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7. Religious oppression and the political landscape

Before we look at the final steps that created the modern Thanksgiving, we need to understand a deeper historical component, where government and religion mix. How the Pilgrims, Puritans and the early United States governments and Presidents dealt with this problem. Who these people were and how their beliefs affected Thanksgiving.

The confusion which has arisen between two very distinct religious parties, who took part in the early colonization of New England—the Separatist " Pilgrim Fathers " of New Plymouth, and the Puritan Fathers who subsequently colonized Massachusetts, has been occasioned by careless historians,
The Pilgrim Fathers Neither Puritans Nor Persecutors, Benjamin Scott, 1866

Since grade school history lessons we have learned that our country was founded, at least in part, for the purpose of religious freedom. The “Pilgrims”, more accurately Separatists, arrived in America in 1620. There were about 100 people on the Mayflower, but fewer than half were Separatists, and half of the entire group died the first winter.

—the only persons to whom that term [Pilgrims] has been historically applied, the first successful Anglo-Saxon colonists of America, and the real founders of New England—were not Puritans, as is often carelessly and erroneously reported, but Separatists.
The Pilgrim Fathers Neither Puritans Nor Persecutors, Benjamin Scott, 1866

This distinction is very important when reading casually about Thanksgiving, as there is often little to no distinction made, but they are vital to understand the true historical driving forces. A more influential religious group to look at regarding the history of America and Thanksgiving would be the 1,000 Puritan emigrants from England that built the Massachusetts Bay Colony.1 In fact so many Puritans came to New England and other areas at this time that it was called “The Great Migration”. By 1643 about 21,000 Puritans had emigrated to New England. It is vital that we understand the differences between the Puritans and the Separatists because of their diametrically opposing ideals on free religion.

The difference between the EARLY PURITANS and the SEPARATISTS was not one of name merely, or I should not be found directing attention to the confusion which prevails in some minds on this subject. That difference was not superficial, but wide, fundamental and irreconcilable. It involved nothing less than the whole question of enforced or free religion,—of religion by act of the State, or freedom of conscience,—of religion as an act of obedience to the ruler [King or Queen], or as an act of conscience towards God,— the difference, in truth, which separated and still separates the State Churches from the Free all the world over. It involved in the days of the Pilgrim Fathers the difference between the dominant and persecuting Church which wielded the sword of the State and the persecuted victims of that sword.
The Pilgrim Fathers Neither Puritans Nor Persecutors, Benjamin Scott, 1866
(emphasis added)

Many people were imprisoned and executed for leaving the Church of England. “no public provision of food, fuel, or bedding was made for prisoners in those days; many, therefore, perished of cold, starvation, and disease.”2 At one point over forty people were sentenced to death. Their crime was “merely putting into circulation Separatist books.” This is what was left behind when the Pilgrims first fled to Holland. Unfortunately this type of oppression and tyranny followed them to America.

The third colony or settlement was that planted at Salem and Boston, Massachusetts, by PURITANS in 1630 (5th Charles I.), that party having in turn come under the persecuting hands of the English Prelates, Bancroft and Laud. It was these PURITANS of Boston, who contended for Church and State connection, who passed the Acts against the Quakers, and were guilty of whippings, brandings, tongue-piercing, and selling into slavery ; which cruelties have been ignorantly charged to the account of the PILGRIM FATHERS.
The Pilgrim Fathers Neither Puritans Nor Persecutors, Benjamin Scott, 1866

In fact the Pilgrims directly struggled against the Puritan tyranny. The Pilgrim Separatists and Puritans “abhorred” each other and the Puritans had punished Separatists “even to death” for over half a century.3 The company that financed the Pilgrims journey to America, the “Merchant Adventurers” of London, was a Puritan company. The Pilgrims were threatened by the company that their leader, John Robinson, would not be allowed to come to the colony “unless they would reconcile themselves to the Church by a recantation under their hands”4 Ultimately Robinson never made it to America. The company persecuted them for being Separatists, of “sinning against God” for their “evil views” and tolerating “diversity about religion” by accepting a man into their congregation that “renounced universal, national, and diocesan Churches”. This all happened by 1625, which is less than 5 years from the Pilgrims landing in America. One of the men that had a “diverse view” about religion, and had found sanctuary in Plymouth colony, was Roger Williams.

“In New England, being unanimously chosen teacher at Boston before your dear father came, divers years, I conscientiously refused, and I withdrew to Plymouth, because I durst not officiate to an UNSEPARATING people, as upon examination and conference I found them (i.e., of Boston) to be." This is conclusive, he was Separatist in his views, and could not minister to an "unseparating" church, such as that established at Salem or at Boston, and he withdrew to the more congenial religious society of the Plymouth colony.
The Pilgrim Fathers Neither Puritans Nor Persecutors, Benjamin Scott, 1866

Roger Williams has this to say about the separation of religious powers from the government.

Oh, that it would please the Father of Spirits to affect the heart of Parliament with such a merciful sense of the Soul-Bars and Yokes which our Fathers have laid upon the neck of this Nation, and at last to proclaim a true and absolute Soul-Freedom to all the people of the Land impartially; so that no person be forced to pray nor pay, otherwise than as his Soul believeth and consenteth.
Roger Williams: The Pioneer of Religious Liberty 18945

Williams was one of the founders of the Rhode Island Colony, which at the time was the first government formed which indicated a desire for a distinct separation between civil and religious authority for the express purpose of ensuring religious liberty. Both the Providence Plantation Patent6 and then later the Rhode Island Charter7, declared freedom of conscience and beliefs as a core element to their civil government. Early religious minorities, like Jews, Quakers and Baptists, found refuge in Rhode Island. Some historians believe that Thomas Jefferson's famous statement of a “wall of separation between church and state” was heavily influenced by Williams, and it's easy to see why.

I humbly conceive it to be the Duty of the Civil Magistrate to break down that superstitious wall of separation (as to Civil things) between us Gentiles and the Jews, and freely (without this asking) to make way for their free and peaceable Habitation amongst us.

As other Nations, so this especially, and the Kings thereof have had just cause to fear, that the unchristian oppressions, incivilities and inhumanities of this Nation against the Jews, have cried to Heaven against this Nation and the Kings and Princes of it. What horrible oppressions and horrible slaughters have the Jews suffered from the Kings and peoples of this Nation, in the Reigns of Henry 2, K. John, Richard 1. and Edward 1. Concerning which not only we, but the Jews themselves keep Chronicles.
Roger Williams: The Pioneer of Religious Liberty By Oscar Solomon Straus 1894


He [Roger Williams] returned to Providence in 1654, and in September, shortly after his arrival, was elected President or Governor of Rhode Island, one of the thirteen original states of the Union, and the first to accord Jews rights and privileges similar to other colonists. He held office until May, 1658, and it is worthy of note that one who took a significant part in securing the admission of Jews to England in the Old World, was the founder of a state in New England in the New World, which was the first to grant equal rights to Jews at a time when he was its President.
History of Zionism, 1600-1918 By Nahum Sokolow8

The popular concept of the Pilgrims coming here for religious freedom is antithetical to what actually happened. They found themselves actually in a less tolerant society, where the Church of England had followed them in the form of the Puritans, who ironically were the ones seeking religious freedom. Roger Williams was caught up in this struggle and he was the kind of leader that supported true religious freedom. He suffered persecution at the hands of a Puritan controlled government for his beliefs.

We must now turn our attention to the Massachusetts colony. Finding the colonists of Plymouth to be holding their ground, after eight years' struggles, the PURITAN party in England, who had now come in turn to experience the rigours of persecution, formed a large company in 1628. The first fleet of three vessels left the Isle of Wight in May, 1629. There can be no question as to their religious views, for in their farewell address they say, " We do NOT go to New England as SEPARATISTS from the Church of England, though we cannot but separate from the corruptions in it.* Some, however, of the Separatists found a passage in their ships and joined their friends at Plymouth, and an outcry was accordingly raised against the Company. John White, promoter of the Massachusetts Company, in 1630, meets the charge thus raised : " I persuade myself," he says, " there is no Separatist known unto the Governor, or if there be any it is far from their purpose, as it is far from their safety, to continue him among them." In the course of the voyage it was discovered that RALPH SMITH, a minister who had adopted Separatist views, was on board. Cradock writes on behalf of the Company to the Governor of Massachusetts, 1629, " Passage was granted to him (Smith) before we understood his difference of judgment in some things from our ministry, and though we have a very good opinion of his honesty, we give you this order, that unless he will be conformable to our government, you suffer him not to remain within the limits of your grant." Here is the first persecuting edict, and it is directed against a Separatist minister by a Puritan Company.

Ralph Smith was kept for a long time in isolation—a sort of spiritual quarantine. Now mark the different treatment he received from the Pilgrim Fathers of Plymouth. Bradford, the Governor, writes, " There was one Ralph Smith and his wife and family that came over into the Bay of Massachusetts, and sojourned at present with some straggling people that lived at Nantuckett." Bradford then says Smith was reduced to great straits, and had requested a passage to Plymouth and shelter there, and adds, " He was here accordingly kindly entreated and honoured, and had the rest of his goods sent for, and exercised his gifts among us, and afterwards was chosen into the ministry, and so remained many years. Hubbard, an early historian of New England, says, " He, Smith, approved the rigid way of Separation principles."
The Pilgrim Fathers Neither Puritans Nor Persecutors, Benjamin Scott, 1866

People who did not conform to the Puritan way of life in the Massachusetts Colony were either punished or banished.

Unlike the Pilgrims, the Puritans did not desire to “separate” themselves from the Church of England but, rather, hoped by their example to reform it. ... The leaders of the Massachusetts Bay enterprise never intended their colony to be an outpost of toleration in the New World; rather, they intended it to be a “Zion in the wilderness,” a model of purity and orthodoxy, with all backsliders subject to immediate correction.
Encyclopedia Britannica Online

Edward Winslow, one of the original Pilgrims that arrived on the Mayflower, was visiting England around 1633, and was imprisoned there for seventeen weeks “on account of his religious practice in the colony.”9

...the Pilgrim Fathers and their precursors in England, Holland, and at Plymouth, were Separatists, and had no connection with the Puritans, who subsequently settled in New England, at Salem and Boston in Massachusetts; that the principles and practices of the two parties, confounded by some careless writers, differed essentially. The Separatists ever contending for freedom of conscience and separation from the powers of the State, while the Puritans remained in connection and communion with the State Church, and held both in England and New England that the State should be authoritative in matters of religion.

Hence the anti-Christian and intolerant acts of the Puritan colony to the Separatists, ...
The Pilgrim Fathers Neither Puritans Nor Persecutors, Benjamin Scott, 1866

The Pilgrims were “Separatists”, they desired “separation from the powers of the State”10 for their churches and religion. The Puritans did not want a separation of church and state powers.

Thanksgiving becomes embroiled in this particular problem because the civil and religious authorities were in one accord. Thanksgiving proclamations often declared the day as a holy day, where work was forbidden and punishments were handed out for those that were caught working. The specific punishment for working on a thanksgiving day was sometimes a part of the proclamation itself. Here is an actual account from Rhode Island history when two individuals were brought to court for working on a thanksgiving day proclaimed in 1687 by the governor of New England Sir Edmund Andros.

Andros, following an established custom, had appointed the first of December as a day of thanksgiving. The proclamation was generally disregarded, and parties were brought before the Courts for contempt. One of these answered to the charge of keeping open his shop on that day "that he was above the observation of days and times." Another said that his boy opened the shop, and worked upon his own account, but that if he had not been lame he did not know but he ' should have worked himself! Thus general was the spirit of discontent at the loss of their liberties felt even in Rhode Island, where the yoke of tyranny rested comparatively lightly.
History of the State of Rhode Island, Samuel Greene Arnold, p 50611

Here is an actual threat to those that would disobey religious laws in Connecticut. It should be remembered that Connecticut is considered a huge proponent of setting Thanksgiving as an annual holiday due to their stringent yearly keeping of it.

Whoever neglects to attend worship on the Sabbath, Fast, and Thanksgiving, without sufficient cause, shall be fined five shillings for every such trespass.
New Haven, Connecticut Laws 1643, The Ecclesiastical History of New England 1855

An equivalent today might be getting fined for not attending Christmas or Sunday services. This would be unthinkable in our modern society, but this is how the Puritan rule was in New England. These accounts show how religious control enjoyed by the civil government can lead to limits of religious freedom.

The fears and concerns with government controlling religion did not disappear when America achieved independence from England. Nor did the ties between government and the churches immediately dissolve. This is evident in the very first line of the first amendment to the Constitution, which was adopted in 1791, fifteen years after independence.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
United States Bill of Rights

Over the years religious tyranny and persecution has gotten less and less, it is no longer as much of an issue in our modern society and government as it once was. But this was the political and religious environment we need to take into account and understand when reading the history of Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving was adopted by the government in later years, not created. It had been observed in New England for over 200 years before the national government recognized it. Thanksgiving was born in a time of Puritan controlled civil government. These are the same people that did not separate themselves from the Church of England, the most recognized persecutor of freedom of religion in the United States.



2The Pilgrim Fathers Neither Puritans Nor Persecutors, Benjamin Scott, 1866,M1