The Pilgrims arrived in 1620 in hopes of making a better life for themselves and their children while being able to worship freely and in peace.
Their perseverance laid the cornerstone of a new Nation.
The Pilgrims were Separatists.
They believed that membership in the Church of England violated the biblical precepts for true Christians, and they had to break away and form independent congregations that adhered more strictly to divine requirements.
At a time when Church and State were one, such an act was treasonous and the Separatists had to flee their mother country. They all shared a fervent and pervasive Protestant faith that touched all areas of their lives.
The Separatists’ faith experience was part of the larger English Reformation of the 16th century. This movement sought to “purify” the Church of England of its corrupt human doctrine and practices; the people in the movement were known as “Puritans.”
Separatists were those who no longer accepted the Church of England as a true church, refused to work within the structure to affect changes, and “separated” themselves to form a true church based solely on Biblical precedent.
They rejected Christmas, Easter and the various Saint’s Days because they had no scriptural justification, and in their worship services, they rejected hymns, the recitations of the Lord’s Prayer and creeds for the same reason.
The Separatists believed that the worship of God must progress from the individual directly to God, and that “set” forms, like the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer, interfered with that progression by directing one’s thoughts down to the book and inward to one’s self.
The only exceptions were the Psalms and the Lord’s Supper, both of which had scriptural basis, and possibly the covenant by which individuals joined the congregation.
As Pastor Robinson expressed it, even two or three “gathered in the name of Christ by a covenant [and] made to walk in all the ways of God known unto them is a church.”
Sabbath services were held twice on Sunday; in addition, sermons were often given on Thursdays, and as occasion demanded, Days of Thanksgiving or Days of Fasting and Humiliation were proclaimed.
These latter were movable weekday holidays called in response to God’s Providence. Both were observed in a manner similar to the weekly Sabbath, with morning and afternoon services.
Then, Thomas Morton Arrived
Thomas Morton, a trader and lawyer, emigrated from England to the Plymouth Colony in the company of a Captain Wollaston in 1624.
Unable to get along with the Pilgrim authorities, Wollaston, Morton and other settlers established their own small colony of Mount Wollaston at the present-day site of Quincy, Massachusetts.
Then most of that community departed with the captain in 1626 in hopes of finding more hospitable surroundings in Virginia. Morton remained behind and renamed the village Mare Mount (Merrymount)
It is in this context of the religious focus of the Pilgrims that conflict arose when Thomas Morton came to New England.
Morton first explains what happens (in New English Canaan) …
“The Inhabitants of Pasonagessit (having translated the name of their habitation from that ancient Salvage name to Ma-re Mount; and being resolved to have the new name confirmed for a memorial to after ages) did devise amongst themselves to have it performed in a solemne manner with Revels, & merriment after the old English custome …”
“… prepared to sett up a Maypole upon the festivall day of Philip and Jacob; & therefore brewed a barrell of excellent beare, & provided a case of bottles to be spent, with other good cheare, for all commers of that day.”
“And because they would have it in a compleat forme, they had prepared a song fitting to the time and present occasion.”
“And upon May-day they brought the Maypole to the place appointed, with drumes, gunnes, pistols, and other fitting instruments, for that purpose; and there erected it with the help of Salvages, that came thether of purpose to see the manner of our Revels.”
“The setting up of this Maypole was a lamentable spectacle to the precise seperatists: that lived at new Plimmouth.”
“They termed it an Idoll; yea they called it the Calfe of Horeb: and stood at defiance with the place, naming it Mount Dagon; threatning to make it a woefull mount and not a merry mount. …” (Morton)
Bradford, on the other hand, explains …
“… Morton, who, it should seeme, had some small adventure (of his owne or other mens) amongst them; but had litle respecte amongst them, and was slighted by ye meanest servants.”
“But this Morton abovesaid, haveing more craft then honestie, (who had been a kind of petiefogger, of Furnefells Inne, in ye other absence watches an oppertunitie, (commons being but hard amongst them,) and gott some strong drinck & other junkats, & made them a feast; and after they were merie, he begane to tell them, he would give them good counsell.”
“[T]hey fell to great licenciousnes, and led a dissolute life, powering out them selves into all profanenes.”
“And Morton became lord of misrule, and maintained (as it were) a schoole of Athisme. And after they had gott some good into their hands, and gott much by trading with ye Indeans, they spent it as vainly, in quaffing & drinking both wine & strong waters in great exsess, and, as some reported, 10li. worth in a morning.”
“They allso set up a May-pole, drinking and dancing aboute it many days togeather, inviting the Indean women, for their consorts, dancing and frisking togither, (like so many fairies, or furies rather,) and worse practises.”
“As if they had anew revived & celebrated the feasts of ye Roman Goddes Flora, or ye beasly practieses of ye madd Bacchinalians.”
“Morton likwise (to shew his poetrie) compose sundry rimes & verses, tending to lasciviousness, and others to ye detraction & scandall of some persons, which he affixed to this idle or idoll May-polle.”
“They chainged allso the name of their place, and in stead of calling it Mounte Wollaston, they call it Meriemounte, as if this joylity would have lasted ever.”
“But this continued not long … So they mutually resolved to proceed, and obtained of ye Govr of Plimoth to send Captaine Standish, & some other aide with him, to take Morton by force.”
“The which accordingly was done; but they found him to stand stifly in his defence, having made fast his dors, armed his consorts, set diverse dishes of powder & bullets ready on ye table; and if they had not been over armed with drinke, more hurt might have been done.”
“They somaned him to yeeld, but he kept his house, and they could get nothing but scofes & scorns from him; but at length, fearing they would doe some violence to ye house, he and some of his crue came out, but not to yeeld, but to shoot …”
“… but they were so steeld with drinke as their peeces were to heavie for them; him selfe with a carbine (over charged & allmost halfe fild with powder & shote, as was after found) had thought to have shot Captaine Standish; but he stept to him, & put by his peece, & tooke him.”
“Neither was ther any hurte done to any of either side, save yt one was so drunke yt he rane his owne nose upon ye pointe of a sword yt one held before him as he entred ye house; but he lost but a litle of his hott blood.”
“Morton they brought away to Plimoth, wher he was kepte, till a ship went from ye Ile of Shols for England, with which he was sent to ye Counsell of New England; and letters written to give them information of his course & cariage; and also one was sent at their comone charge to informe their Hors more perticulerly, & to prosecute against him.”
“But he foold of ye messenger, after he was gone from hence, and though he wente for England, yet nothing was done to him, not so much as rebukte for ought was heard; but returned ye nexte year.”
“Some of ye worst of ye company were disperst, and some of ye more modest kepte ye house till he should be heard from. But I have been too long about so unworthy a person, and bad a cause.”
This event is also recounted in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Maypole of Merrymount.’ It was first published in The Token and Atlantic Souvenir in 1836.
Click the following link to a general summary about Morton and the Maypole at Merrymount: