One Small Candle by Francis Bremer


September 2020 saw the publication of a book of special interest to us as biblical Congregationalists. I spent much of last year reading a number of books on the Plymouth Pilgrims. These books addressed a number of subjects related to the Plymouth colony, but one important subject did not receive much attention. Books I read focused on the Pilgrims’ voyage across the Atlantic, their struggles to survive in the early days of their settlement, their relations with the Native Americans, the commercial enterprises of the colony and their concept of liberty. But none of them focused on the religion of the Pilgrims. So this new book by Francis Bremer was a welcome discovery. Surveying recent works on the Pilgrims, Bremer observes, “Remarkably few of these [books] examine the religious motivation of those who journeyed on the Mayflower and the ways in which their religion shaped their lives and society.” (p. 5) His book aims to fill that gap. Among the books about the Pilgrims I read this last year, Bremer’s is the only one that addresses the relationship of the Plymouth colony to the development of New England Congregationalism.

Bremer cites four key themes that are woven into his book. One is identification of the Pilgrims as “being solidly within the puritan movement.” (p. 8) Much of the writing about the Plymouth colonists identifies them as “Pilgrims” in distinction from the “Puritans” of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Bremer sees the Plymouth colonists as one branch of the broader puritan movement. He says, “what united them with fellow puritans was far more important than what divided them.” (p. 5)

A second key theme is the importance of lay leadership in the shaping of their religious values and institutions. One expression of active lay participation was what they called prophesying. This did not mean a foretelling of future events but referred to a believer sharing an interpretation of a scriptural passage or other spiritual insights which he or she believed the Spirit had prompted. Such “prophesying” was a regular part of Pilgrim worship. One aspect of Pilgrim religious life that other Puritans took exception to was their acceptance of lay preaching. The most striking example of this was the role of William Brewster, an unordained elder who acted as the spiritual leader of the colony for most of the first decade of the existence of the colony. John Robinson, their pastor, stayed behind in the Netherlands and died before he could join them in America, so it fell to Brewster to be their preacher and religious leader until they secured a settled pastor in 1629.

A third key theme is the commitment of the Pilgrim colonists to a search for what they referred to as “further light,” a better understanding of God and the ways he wanted his saints to live. “There were beliefs they considered foundational, but on many issues they were more open to discussion and the toleration of diversity than was the case with many puritans.” (p. 9)

The fourth key theme of the book is the influence of Plymouth on the development of the religious institutions of Massachusetts. Bremer seeks to demonstrate that this influence was greater than has generally been acknowledged. Recent scholarship has tended to see the Plymouth colony as a small and relatively insignificant settlement that did not play much of a role in the development of the New England way of church life. He documents how the first colonists of the Massachusetts Bay Company, arriving in Salem in 1628, turned to Plymouth for advice on how to organize their own churches. Samuel Fuller, who served as physician for the Plymouth colony, went to help the settlers in Salem during an epidemic. During his time there he was able to draw upon his experience in Plymouth to advise them on how to organize a congregation. The procedure used in Salem became the model for the organization of the other churches in the Massachusetts Bay colony.

I believe that this book is an important resource to help us who see ourselves as descendants of the Pilgrims to understand their beliefs and motivations.

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