In the 1620, the first refugees to flee the religious persecutions and wars then raging in Europe arrived in the Massachusetts Bay area of New England. After a brief interlude on Cape Cod, they established the Plymouth Colony. Although Jamestown in Virginia predated the Massachusetts settlement, it was Plymouth that established the tradition of America as a haven for those seeking religious freedom. Despite the fact that the Puritan settlements of Massachusetts spent the better part of the 17th century highly intolerant of non-Puritans, even other Protestants, Plymouth is now considered to be the birthplace of religious freedom in America. Plymouth Rock, the legendary boulder upon which the Pilgrims first trod, has become a national symbol of America’s faith and religious traditions.
During the religious upheavals that rocked Europe in the 16th century, the Puritans, a Protestant sect loosely based on the ideals of Calvinism, attempted to establish itself in the midst of solidly Anglican England, which they rejected as being too heavily influenced by Catholicism. Their efforts met with serious resistance from the crown, and by the beginning of the 17th century many had fled to the considerably more tolerant Holland. Unfortunately they found Holland to be a little too tolerant, and fearing for the purity of their faith, decided to relocate again to the Americas. In 1620, after one of the most famous ocean voyages in history, the Puritans established their utopia at Plymouth, Massachusetts.
While Plymouth was neither the first European settlement in the Americas, or even the first European settlement in what would become the United States, it did have the distinction of being the first colony in the New World established exclusively for religious reasons. The ensuing story is one of the most famous in American history. A harsh winter led to early hardships which nearly devastated the colony, but with their faith and some serious assistance from the local Algonquian tribes, a solid Protestant foothold was established in the New World, a Promised Land of sorts for English Calvinists.
Within ten years Plymouth was joined by other Puritan settlements, notably Salem and Boston to the north. Although it was soon overshadowed by both of these, Plymouth did not relinquish its place in history, and it remained independent from the rest of the Massachusetts Bay Colony until 1691. By the beginning of the 18th century, the importance of Plymouth waned as Boston grew into one of the largest cities in the American colonies. But a curious event in 1741 laid the groundwork for what would make Plymouth in future years one of the greatest religious pilgrimage sites in the New World. In that year, one Elder Faunce, the oldest surviving descendent of the original Plymouth settlers, passed on a tradition told by his father that identified the exact spot where the Pilgrims first stepped foot in America: the boulder which would come to be known as Plymouth Rock.
Almost overnight Plymouth Rock became a tourist sensation, and America’s greatest home-grown religious artifact. Plymouth Rock spent the better part of the next two centuries in two large pieces, the bottom half in its original location in Massachusetts Bay and the upper half in front of Plymouth’s Pilgrim Hall. In 1920, the two halves were reunited and reset in a pavilion by the Bay. Today Plymouth is one of America’s premier colonial tourist destinations, and Plymouth Rock the nation’s most popular symbol of religious freedom.
The main pilgrimage destinations in Plymouth are the First Parish Church of Plymouth and Burial Hill. The First Parish Church of Plymouth is the architectectural descendent of one of the first churches built in America. Completed in 1899, it is the fifth church to stand on the site. The gravesites of a number of the original Pilgrims can be found there, including that of William Bradford.
The main artifact that visitors come to see, of course, is the reunited Plymouth Rock, which now resides in a classical style marble pavilion on the edge of the town. The pavilion encloses a portion of the beach, and the Rock sits just above the waterline. It is guarded by an iron railing, and is (in theory) no longer directly touchable. This set-up is due in large part to nearly three centuries of souvenir hunters systematically chipping away at the famous boulder. It is estimated that less than half of the original rock still remains. What is left is estimated to weigh about ten tons, almost two-thirds of which is concealed under the sand.
Plymouth and its Puritan sites are located along the coast of Cape Cod Bay, approximately forty miles east of Providence in Rhode Island and forty miles south of Boston. Both Burial Hill and the Plymouth Rock pavilion are open sites. There are no formal visitor hours or costs of admission. Web: http://www.visit-plymouth.com/ (official tourism website of Plymouth)
Sites and events concerning the Pilgrims have become a cottage industry in Plymouth. Plymoth Plantation offers an authentic recreation of the original colony as well as a look back at early Christian life in America. A few miles to the north in Hingham is the Old Ship Church, at three-hundred and twenty-five years the oldest church still in use in America. A number of other very old Puritan settlements dating from the 1620’s and 1630’s dot the Massachusetts coastline north of Plymouth, the most famous being Salem. The Home of Judge Jonathan Corwin (aka the Salem Witch House) was the site of America’s most famous brush with religious hysteria and persecution.