Friday, November 26, 2004

The Pilgrims, Marriage, and Separation of Church & State

In a moment of rumination over Thanksgiving, I was doing some reading on the differences between the Pilgrims and Puritans, which led me to the website of The Pilgrim Hall Museum, and an essay by Richard Howland Maxwell, titled "Pilgrim And Puritan: A Delicate Distinction". It's a well-reasoned piece with some interesting points that I've been sadly ignorant of or had long forgotten.

The people whom we celebrate as survivors of that first devastating winter in N. America were reformers and secessionists who sought to re-connect with the divine ground of their theology by removing themselves from a corrupt government that was bound inextricably into the Anglican church and had tainted that church:
"The Protestant Reformation that had taken place in the sixteenth century in Germany, Switzerland, and elsewhere on the European continent had not really touched England nearly a century later. By the Act of Supremacy in 1534, King Henry VIII had taken control of the Church in his country away from the Pope, but little else had changed. The Church of England was the official and only church in England. Everybody belonged to it, whether they wanted to or not. Every resident of a given community was automatically a member of the parish in that community. Worship services were read from a Prayer Book. There was little or no teaching or preaching that went on in worship; therefore, there was little need for a trained clergy or for the clergy to make any effort at preparation for worship.
Because it was an extension of the government, the English church was as subject to political abuse and favoritism as any other governmental agency. One result was that the office of the parish priest became a sinecure given as an expression of the favor of the hierarchy; many of the clergy were assigned to parishes but never went near them! The church members had nothing to say about all of this; they were expected to quietly accept whatever the hierarchy of the church thrust upon them. In his biography of John Robinson entitled The Pilgrim Way, Robert Merrill Bartlett summarized the problems which led to the rise of Puritanism in England as being "the tyranny of the hierarchy, the indolence of the clergy, and the lethargy of the laity." "
And the purpose of the Puritan movement was to focus on a kind of back-to-basics religion, much as Martin Luther had done with the Reformation:

"Puritanism in England was essentially a movement within the established church for the purifying of that church - for ministers godly and able to teach, for a simplifying of ritual, for a return to the virtues of primitive Christianity. There was nothing revolutionary about the main body of its doctrine. . Its innovating principle was in the idea that the Bible, rather than any established religious hierarchy, was the final authority."
But the most interesting part for me, in light of the gay-marriage tempest currently distracting our devout citizenry, was this comment on how the Pilgrims of the Plymouth Colony regarded marriage:

"At Plymouth, church and state were even more markedly separated. Like all Puritans, both groups held that the Bible - as opposed to church leaders or their pronouncements - is the final authority. In Plymouth, they interpreted that to include the idea that what Scripture does not specifically claim as a religious function remains a civil one. The best-known result of this thinking was the belief in Plymouth that marriage was a civil rite, not a religious one. Governor Bradford himself explained that marriage is "a civill thing, upon which many questions aboute inheritances doe depende, with other things most proper to their cognizans… and no wher found in the gospell to be layed on the ministers as a part of their office." "
A civil function. Not part of a minister's function.
That should wow them at the next Alliance Defense Fund meeting.


Anonymous said...

Nice post. I was aware of that the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay and the Pilgrims were distinct, but I didn't know the bit about civil marriage. I also found interesting the part in the essay you linked to that describes the arrogant attitude of the Puritans and how they almost co-opted CT River land that the Pilgrims had begun to settle. That arrogant attitude of taking things that don't belong to you prevailed in taking Native American land, and prevails today in helping ourselves to countries (Iraq) that possess oil.


Riggsveda said...

Interesting, too, that the part of the essay you mention had to do with natural forces (the storms, the sea) getting in the way of those greedy landgrabbers, and how easy it would be to say it was "God's will" that it stay in the possession of the Plymouth colonists. Almost poetic justice, doesn't it seem?