The Plymouth Separatists
History still blesses the memory of these righteous people. We know the Separatists by a name they didn’t call themselves: “The Pilgrims.” Who hasn’t thought of them, wondering how they could go through all they did? How they could give thanks through so much turmoil and suffering? Yet, there’s something very important most people don’t know about them, too, and the movement of which they were a part.
We tend to see “the Pilgrims” in a certain way that makes it hard for us to understand what their life together meant to them. They shared all things in common, not just as a business arrangement with their financial backers, but as an expression of their fervent faith. They were out to bring the “Kingdom of God” to earth. But it wasn’t an earthly kingdom with power they sought to establish. They actually came to recreate on the shores of America the life of the first church in Jerusalem in the first century.
In their own estimation, they failed. They didn’t become what they wanted to, but settled for something far less. But they dreamed much more greatly than we have understood, even though the whole story is written in the Governor’s own journal, Of Plymouth Plantation. Made public two centuries later, Bradford’s Journal is best seen as the “black box” of the Pilgrims, recording every significant detail of the “flight” of their movement.
They desired “the churches of God [to] revert to their ancient purity and recover their primitive order, liberty, and beauty.“* Sharing all things, which they called their “common course,” was the very means of achieving these goals. It was their actual substance. But such sharing only lasted until their third year in the New World. The difficulties were too great, rooted in fallen human nature itself. Above all was the telling lack of motivation in working for the good of others and not just themselves. This lack threatened their very prospects for survival. Amid much discussion, Governor Bradford wrote in his journal that he “gave way,” and every man was now to “trust to themselves.”**
Although it would be many years before he understood what he had done, the decision haunted him for the rest of his life. Reading through his journal sometime after 1650, historians tell us, he came across words he had written in 1617. He read of the covenant between them, and how they cared for one another. Stunned, the compromises they had made became blindingly clear to him. They had wanted to restore the life of the “primitive church” when they came to America, but they had all fallen away instead. Writing in the margin next to his entry of that day more than thirty years before, we can but marvel at his unflinching honesty, as well as his sorrow:
“O sacred bond, whilst inviolably preserved! How sweet and precious were the fruits that flowed from the same…But (alas) that subtle serpent, the devil, has slyly wound himself among us under fair pretenses of necessity and the like, to untwist those sacred bonds and tried, and as it were insensibly by degrees to dissolve, or in great measure, to weaken the same…***”
The Pilgrims had bravely begun their search to restore the primitive church in all its “purity, order, liberty, and beauty” — to live just as the believers in Acts 2 and 4 did. For a season, they must have thought they were no longer natural men, bound to seek after all that the Gentiles strive for. Viewing themselves as spiritual men, saved by the grace of God, and seeking first His Kingdom, surely God would supply all these things to them (Matthew 6:31-33). What happened to them? Where did they go wrong?
Bradford’s humility allowed him to face the reality of why their “common course and condition” ended: the devil prevailed over them, dividing them as he has always divided men, in the fear for their own lives and prosperity. Yet, before we cast blame, we must ask ourselves, “How many never even try to obey the gospel, knowing they will fail?”
As for us, we are thankful for the legacy the Pilgrims left us: that men ought to be free to obey God. We recognize that we owe our freedom to restore true community to men like William Bradford and the Separatists. No, their dream was not realized, but at least they dreamed.
There is another “Black Box” that was not so hard to find as Bradford’s Journal. But its meaning has been much harder to unravel, constantly tying men in knots of confusion and discord. Yet the reason why is not hard to see, once you realize that it is not the story of the glorious beginning of a movement that has soared down through history, but the tragic tale of the all-too-brief flight and devastating crash of the early church. What came forth from that ruin, from the departure of the Holy Spirit from the early church, is what has gone down through history. Yes, the Bible is a “black box” that unlocks the reasons and means of the spiritual ruin of the communities of the first century, gathered in twelve tribes around the Roman Empire.
That larger story is told in brief in the publication, “The Mystery of the Black Box.” In it, the story of the Plymouth Separatists is told in an article entitled, “Till Kingdom Come” on pages 42-45. You can download it by clicking on the image above.
Like many before and after them, the Pilgrims had hoped to be “together again” — living as the first church had in Jerusalem so long ago. It wasn’t the time yet… but it is now! Come and see communities where the disciples willingly share all things in common. Revering the Pilgrims, you could say, has been more than a history lesson for us, or even a holiday to give thanks on. They were “stepping stones” to us, continuing on the path they nobly and bravely embarked upon.
For the Communities of the Twelve Tribes,
* William Bradford, “Of Plymouth Plantation,” Random House (paperback edition), 1981, p. 1-2.