On September 6, 1620, the Mayflower set sail from England with the goal of starting a colony in the New World.
But while most of us likely know the general details, the reality is different in many ways from the story we were told as children, with one aspect of the voyage of particular relevance for us today.
You see, while the Mayflower’s passengers and cargo are often seen as a persecuted minority who set sail in search of religious freedom, that was the case for less than half of the passengers.
Who were the Separatists on the Mayflower?
Of its 102 voyagers, not even 40 were among the Separatists who left England in search of the opportunity to worship God and follow him as they saw fit.
The rest were “strangers,” as the Separatists called them—citizens merely hoping for the opportunity to start over or pursue their fortune in a foreign land.
These Separatists, moreover, are different in an important way from the Puritans we often associate with the first Thanksgiving.
The difference between Puritans and Separatists
While both groups desired to practice a faith that they believed was more authentic and real than was commonly found in the Church of England at the time, the Puritans wanted to remain part of that larger church and purify it from within.
The Separatists, on the other hand, had largely given up on those efforts and sought the chance to live out their faith free from the intervention or influence of others. After their attempt to do so in Holland failed, they decided more drastic measures were needed and received permission from the king to help start a colony across the ocean.
After more than two months at sea, the group landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts, slightly north of their intended destination, and signed the Mayflower Compact to give order to what was quickly becoming a dangerous and chaotic environment.
Those who survived the harsh winter would later go on to join with the Puritans at the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
How religious freedom is different today
While there are undoubtedly a lot of great things to take from their story, let’s note the important difference between the religious freedom the Separatists sought and the religious freedom we often think of today.
The Separatists—and, to a large extent, the Puritans who would follow them—were interested primarily in the freedom to live out their faith as they saw fit, but they did not extend that freedom to others quite as readily.
In their desire to follow God well, they were often even more intolerant to other variations of the faith than the Church of England had been toward them.
As Christians, we should share the Separatists’ desire to live out a faith that is both authentic and relevant to every facet of our lives. However, that pursuit need not come at the cost of our relationships with other believers.
The essentials of the faith are relatively few when compared with the theological beliefs that often cause the greatest divisions within the Body of Christ. It’s all right, and even helpful, to discuss those differences, but they should never keep us from working with one another to accomplish God’s kingdom mission.
So take some time today to pray and ask the Lord to open your eyes to the breadth and depth of believers around you.
As our culture continues to move away from God’s truth, understanding and embracing the reality that his remnant is far larger than those who worship just like you will become even more crucial.