15 November 2012

Religious dissent brings Pilgrims and Puritans to New England

 Winthrop Fleet comes to Mass. Bay Colony by William F. Halsall
Religious upheavals in England were one of the reasons why the New World appealed to early settlers such as the Pilgrims and Puritans. It all started when King Henry VIII (1491-1547) wanted to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), in order to marry Anne Boleyn (1501?-1536). Henry sought a male heir to strengthen his throne, and while the Queen had numerous children, only Princess Mary survived. Henry appealed to Pope Clement VII for an annulment, but he didn't get what he wanted.

So Henry banished Catherine from the court and secretly married Anne Boleyn. The new Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, then declared the king’s first marriage null and void in May 1533; days later Cranmer validated the second marriage.

Up until this time, England was a Roman Catholic country. In essence it remained Catholic, but instead of the pope, by the Act of Supremacy in 1534, the king was the only Supreme Head of the Church of England. Protestant reformers, influenced by German monk Martin Luther (1483-1546) and other religious leaders, were persecuted during his reign.

Protestants and Catholics Rule
Elizabeth I

After Henry’s death, the crown passed to Edward VI (1537-1553), son of Henry VIII and his third wife, Jane Seymour (1508?-1537), who was raised as a Protestant. When Edward died, Mary I (1516-1558), daughter of Henry and first wife Catherine of Aragon, ruled. She was known as Bloody Mary for trying to re-establish Roman Catholicism by burning more than 250 religious dissenters at the stake. After Mary’s death, Elizabeth (1533-1603), daughter of Henry and second wife Anne Boleyn, became queen. She compromised on religious issues, keeping many of the Catholic elements in the Protestant Church of England, but re-establishing the monarch as head of the church. The Book of Common Prayer became part of the services, and while church attendance was required, punishment was not extreme such as in Mary’s reign.

After Elizabeth’s long reign, she was succeeded by the (Protestant) James VI of Scotland and I of England (1566-1625), son of the (Catholic) Mary, Queen of Scots who was imprisoned and later beheaded to stop a Catholic conspiracy to overtake the English throne. James tolerated Catholics who took the Oath of Allegiance proclaiming the king and not the pope as head of the church, but he did not agree to all the changes Puritan clergy wished to make. James did, however, sponsor a new translation of the Bible, the King James version, published in 1611. Following his death, son Charles I (1600-1649) became king. Charles not only married a Catholic and stirred up wars, he also wanted to move the Church of England away from the influences of Calvinist teachings that Puritans followed.

During the English Civil Wars, King Charles was beheaded in 1649 and replaced by the Commonwealth leader (and Puritan) Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) and his son Richard Cromwell (1626-1712) before the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 and the merry reign of Charles II (1630-1685). Although Charles II favored religious tolerance for Catholics and Protestant dissenters, Parliament would not allow his royal decrees to stand. On his deathbed, Charles II converted to Roman Catholicism. He was succeeded by his unpopular Roman Catholic brother, James II (1633-1701). In 1688, the Glorious Revolution replaced James with his Protestant son-in-law, William of Orange (1650-1702), and his daughter Mary (1662-1694) acting as joint rulers. William & Mary did not have descendants, so upon their deaths, the crown went to James II’s other daughter, Anne (1665-1714).

Dissent and Calls to Reform

Some of England’s subjects followed the state religion regardless which one it was, sometimes in order to protect their lives, livelihood, property, wealth, or position in society. Others practiced their religion in secret or were openly opposed to the state religion.

By the 1560s, some people, influenced by the Protestant Reformation and theologians such as John Calvin (1509-1564), believed the Church of England needed more reforms, to rid itself of popish practices. They wanted to “purify” the English church. From these groups we find the first settlers of Plymouth Colony and Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony were Separatists who believed the Church of England was too corrupt for reformation. Starting in 1607, some of these Separatists left England for Amsterdam and later Leiden before coming to the New World in 1620 and a few years following. The Puritans were non-separatists who believed reform was still possible. They came to New England starting in the mid 1620s.

The Great Migration

The Great Migration refers to the time period from 1620, when the Mayflower landed in Plymouth Colony, to about 1640, when immigration slowed due to the English Civil Wars (1642-1651). During these two decades, about 10,000 immigrants came to New England. Much of the migration falls between the reigns of James I and Charles I, but it was the prior rulers, starting with Henry VIII, who initiated the change of religious history in England that led to the Great Migration.

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