Suzette Martinez Standring, American award-winning author of The Art of Column Writing, visited the Plimoth Plantation and its 1627 ‘English Village’ in Massachusetts http://www.plimoth.org/ where she learnt about William Brewster. In a recently published article, she evokes the period in which the foundations of modern America were laid by those early settlers who fled the religious persecution that they had experienced in Europe.
A glimpse of early colonists’ religion.
Early colonists viewed the term “Puritans” as a slur. They were Separatists from the Church of England bent on “purifying” the church of corrupt doctrine. That made them “Reformed Christians” or “Saints.” And their disposition was not dour. They were “soberly cheerful.”
William Brewster, though long dead, can set the record straight on 1627 spirituality.
Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Mass., is a Smithsonian-affiliated living history museum, renowned for its historical accuracy in portraying 17th century Pilgrim and native Wampanoag life.
Since Christianity was a major influence among the early colonists, the museum’s historical interpreters have always incorporated this spiritual perspective in shaping their roles. But “Worship in Plymouth Colony” is the first time the role of religion has ever been formalized in a performance. The 20-minute program takes place on Tuesdays and Sundays at 10:30 a.m. and at 2:30 pm at the 1627 English Village through Aug. 31.
“Christian belief and practice played a key role in the life of every Englishman and woman in the 1600s. So we offer our visitors a glimpse of what worship services were like in 1627 Plymouth. It's an introduction to historic worship without offering a worship service itself. We are teachers, not proselytizers,” said Richard Pickering, deputy director of Plimoth Plantation.
Few tourists would have the patience for an authentic re-enactment of Sabbath services of morning and afternoon worship, lasting a minimum of four hours that included a sermon, Bible readings, prophesying and singing. Instead, the program makes it possible for visitors to ask 21st century questions of costumed interpreters who offer genuine 17th century answers.
A drum beats a sober cadence, signaling the start of Sunday worship for early English settlers. All are called to attendance, even the non-believers. It was said that Captain Miles Standish knocked at any “no-show’s” door with a command to come to worship or face an appropriate punishment.
Within the rough-hewn Fort/Meetinghouse of the village, “William Brewster” is the 17th century person portrayed by historical interpreter Ray Byrne. For 12 years Brewster had served as the ruling elder of the Leiden Separatist congregation, which had moved from England to Holland in its break from the Church of England.
When dozens of members set sail for the New World, their pastor, John Robinson, stayed in Holland and named Brewster to look after the emigrants. Wearing a black hat and dressed in yellow linen, Brewster affects the dialect of the day to answer questions about the practices and beliefs of 1627.
Part of the larger English Reformation of the 16th century, “Puritans” were separatists who rejected the Church of England, whose practices they viewed as not Bible-based. To them, memorized prayers, hymns (except for Psalms), the recitation of creeds, and the celebration of Christmas and saints’ days had no scriptural basis. Instead, the early pilgrims believed that a heartfelt exaltation was most pleasing to God and that “set” forms of worship dulled such expression.
“We don’t use the King James Bible because there are annotations to understand scripture in the first (the Geneva Bible). They were taken out in the King James Bible and it was left to clergy to interpret. Therefore, it was no longer the word of God as recorded but word of God as interpreted,” Brewster said.
Modern Congregational, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed and Huguenot churches derive some of their practices from the Pilgrims' Calvinist tradition, according to Pickering.
Historically, Brewster, a layman, could not offer communion. Yet the inability to offer The Lord’s Supper in the new land was unifying. Not taking communion was a way to take note of the non-members of the church or the punished. So the absence of the sacrament put everyone on an equal footing as did the struggles of scarcity, toil and the dependence on each other for survival, according to historian Pickering.
Prayer was a constant in early colonial life. There were “days of humiliation” that included fasting and contemplation.
“A day of humiliation might be held if we are having a drought or we feel that God is punishing us and we ask God for mercy,” Brewster explained.
For the first settlers, thanksgiving was not an annual feast, but a daily practice of gratitude to God for everything ranging from a bountiful harvest to a day of sunshine.
“What better time when you are in the fields, surrounded by God, to talk to God?” asked Brewster.
And how the first colonists talked to God is one of the historical insights of Plimoth Plantation’s unique spirituality program.
Jean Gatch of Fort Worth, Texas, was both surprised and impressed. “You can really see where the reformed faith in America comes from,” she said.
Text reproduced courtesy of Suzette Standring and The Patriot Ledger http://www.patriotledger.com/
Photo credits: William Brewster; Mayflower II
Photo by Midge Frazel http://www.flickr.com/