The Church in History: A somewhat slanted look at the history of the Christian Church

Cranmer and the Church of England; Knox and the Presbyterians; all sorts of Puritans; sometimes, it seems that the best known English Churchmen are all something else! Well, sometimes, it is so. One of the great limitations of the Church of England lies, if one is interested in growing outside one’s own home, in its very constitution. Henry VIII and Archbishop Cranmer, Henry’s Archbishop, intentionally designed the Church of England to be English-only. Remember that at that time, India was not English, Australia, Canada and New Zealand had all yet to be discovered, and even the American Colonies were only dreams in a few men’s minds. In the 1530s, England was just England.

So, when explorers who were very much Church of England folks set out to settle new continents, even if they took their own Anglican faith with them, there were just as many Presbyterians and Puritans among them as there were true Anglicans. Besides that, there was a whole additional movement within the Church of England: one that was called “dissenters”.

Just as “puritans” wanted to stay in the Church of England and “purify” it, the “dissenters” wanted nothing to do with it. By and large, the English “dissenters” took their cues from continental Anabaptists, rather than either Lutherans or Calvinists.

There had been similar movements in England for some time, and they were as persecuted under the Commonwealth as they were under the kings. Many got their ideas from the Continent, and many travelled there, to learn from Moravians, Dutch and other groups of Anabaptists. Perhaps the best known of these, to Americans (though most people don’t know they know it) was the group called “Pilgrims”. The Pilgrims were dissenters who left England for Holland, and then, for reasons of their won, returned to England only long enough to buy a ship and set off for the American wilderness. The name of their ship? The Mayflower. And the name of their settlement? Plymouth.

Now, wait, you say! That bunch were Puritans. I learned that in 2nd Grade! Well, you learned wrong. The Puritans didn’t arrive until some years later. Plymouth, along with all the stuff about Thanksgiving and Massasoit; all the lessons from the first settlers in the north; all that happened not to Puritans, but to the Pilgrims. Dissenters. Of course, when the Puritans did get here, they outnumbered the Pilgrims by several orders of magnitude, and so by the time Massachusetts Bay became a colony, the Pilgrims were a tiny and largely forgotten minority, but they’re still around. Nowadays, their Church is called the United Church of Christ. Their logo includes a picture of their ship.