Pilgrims’ 400-year legacy alive in Plymouth

Pilgrims’ 400-year legacy alive in Plymouth

The congregation established by the Pilgrims in 1620 belongs to the Unitarian Universalist Association today.

Kimberly French


Embarkation of the Pilgrims (painting)

Embarkation of the Pilgrims, by Robert Walter Weir, c. 1857. (Brooklyn Museum; public domain)

Robert Walter Weir, 1857; public domain

Unitarian Universalists take pride in tracing our history to roots as diverse as Transylvania and the Transcendentalists. Less often do we follow the root that leads to the Pilgrims, with their moral rigidity and Calvinist theology. Yet the congregation established by the Pilgrims and transplanted to Massachusetts in 1620, the First Parish in Plymouth, belongs to the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations today.

This year the church celebrates the 400th anniversary of its 1606 covenant in Scrooby, England, in which church members declared themselves free from the Church of England, breaking British law and making them “Separatists.”

Although Pilgrim piety, sacrifice, and grimness may not resonate with liberal religionists today, key elements of the Pilgrim religious legacy carry on both at First Parish and throughout Unitarian Universalism.

The Pilgrims rejected professions of faith like the Nicene Creed. Instead, they formed the church around a covenant, or promise to work together in religious community—a concept new to the English-speaking world. They also rejected hierarchical church authority, believing in each congregation’s right to self-governance by the vote of its members, a democratic structure called “congregational polity” that UU churches still practice.

They were soon followed to Massachusetts and outnumbered by the Puritans, who kept some ties to the Church of England and turned the colony into a near-theocracy. In that climate, the Pilgrims stood up for religious tolerance, allowing differences of belief and practice within the church and beyond. Unlike the Puritans, they refused to persecute Quakers or engage in witch hunting, and kept a forty-year peace pact with the Wampanoag Indians.

Carved at the front of First Parish’s sanctuary are the words of John Robinson, the Pilgrims’ first minister: “The Lord hath more truth and light to break forth from His holy word.” The Rev. Sarah Clark, the current minister, reflects, “His words have been a guiding light to the congregation through the years, giving them the strength to change when changes came, and that’s still true.”

How the Pilgrim church became Unitarian is a point of some dispute. Liberal and conservative factions emerged in the 1790s. A conservative minister introduced a creed, but after his death a majority of members chose a more liberal minister and a dissatisfied minority left to form its own church. The liberals became Unitarians, the conservatives, Congregationalists. Since 1801 First Parish has coexisted, in friendly disagreement, with the Church of the Pilgrimage next door, which is today affiliated with the United Church of Christ. Though each tells the story a little differently, the two churches celebrated their shared history together this year with a joint lecture series. “There’s still a little feeling between the two churches that one of us is right and one wrong,” Clark admits, “but we try to be friendly.”

First Parish today is proud and at times bemused by its history, with all its twists. The stone church was erected in 1899 on the original site as a shrine to the Pilgrims. Members give free public tours, happily pointing out incongruities like the Romanesque architecture that evokes the church the Pilgrims left more than the one they founded.

First Parish’s 2006 covenant begins, “Love is the spirit of this church, and service is its law.” At an anniversary ceremony in September, Deerfoot, orator of the Pokanoket tribe of the Wampanoag nation and a descendant of Massasoit and Pilgrims William and Susannah White, said, “It comes down to one word: love. My ancestors on both sides would have been delighted to hear that word start off today’s covenant.”