by Gerald Boerner
“The Pilgrim Fathers were traitors, a band of renegades defying the authority of King James I. That was the official version.”
— BBC News
“The pilgrims believed that they were true Christians, determined to "purify" the Christian church and return to a scripture-based service.”
— BBC News
“Several attempts to settle in other parts of England failed. They had to emigrate, via Amsterdam to Leiden in the Netherlands, where their religious views were tolerated.”
— BBC News
“The pilgrims resolved to settle in the English colony in North America, hoping that in this remote outpost the King’s officials would leave them undisturbed.”
— BBC News
“They had economic problems and wanted to preserve their heritage. Furthermore they feared another Spanish Catholic invasion of the Netherlands, which would have threatened their newly found religious freedom.”
— BBC News
“The Pilgrims were English Calvinists who, unlike the Puritans did not try to transform the Church of England, but actually left the Church to form an independent sect. This group appeared at the end of Elizabeth I’s reign and in the early period of James I’s reign.”
— Open Door Web Site
“The Separatist congregation that sailed on the Mayflower in 1620 to found the New World colony of Plymouth became known as the Pilgrim Fathers. From the villages of Austerfield and Bawtry in Yorkshire, across to Nottinghamshire’s Scrooby, Babworth and Sturton-le-Steeple, then eastwards to Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, the Pilgrim’s steps can be traced through the Midlands.”
— Nottinghamshire Pilgrim Fathers
[Part 1 of a series on our Thanksgiving Celebration]
Thanksgiving Celebration: The Pilgrims’ Migrations
Pilgrims (US), or Pilgrim Fathers (UK), is a name commonly applied to early settlers of the Plymouth Colony in present-day Plymouth, Massachusetts. Their leadership came from a religious congregation who had fled a volatile political environment in the East Midlands of England for the relative calm & tolerance of Holland in the Netherlands. Concerned with losing their cultural identity, the group later arranged with English investors to establish a new colony in North America. The colony, established in 1620, became the oldest continuously inhabited British settlement and the second successful English settlement (after the founding of Jamestown, Virginia in 1607) in what was to become the United States of America. The Pilgrims’ story of seeking religious freedom has become a central theme of the history and culture of the United States.
Separatists in Scrooby
The core of the group that would come to be known as the Pilgrims were brought together by a common belief in the ideas promoted by Richard Clyfton, parson at All Saints’ Parish Church in Babworth, Nottinghamshire, between 1586 and 1605. This congregation held Separatist beliefs comparable to nonconforming movements (i.e., groups not in communion with the Church of England) led by Henry Barrowe, John Greenwood and Robert Browne. Unlike conforming Puritan groups who maintained their membership in and allegiance to the Church of England, Separatists held that their differences with the Church of England were irreconcilable and that their worship should be organized independently of the trappings, traditions and organization of a central church.
William Brewster, a former diplomatic assistant to the Netherlands, was living in the Scrooby manor house, serving as postmaster for the village and bailiff to the Archbishop of York. Having been favorably impressed by Clyfton’s services, he had begun participating in Separatist services led by John Smyth in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire. The Separatists had long been controversial. Under the 1559 Act of Uniformity, it was illegal not to attend official Church of England services, with a fine of 12d (£0.05; 2005 equivalent: about £5) for each missed Sunday and holy day. The penalties for conducting unofficial services included imprisonment and larger fines. Under the policy of this time, Barrowe and Greenwood were executed for sedition in 1593.
During much of Brewster’s tenure (1595-1606), the Archbishop was Matthew Hutton. He displayed some sympathy to the Puritan (but not to the Separatist) cause, writing to Robert Cecil, Secretary of State to James I in 1604:
The Puritans (whose phantasticall zeale I mislike) though they differ in Ceremonies & accidentes, yet they agree with us in substance of religion, & I thinke all or the moste p[ar]te of them love his Ma[jes]tie, & the p[re]sente state, & I hope will yield to conformitie. But the Papistes are opposite & contrarie in very many substantiall pointes of religion, & cannot but wishe the Popes authoritie & popish religion to be established.
It had been hoped that when James came to power, a reconciliation allowing independence would be possible, but the Hampton Court Conference of 1604 denied substantially all the concessions requested by Puritans, save for an English translation of the Bible. Following the Conference, in 1605, Clyfton was declared a nonconformist and stripped of his position at Babworth. Brewster invited Clyfton to live at his home.
Migration to Amsterdam
Unable to obtain the papers necessary to leave England, members of the congregation agreed to leave surreptitiously, resorting to bribery to obtain passage. One documented attempt was in 1607, following Brewster’s resignation, when members of the congregation chartered a boat in Boston, Lincolnshire. This turned out to be a sting operation, with all arrested upon boarding. The entire party was jailed for one month awaiting arraignment, at which time all but seven were released. Missing from the record is for how long the remainder were held, but it is known that the leaders made it to Amsterdam about a year later.
In a second departure attempt in the spring of 1608, arrangements were made with a Dutch merchant to pick up church members along the Humber estuary at Immingham near Grimsby, Lincolnshire. The men had boarded the ship, at which time the sailors spotted an armed contingent approaching. The ship quickly departed before the women and children could board; the stranded members were rounded up but then released without charges.
Ultimately, at least 150 of the congregation did make their way to Amsterdam, meeting up with the Smyth party, who had joined with the Exiled English Church led by Francis Johnson (1562-1617), Barrowe’s successor. The Scrooby party remained there for about one year, citing growing tensions between Smyth and Johnson. Smyth had embraced the idea of believer’s baptism, which Clyfton and Johnson opposed.
Robinson decided that it would be best to remove his congregation from the fray, and permission to settle in Leiden was secured in 1609. With the congregation reconstituted as the English Exiled Church in Leyden, Robinson now became pastor; Clyfton, advanced in age, chose to stay behind in Amsterdam.
The success of the congregation in Leiden was mixed. Leiden was a thriving industrial center, and many members were well able to support themselves working at Leiden University or in the textile, printing and brewing trades. Others were less able to bring in sufficient income, hampered by their rural backgrounds and the language barrier; for those, accommodations were made on an estate bought by Robinson and three partners.
Of their years in Leiden, Bradford wrote:
"For these & other reasons they removed to Leyden, a fair & bewtifull citie, and of a sweete situation, but made more famous by ye universitie wherwith it is adorned, in which of late had been so many learned man. But wanting that traffike by sea which Amerstdam injoyes, it was not so beneficiall for their outward means of living & estats. But being now hear pitchet they fell to such trads & imployments as they best could; valewing peace & their spirituall comforte above any other riches whatsoever. And at length they came to raise a competente & comforteable living, but with hard and continuall labor.
Brewster had been teaching English at the university, and in 1615, Robinson enrolled to pursue his doctorate. There, he participated in a series of debates, particularly regarding the contentious issue of Calvinism versus Arminianism (siding with the Calvinists against the Remonstrants). Brewster, in a venture financed by Thomas Brewer, acquired typesetting equipment about 1616 and began publishing the debates through a local press.
The Netherlands was, however, a land whose culture and language were strange and difficult for the English congregation to understand or learn. Their children were becoming more and more Dutch as the years passed by. The congregation came to believe that they faced eventual extinction if they remained there.
Decision to leave
By 1617, although the congregation was stable and relatively secure, there were ongoing issues that needed to be resolved.
Bradford noted that the congregation was aging, compounding the difficulties some had in supporting themselves. Some, having spent through their savings, gave up and returned to England. It was feared that more would follow and that the congregation would become unsustainable. The employment issues made it unattractive for others to come to Leiden, and younger members had begun leaving to find employment and adventure elsewhere. Also compelling was the possibility of missionary work, an opportunity that rarely arose in a Protestant stronghold.
Reasons for departure are suggested by Bradford, when he notes the "discouragements" of the hard life they had in the Netherlands, and the hope of attracting others by finding "a better, and easier place of living"; the "children" of the group being "drawn away by evil examples into extravagance and dangerous courses"; the "great hope, for the propagating and advancing the gospell of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world."
Edward Winslow’s list was similar. In addition to the economic worries and missionary possibilities, he stressed that it was important for the people to retain their English identity, culture and language. They also believed that the English Church in Leiden could do little to benefit the larger community there.
At the same time, there were many uncertainties about moving to such a place as America. Stories had come back from there about failed colonies. There were fears that the native people would be violent, that there would be no source of food or water, that exposure to unknown diseases was possible, and that travel by sea was always hazardous. Balancing all this was a local political situation that was in danger of becoming unstable: the truce in what would be known as the Eighty Years’ War was faltering, and there was fear over what the attitudes of Spain toward them might be.
Candidate destinations included Guiana, where the Dutch had already established Essequibo, or somewhere near the existing Virginia settlements. Virginia was an attractive destination because the presence of the older colony might offer better security. It was thought, however, that they should not settle too near since that might too closely duplicate the political environment back in England. The London Company that administered Virginia covered a large area, so some distance would be possible.
Amid these negotiations, William Brewster found himself involved with religious unrest emerging in Scotland. In 1618, James had promulgated the Five Articles of Perth, which were seen in Scotland as an attempt to encroach on their Presbyterian tradition. Pamphlets critical of this law were published by Brewster and smuggled into Scotland by April 1619. These pamphlets were traced back to Leiden, and a failed attempt to apprehend Brewster was made in July when his presence in England became known.
Also in July in Leiden, English ambassador Dudley Carleton became aware of the situation and began leaning on the Dutch government to extradite Brewster. An arrest was made in September, but only Thomas Brewer, the financier, was in custody. Brewster’s whereabouts between then and the colonists’ departure remain unknown. Brewster’s type was seized. After several months of delay, Brewer was sent to England for questioning, where he stonewalled government officials until well into 1620. One resulting concession that England did obtain from the Netherlands was a restriction on the press that would make such publications illegal to produce.
Thomas Brewer was ultimately convicted in England for his continued religious publication activities and sentenced in 1626 to a fourteen year prison term.
Not all of the congregation would be able to depart on the first trip. Many members would not be able to settle their affairs within the time constraints, and the budget for travel and supplies was limited. It was decided that the initial settlement should be undertaken primarily by younger and stronger members. The remainder agreed to follow if and when they could.
Robinson would remain in Leiden with the larger portion of the congregation, and Brewster was to lead the American congregation. While the church in America would be run independently, it was agreed that membership would automatically be granted in either congregation to members who moved between the continents.
With personal and business matters agreed upon, supplies and a small ship were procured. Speedwell was to bring some passengers from the Netherlands to England, then on to America where it would be kept for the fishing business, with a crew hired for support services during the first year. A second, larger, ship, Mayflower, was leased for transport and exploration services.
In July 1620, Speedwell departed Delfshaven with the Leiden colonists. Reaching Southampton, Hampshire, they met with Mayflower and the additional colonists hired by the investors. With final arrangements made, the two vessels set out on August 5 (Old Style)/August 15 (New Style).
Soon thereafter, the Speedwell crew reported that their ship was taking in water, so both were diverted to Dartmouth, Devon. There it was inspected for leaks and sealed, but a second attempt to depart also failed, bringing them only so far as Plymouth, Devon. It was decided that Speedwell was untrustworthy, and it was sold. It would later be learned that crew members had deliberately caused the ship to leak, allowing them to abandon their year-long commitments. The ship’s master and some of the crew transferred to Mayflower for the trip.
This concludes the first part of this exploration leading up to the celebration of the first Thanksgiving and how our current celebrations relate to these antecedents. Join us again tomorrow and onward through the Thanksgiving holidays.
It is our hope that these postings will heighten not only your enjoyment of Thanksgiving, but that you may also gain an enhanced understanding of how it came about… [GLB]
Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:
The Migration of the Pilgrims to the New World which can be found at…