Religious Beliefs of the Pilgrims
AUTHOR: Johnson, Caleb
PUBLISHED ON: November 27, 2003
DOC SOURCE: http://www.mayflowerhistory.com/History/religion.php
PUBLISHED IN: Educational

Religious Beliefs of the Pilgrims

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth, Puritan-leaning religious opinions were generally tolerated, but when King James came to power in 1604 the Church of England again began to root out, prosecute, and jail those who openly believed the Church needed to be purified of its false ceremonies, non-Scriptural teachings, and superstitious rituals.  Across England, small groups began to separate themselves from their persecuting Churches, to form their own secret congregations.  One such group was centered not too far from Sherwood Forest, in a small village in Nottinghamshire named Scrooby.  Led by Richard Clyfton, John Robinson, and William Brewster, by 1606 the group was secretly holding meetings in Scrooby Manor, where Brewster was employed as the postmaster.  It was not long, however, before the authorities were onto them.  The group made the decision to flee England to Holland, where they had heard they could practice their religion without the threat of jail, punishments, and fines.  After several failed attempts in 1607, they all managed to make it to Amsterdam in 1608, and later migrated en masse to Leiden, Holland in early 1609.

What religious beliefs did the Pilgrims have, that made them so intolerable to the English authorities?  The following is a list of some of the religious issues of the day, and the Pilgrims’ beliefs regarding them.


The Pilgrims believed that before the foundation of the world, God predestined to make the world, man, and all things.  He also predestined, at that time, who would be saved, and who would be damned.  Only those God elected would receive God’s grace, and would have faith.  There was nothing an individual could do during their life that would cause them to be saved (or damned), since God had already decided who was going to be saved before the creation of the world.  However, God would not have chosen blatant sinners to be his elect; and therefore those who were godly were likely to be the ones God had elected to be saved. 

Sacraments and Popery.

To the Pilgrims, there were only two sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  The other sacraments (Confession, Penance, Confirmation, Ordination, Marriage, Confession, Last Rites) of the Church of England and Roman Catholic church were inventions of man, had no scriptural basis, and were therefore superstitions, to the point of being heretical.  The Pilgrims opposed mass, and considered marriage a civil affair to be handled by the State (not a religious sacrament).  The legitimacy of the Pope, the Saints, and the church hierarchy were rejected, as was the veneration of relics.  Icons and religious symbols such as crosses, statues, stain-glass windows, fancy architecture, and other worldly manifestations of religion were rejected as a form of idolatry.  It was the rejection of the authority of the church hierarchy, and of the sacraments, that was the primary cause of conflict between the Pilgrims and the Church of England.

Church Organization.

The church of the Pilgrims was organized around five officers: pastor, teacher, elder, deacon, and deaconess (sometimes called the “church widow”).  However, none of the five offices was considered essential to the church.  The Pastor was an ordained minister whose responsibility was to see to the religious life of the congregation.  John Robinson was the pastor of the Pilgrims, but was never able to get to America before his death in 1625.  The Teacher was also an ordained minister who was responsible for the instruction of the congregation.  The Pilgrims apparently never had anyone to fill that position.  The Elder was a lay-person responsible for church government, and he was also the church’s eyes and ears, assisting the Pastor and Teacher in admonishing the congregation.  William Brewster was the Elder for the Plymouth church.  The Deacon collected offerings, and attended to the needs of the poor and elderly.  John Carver and Samuel Fuller both were deacons during their life.  The Deaconess attended the sick and poor, and often played the role of midwife for the congregation.  The Deaconess of the early Plymouth church is not named, but may have been Bridget Fuller.  The church building itself had no significance to the Pilgrims, and was usually called simply the “meeting place” or “meetinghouse”.  The meetinghouse was kept drab, and had no religious depictions or icons, to avoid the sin of idolatry.

Infant Baptism.

The Pilgrims believed baptism was the sacrament which wiped away Original Sin, and was a covenant with Christ and his chosen people (as circumcision had been to God and the Israelites), and therefore children should be baptized as infants.  This was in opposition to the Anabaptists, who believed that baptism was essentially an initiation ceremony into the churchhood of believers, and therefore could only be administered to believing adults who understood the meaning of the ceremony.  The Pilgrims, on the other hand, believed that “baptism now, as circumcision of old, is the seal of the covenant of God,” and they felt that groups like the Anabaptists who did not baptize their infants were depriving Christ’s flock of all its young lambs.  They further believed that at least one parent must be of the faith for the child to be baptized into the church.

Holy Days and Religious Holidays.

The Pilgrims faithfully observed the Sabbath, and did not work on Sunday.  Even when the Pilgrims were exploring Cape Cod, to the Mayflower crew’s dismay, they stopped everything and stayed in camp on Sunday to keep the Sabbaths.  The Pilgrims did not celebrate Christmas and Easter.  These holidays were invented by man to memorialize Jesus, and are not prescribed by the Bible or celebrated by the early Christian churches, and therefore cannot be considered Holy days.  “It seems too much for any mortal man to appoint, or make an anniversary memorial” for Christ, taught the Pilgrims’ pastor John Robinson.


The Pilgrims considered marriage a civil affair, not to be handled by the church ministers, but instead by civil magistrates.  Marriage was a contract, mutually agreed upon by a man and a woman.  Marriage was created by God for the benefit of man’s natural and spiritual life.  Marriages were considered important for two main reasons: procreation of children to increase Christ’s flock; and to avoid the sin of adultery.  Pastor John Robinson taught that the important characteristics to find in a spouse are (1) godliness, and (2) similarity–in age, beliefs, estate, disposition, inclinations, and affections.  In the marriage, “the wife is specially required a reverend subjection in all lawful things to her husband,” and the husband is “to give honor to the wife,” as the Lord requires “the love of the husband to his wife must be like Christ’s to his church.”

The Bible and Books.

The Pilgrims primarily used the Geneva edition of the Bible, which contained a number of Puritan-tending footnotes and interpretation.  In response, King James had his own edition of the Bible translated and published in 1611 for use by the Church of England.  The Pilgrims used the psalm-book written by Henry Ainsworth, which was a more true and literal translation of the Psalms, whereas the Church of England tended to use the Sternhold and Hopkins psalter which was more poetic but less true to Scripture.  The Church of England used the “Book of Common Prayer,” whereas the Pilgrims strongly opposed scripted reciting of other men’s prayers.  The most commonly-owned book in early Plymouth Colony (outside of the Bible and psalm book) was John Dod’s Exposition on the Ten Commandments, followed by pastor John Robinson’s Observations Divine and Moral.

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