The “Pilgrims” were called pilgrims because of their travels. But their more accurate title was “Separatists.” These were people who, in England, saw the spiritually depressed state of the Church of England and chose to separate from it. By the middle of the 1500’s in England, Queen Elizabeth restored the Anglican Church to power. In order to maintain the spiritual authority, the bishops needed to be seen as in the direct line of the apostles (just like the Roman Catholic Church considers its popes). This “apostolic episcopacy” reinstated the desired authority including her claim to the Act of Supremacy in which the entirety of ecclesiastical jurisdiction was vested in the crown (David Beale, The Mayflower Pilgrims, 6). With this in place, all religious leaders needed to subscribe to the Book of Common Prayer and to the Thirty-Nine Articles or lose their pulpits and face imprisonment. She called this the Act of Uniformity (1562). The opponents were termed “non-conformists.” Declaring all previous preaching licenses as void, only those who conformed could preach. This meant that many of the true believers who were solid preachers of the Gospel would not conform. Thus began Puritanism in earnest. Many stayed within the Church of England; but increasingly a number of Puritan dissenters sensed the futility of remaining with the English church and chose to be separated from it; these were called the “separatists.”
Eventually the separatists would determine that they were no longer safe in their beloved home of England. They saw themselves as strangers and pilgrims on earth (Hebrews 11:13); therefore they would risk life and limb to worship God. The exciting Pilgrim story reveals how God worked through a relatively small but dedicated group of believers to gain freedom of religion. The world owes a debt of gratitude to these impressive men and women who sacrificed their all for the freedom to worship God.
Persecution threatened the dissenters but they knew that even death itself could not separate them from the love of the Lord. Many paid the ultimate price. Located below Winchester castle in London is an ancient prison called “the Clink.” The Church of England had for many years been influenced by ties to Roman Catholicism. As a result, people were forced to worship in the “high church” style and were taught the man-made idea of salvation by personal merit. They were also told that to skip church would be a crime and to worship with those who opposed the Church of England was a crime. The “separatists” who taught the Scriptures in truth had to meet in secret. A secret church met in Southwark and was the beginning of the separatist movement.
John Penry (morning star of reformation in Wales and schoolmate of William Brewster) worked in this area as a preacher. His work was dangerous, preaching an unwelcome Gospel only a short distance from the dreaded Clink Prison. On 22 March 1593, John Penry was arrested and taken to the Clink. On May 21, his trial took place. In a letter confirming his stand for the truth, while awaiting trial, he wrote, “If my blood were an ocean sea, and every drop thereof were a life unto me, I would give them all, by the help of the Lord.” Eight days later, in spite of emotional pleas from his young wife, John Penry was hanged leaving a young widow and four daughters all under five years old.