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Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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CONSTITUTION CORNER - Article 11

The Pilgrims- Part I
By Judy Leithe

History tells us that European and Eastern oligarchies the world over exercised absolute control over the lives of their subjects -- proving the adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely. In the Middle Ages, the only entity in Europe with equal or even greater power than the kings came from the Vatican in Rome. It was heretical to hold views that were not sanctioned by the sitting Popes, and even royalty sought their approval. In the 15th and 16th centuries, like other Catholic countries, England was rife with religious persecution for anyone holding differing religious views from the Vatican. If you were a Protestant your possessions could be taken from you and you might even be tortured or killed.

In the early 1500s, England’s King Henry VIII blamed his wife, Catherine of Aragon, for his inability to give him a male heir, so he petitioned the Pope to grant him a divorce so he could remarry. The Pope’s refusal to the king’s request drove Henry to break with the Vatican. He now proclaimed that the Church of England was no longer Catholic, but Protestant! With this turn of events, the British Catholics now suffered the same persecution for their faith as the Protestants had under the Catholic Archdiocese.

Henry VIII’s daughter, Elizabeth, reigned for a remarkable 60 years as the first Queen of England. At her death in 1603, since she remained childless, her throne was passed on to her nephew, James, son of Mary Queen of Scotland. King James ruled over England, Scotland and Ireland, and dealt harshly with the Puritans because his mother raised him in the Catholic tradition.

Once again, the persecuted people, known as Puritans, attempted to reform the church so that it would better reflect the pure teachings of the Bible, including peace, love, and mercy. They also wanted freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and the right of peaceful assembly. Failing in that mission, they sought to separate themselves from the doctrines of the English Church, as well as from their English homeland, itself.

The Puritans, now also known as Separatists, began to make their way to Holland, where the Dutch were much less restrictive in terms of religious beliefs.