Separatists, Definition

Colonial America

Definition and meaning of the term Separatists as it relates to Colonial America and U.S. history.

William Brewster, Painting

William Brewster, shown holding the Bible, was an elder in the Separatist congregation and a prominent leader. Image Source: Robert Weir, 1843, Architect of the Capitol.

Who were the Separatists? Definition and Meaning of the People Who Became the Pilgrim Fathers

The simple definition of Separatists, in terms of Colonial America and U.S. history, is a group of Puritans who wanted to completely separate themselves from the Church of England. The larger group of Puritans wanted to remain part of the Church of England but wanted to reform, or “purify,” the church. Eventually, some of them left England and moved to Holland. In 1620, some of them moved again, this time to America, where they founded Plymouth Colony, the first successful English Colony in New England.

Church of England Established

The Church of England was established by King Henry VIII in 1534 after Pope Clement VII excommunicated him from the Catholic Church. In 1536, the Act of Supremacy established Henry as the Supreme Head of the Church of England.

King Henry VIII, Portrait
Portrait of King Henry VIII by Hans Eworth, ca. 1537. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Despite the split with the Catholic Church, the Church of England was very similar to the Catholic Church in terms of rituals performed during Mass and the hierarchy of bishops, priests, and deacons.  The significant difference was the English monarch was the head of the Church of England, whereas the Pope was the head of the Catholic Church.

Eventually, all British subjects were required to attend and worship at the Church of England on Sundays. This was established by the Act of Uniformity, which was made law in 1552 under King Edward VI. In 1559, the second Act of Uniformity became law, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The second act not only required participation but also imposed fines on people who failed to comply.

Puritan Movement and the Beginning of Separation

The Puritans were members of a religious reform movement that arose within the Church of England in the late 16th century who wanted to “purify” the Church of England. They believed in a strict interpretation of the Bible and wanted to remove anything from their worship that could not be found in scripture, especially any practices that could be traced to Catholicism.

Puritans opposed the use of images and statues in churches. They also objected to the practice of kneeling when receiving communion, which they felt was nothing more than an imitation of Roman Catholics.

Separatist Movement Grows out of the Puritan Movement

Over time, a distinct group formed within the Puritans. They did not approve of the Catholic elements of the Church of England or the low standards that allowed poor public behavior, drunkenness, and the failure to properly keep the Sabbath. They were willing to separate themselves from the Church of England, the Puritan movement, and England itself and are referred to as the  Separatists.

Separatists and Calvinism

The Separatists were followers of the theology of John Calvin. They believed they had been “elected” by God for salvation.

They referred to themselves as Saints and to outside groups as Strangers. In 1608, a group of English Separatists — today known as Pilgrims — led by William Brewster and John Robinson moved to Holland to escape religious persecution.

Holland was known for its tolerance and religious freedom.

Separatists Become Pilgrims and Move to Holland

At first, they lived in Amsterdam but then moved to Leiden, where many landmarks commemorating the Separatists can still be seen today. However, by 1617 they decided they needed to leave Holland, in part because they felt their children were being influenced by Dutch society and would lose their identity as English. They were also concerned the Dutch were going to go to war with Spain.

Separatists Choose Virginia for Their Home in America

They decided the best thing to do was to leave Holland and sail to the New World, where they could establish a settlement in Virginia. They intended to remain loyal to the Crown and England but wanted to worship in their own church.

The Pilgrims Sail to the New World on the Mayflower

The congregation did not have enough money to establish their settlement and it took roughly three years to put everything in place. Ultimately, they were forced to work with investors who agreed to provide them with passage and supplies.

In return, the Pilgrims agreed to work for the investors, who were called the Merchant Adventurers, for seven years and to provide raw materials and natural resources — fish, timber, furs — to send back to England.

A portion of the congregation sailed to England on a ship called the Speedwell. When they reached Southampton, they were joined by colonists who had been brought in by the investors, along with a second ship, the Mayflower. Unfortunately, the trip was delayed due to leaks in the hull of the Speedwell. They decided to abandon the Speedwell and put everyone on the Mayflower.

Finally, on September 6, 1620, the Pilgrims — Separatists in search of a new home for religious freedom — set sail for the New World.

Pilgrims Leave Holland, Painting
This painting by an unknown Dutch artist depicts the Pilgrims boarding the Mayflower and preparing to sail to America. Image Source: Pilgrims and Puritans by Christopher Collier,

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  • Article Title Separatists, Definition
  • Date Colonial America
  • Author
  • Keywords Separatists, Pilgrims, Puritans, King Henry VIII, Church of England
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 22, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 7, 2024