflower and ferried back and forth from shore to build their new storage and living quarters. The settlement’s first fort and watchtower was built on what is now known as Burial Hill (the area contains the graves of Bradford and other original settlers).

More than half of the English settlers died during that first winter, as a result of poor nutrition and housing that proved inadequate in the harsh weather. Leaders such as Bradford, Standish, John Carver, William Brewster and Edward Winslow played important roles in keeping the remaining settlers together. In April 1621, after the death of the settlement’s first governor, John Carver, Bradford was unanimously chosen to hold that position; he would be reelected 30 times and served as governor of Plymouth for all but five years until 1656.

The First Thanksgiving

The native inhabitants of the region around Plymouth Colony were the various tribes of the Wampanoag people. Soon after the Pilgrims built their settlement, they came into contact with Tisquantum, or Squanto, an English-speaking Indian. Squanto was a member of the Pawtuxet tribe who had been seized by the explorer John Smith’s men in 1614-15. He managed to escape to England, and returned to his native land to find most of his tribe had died of plague. In addition to interpreting and mediating between the colonial leaders and Native American chiefs (including Massasoit, chief of the Pokanoket), Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn, which became an important crop, as well as where to fish and hunt beaver. In the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims famously shared a harvest feast with the Pokanokets; the meal is now considered the basis for the first Thanksgiving holiday

Relations with Native Americans

After attempts to increase his own power by turning the Pilgrims against Massasoit, Squanto died in 1622, while serving as Bradford’s guide on an expedition around Cape Cod. Other tribes, such as the Massachusetts and Narragansetts, were not so well disposed towards European settlers, and Massasoit’s alliance with the Pilgrims disrupted relations among Native American peoples in the region. Over the next decades, relations between settlers and Native Americans deteriorated as the former group occupied more and more land. By the time William Bradford died in 1657, he had already expressed anxiety that New England would soon be torn apart by violence. In 1675, Bradford’s predictions came true, in the form of King Philip’s War (Philip was the English name of Metacomet, the son of Massasoit and leader of the Pokanokets since the early 1660s.) That conflict left some 5,000 inhabitants of New England dead, three quarters of those Native Americans.

Faith in Action

The Separatists’ faith experience was part of the larger English Reformation of the 16th century. This movement sought to “purify” the Church of England of its corrupt human doctrine and practices; the people in the movement were known as “Puritans.” Separatists were those Puritans who no longer accepted the Church of England as a true church, refused to work within the structure to affect changes, and “separated” themselves to form a true church based solely on Biblical precedent. Puritans rejected Christmas, Easter and the various Saint’s Days because they had no scriptural justification, and in their worship services, they rejected hymns, the recitations of the Lord’s Prayer and creeds for the same reason.

The Separatists believed that the worship of God must progress from the individual directly to God, and that “set” forms, like the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer, interfered with that progression by directing one’s thoughts down to the book and inward to one’s self. The only exceptions were the Psalms and the Lord’s Supper, both of which had scriptural basis, and possibly the covenant by which individuals joined the congregation. As Pastor Robinson expressed it, even two or three “gathered in the name of Christ by a covenant [and] made to walk in all the ways of God known unto them is a church.”

Sabbath services were held twice on Sunday; in addition, sermons were often given on Thursdays, and as occasion demanded, Days of Thanksgiving or Days of Fasting and Humiliation were proclaimed. These latter were movable weekday holidays called in response to God’s Providence. Both were observed in a manner similar to the weekly Sabbath, with morning and afternoon services. The approximate times were from 9:00 AM to noon and from to 2:00 to 5:00 PM. In Plymouth Colony, according to the famous passage from Isaack de Rasiere’s 1627 letter:

They assemble by the 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 sidearms and his 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.

Once they reached the meetinghouse, the men and boys sixteen and older sat on one side; the women and children sat on the other side. John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, attended morning and afternoon Sabbath meetings while on a brief visit to Plymouth in October 1632. While de Rasiere described the manner in which the Pilgrims progressed to worship, Winthrop provides details on the order of worship. He pays special attention to prophesying. While no examples of prophesies have come down to us, it seems to have been similar in nature to a mini-sermon, consisting of a reading or quoting of a text and an exposition of its meaning and spiritual application, with some discussion of Christian doctrine.

The Legacy of the Pilgrim Fathers

The Pilgrim Legacy in New England

Repressive policies toward religious nonconformists in England under King James I and his successor, Charles I, had driven many men and women to follow the Pilgrims’ path to the New World. Three more ships traveled to Plymouth after the Mayflower, including the Fortune (1621), the Anne and the Little James (both 1623). In 1630, a group of some 1,000 Puritan refugees under Governor John Winthrop settled in Massachusetts according to a charter obtained from King Charles I by the Massachusetts Bay Company. 

Winthrop soon established Boston as the capital of Massachusetts Bay Colony, which would become the most populous and prosperous colony in the region.

Compared with later groups who founded colonies in New England, such as the Puritans, the Pilgrims of Plymouth failed to achieve lasting economic success. After the early 1630s, some prominent members of the original group, including Brewster, Winslow and Standish, left the colony to found their own communities. The cost of fighting King Philip’s War further damaged the colony’s struggling economy. Less than a decade after the war King James II appointed a colonial governor to rule over New England, and in 1692 under the good government of King William, Plymouth was absorbed into the larger entity of Massachusetts.

The descendants of these early settlers went on to lead the American Revolution and the establishment of the United States. That Pilgrim Spirit did indeed prevail.

An International Legacy of the Fight for Freedom of Worship

Institution Writes to the President of the United States of America

The ILOI have marked the Mayflower Journey and landing of the Pilgrim Fathers on the shores of America in their Twelfth Resolutions. To follow this up it was agreed to write in recognition of this to President Trump.