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The Pilgrim Fathers were not economic migrants but persecuted Nonconformists

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Missionaries, Religion on Thursday, 30 May 2013

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This edited article about Christian missionaries originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 274 published on 15 April 1967.

Pilgrim Fathers, picture, image, illustration

It is sometimes said that the first act of the 'Pilgrim Fathers', as they were later named, was to fall upon their knees, and the second to fall upon the natives. Picture by Peter Jackson

Most people know that a company of devout Christians set out from Plymouth in 1620, but very few have any idea of what they did when they reached America.

It is sometimes said that the first act of the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ was to fall upon their knees, and the second to fall upon the natives. This sarcastic comment has little truth in it so far as the second part is concerned.

The emigrants were men and women of the Puritan sects. Great readers of the Bible, they sought a freedom to live according to their own understanding of its teachings, far from the restrictions and penalties which they had to endure in Europe.

Their first settlements were around Massachusetts Bay, where they founded the town of Plymouth, in memory of the English port from which they sailed in the Mayflower.

The lives of these settlers were governed by the rules laid down by their own strict form of the Christian religion. Although they spoke of freedom, when they had gained it they were quick to impose their own forms of religious discipline upon others. As a result, some of the succeeding groups of colonists were not accepted by the ‘founding fathers’, and had to seek new settlements of their own.

This brought them into conflict with the tribes of Red Indians who were the only inhabitants of the area at that time. Sometimes there was violence, and even bloodshed, but, in the vast majority of encounters between settlers and natives, treaties of friendship were made and land was bought by the newcomers only after proper negotiations had taken place. The settlers also tried to share their Christian faith with their new neighbours, with some success.

The most notable of these missionaries to the Red Indians was John Eliot. He was not one of the original ‘Pilgrim Fathers’, but reached America in 1631 and settled in the neighbourhood of Boston. He spent the rest of his life preaching to the Indians and eventually translated the whole of the Bible into their language. This was the first Bible to be printed in a native North American language. It was also the first Bible to be printed on the American continent, and copies of it are greatly prized today.

Several interesting features of modern life in the U.S.A. have their origin in the doings of the early settlers. The city of ‘Philadelphia’, for instance, takes its name from the Greek words for ‘brotherly love’. Philadelphia was founded by early Quaker settlers.

The early history of the U.S.A. is as much the story of religious pioneering as of exploration and conquest.

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