The Pilgrims and Their Struggle for Freedom
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN THE NETHERLANDS
IN 1620, a group of English Puritans who had sailed from Delfshaven, near Rotterdam, Netherlands, founded the first permanent settlement by Europeans in New England—Plymouth Colony—in what is now southeastern Massachusetts. What prompted these deeply religious people to risk such a long and arduous voyage across the treacherous Atlantic Ocean in the tiny ship Mayflower? What were they doing in the Netherlands in the first place? Why did they leave there?
The Religious Situation in England
During the 1500’s, the Roman Catholic Church was shaken by the Reformation. Protestant churches came into existence all over Europe, including England. In England’s case, the final breach with Rome came after the pope refused to grant the request of King Henry VIII to have his first marriage dissolved. The English church separated from Rome, and in 1534 the English Parliament officially recognized Henry as the “Supreme Head on earth, immediately under God, of the Church of England.” His daughter Elizabeth, born in 1533, was brought up a Protestant, and after becoming Queen Elizabeth I, she gave the Anglican Church a strong Protestant character. Nevertheless, there were smaller Protestant groups that did not agree with the prevailing Anglican Church. Many of these came to be called Puritans because they wished to purify the Anglican Church of any vestige of Roman Catholicism. One Puritan group was held to be especially radical, as they broke away from the church hierarchy of bishops and priests. They considered their congregation to be completely independent, under the rule of their own elders.
Queen Elizabeth feared that she would lose her grip on the people if the Puritans were not held in check. She therefore introduced severe legislation against them. In spite of this, the various Puritan groups continued to meet, but secretly, in private homes. The Puritans also distributed many religious pamphlets expounding their beliefs. The London Puritans appointed their own body of elders, consisting mostly of suspended Anglican ministers. The groups that gave up on reforming the Anglican Church and broke away from it were referred to as Separatists.
King James I, Queen Elizabeth’s successor, followed her religious policy, threatening to “harry [the Puritans] out of the land.” At the same time, he commissioned a new English translation of the Bible—the King James Version, completed in 1611. This new version motivated many people to examine the Bible. The result? Even more people began to differ with the State church. What would you have done if you had lived in those days? Do you think that under the threat of persecution, you would have adjusted your religious beliefs? Would you have held to your convictions firmly, regardless of the cost? Many Puritans did and refused to compromise.
Escape to Holland
One group of Separatists that did not compromise was found in the small English town of Scrooby. There they met secretly in the home of postmaster William Brewster, their “Ruling Elder.” Also associated with them was John Robinson, a former Anglican priest. Besides advocating church government by elders rather than by priests and bishops, the group at Scrooby rejected priestly garb and much of the ritual of Anglican Church services, although these things were required by law.
Under increasing pressure, this small group decided to flee to the Netherlands, at the time the only place in Europe where their opinions and practices would be tolerated. Emigration, however, was illegal. As secretly as possible, therefore, they sold their homes and everything else they could not take along, and in 1608 they went to Amsterdam by ship. It was in the Netherlands that the Separatists began to think of themselves as pilgrims.
The Pilgrims moved to Leiden a year after arriving, the same year that a truce interrupted the war that had been raging between Spain and the Netherlands. The truce resulted in a more peaceful climate for the Pilgrims. Gradually, more fugitives arrived from England, and the group grew to about 300. Eventually, they bought a large house, where John Robinson and his family lived and where they could also hold meetings.
After spending about ten years in Leiden, the Pilgrims began to feel unsettled. The truce with Spain was about to lapse, and they feared that if the Spanish Inquisition gained control in the Netherlands, they would be worse off than they were under King James. Moreover, they disagreed doctrinally with their more liberal Dutch neighbors, and they worried about their children’s association with the Dutch youngsters, whom they regarded as dissolute. What should they do? They contemplated another very big move—this time to America!
The Mayflower Sails!
Their biggest challenge was financing such a long voyage. Another considerable problem was that permission for the expedition had to be obtained from the king of England—the same king from whom they had sought to escape when they fled to the Netherlands! The Pilgrims wore King James down with their petitions, until he finally gave his permission. In the end, a group of London merchants financed the venture.
At last, the time came to leave! Those of the Pilgrim Church in Leiden who decided to make the move boarded the ship Speedwell and on July 22, 1620, left Delfshaven for England, there to be joined by additional members. The Pilgrims set out aboard two ships, the Speedwell and the Mayflower. However, serious leaks in the hull of the Speedwell forced the ships to turn back to England, where the Mayflower took on passengers and provisions from the Speedwell. Finally, on September 6, the little 90-foot [27 m] Mayflower put out to sea from Plymouth, England, by herself, with 24 families on board—a total of 102 passengers—and a crew of 25. What courage it took for those novice travelers to attempt an ocean voyage of 3,000 miles [5,000 km]! The ship was badly overcrowded and had to contend with dangerous North Atlantic weather. Imagine the feelings of those aboard when after nine long weeks on the ocean, they sighted land!
Founding the Colony
Before the Pilgrims went ashore, they concluded a mutual compact, or covenant, concerning the future government of the new colony. By this compact, signed by 41 of the men in the group, the Pilgrims formed themselves into a “Civil Body Politic” and assumed the responsibility of making, and abiding by, rules to govern all their affairs. Although some historians have called this document the first American constitution, the Grote Winkler Prins Encyclopedie points out that the Pilgrims who framed it “had in mind establishing an authority of a religious nature.” Its purpose was to commit all the members of the colony to staying together, both physically and religiously.
After surveying the coast and carrying out expeditions inland, in cold December the group settled in the place that they named New Plymouth, later called Plymouth Colony. They came across fields that had been cultivated by Indians. But the huge Indian population that had been observed there by explorers just a few years earlier had been ravaged by the explorers’ diseases—including smallpox and measles. Otherwise, the Indians might have resisted the Pilgrims’ efforts to establish a colony.
The Pilgrims started by building a communal house and several private homes. It was a difficult beginning, for they arrived in winter and did not have enough food left over from their ship’s provisions. During that first winter, 52 died of disease, including 13 of the 24 husbands and as many as 14 of the 18 wives. Among the casualties was their first governor, John Carver. But the survivors resolved to remain in New Plymouth. The next governor, the enthusiastic William Bradford, kept a detailed record of the history of the young colony and has therefore been considered America’s first historian.
The Pilgrims and the Indians
The first Pilgrims to arrive in New Plymouth concluded a mutual peace treaty with Massasoit, the paramount chief of the local Wampanoag Indian tribe. In the treaty the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag promised not to harm one another, and they vowed mutual protection in case of war with outsiders. Without Massasoit’s friendship, it is unlikely that any of the Pilgrims would have survived. These Indians gave the settlers native corn to eat and to plant, and the alliance with them helped to prevent the Pilgrims’ perishing at the hands of other tribes.
In the early days, the colonists received much help from the Indians. In the words of Governor William Bradford, an Indian named Tisquantum taught the colonists “how to set their corne, wher to take fish, and to procure other comodities, and was also their pilott to bring them to unknowne places for their profitt.” (Spelling as in original document.) The first harvest of Indian corn was good, and the Pilgrims had success in hunting fowl. They were grateful to God and decided to hold a three-day harvest festival. Massasoit and 90 of his braves came, bringing along five deer to add to the banquet.
Like the colony itself, the celebration had strong religious overtones. Although the Pilgrims did not hold the festival the next year because of poor crops, Thanksgiving Day later became an annual national and religious holiday in the United States, Canada, and a few other countries. Today, Thanksgiving Day in North America is typically an occasion for a family banquet of turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie—but in principle, it remains “a time for serious religious thinking, church services, and prayer.”—The World Book Encyclopedia, 1994.*
In 1622 more Pilgrims came from Leiden and England. Later, additional ships arrived with fellow believers from Europe. In 1630 the last group of Pilgrims from Leiden joined the colony, bringing their number to about 300. The colony eventually merged with the much larger Massachusetts Bay Colony, not far to the north. These colonists also held Puritan beliefs. In the meantime, however, tensions were growing between the colonists and their Indian neighbors. The Puritans, who believed that God had predestined them to dominate the new land, grew increasingly arrogant. Seeing this, the Indians became ever more resentful of them. Sadly, only 55 years after the treaty with the Wampanoag, the colony at Plymouth, in league with three other English colonies and some other Indians, went to war against Massasoit’s son. He and some three thousand Indian men, women, and children were killed, and the Puritans sold hundreds more into slavery. The Wampanoag became extinct.
The Pilgrims’ Legacy
In the Netherlands you can still visit the section of Leiden where the Pilgrims lived, as well as Delfshaven, the harbor where they departed for America. In the present town of Plymouth, Massachusetts, you can see Plymouth Plantation, a reconstruction of the original village built by the Pilgrims, along with a Pilgrim museum and a replica of the Mayflower. In the village, actors portray the original inhabitants. They will tell you that God’s name is Jehovah and that “the church” is not a stone building but is made up of people. To the question, “How many elders are there in your church?” they reply: “As many as satisfy the Bible’s requirements.”
The Pilgrims tried to model their society “as closely as possible after Israel’s twelve tribes under Moses,” according to the book The Puritan Heritage—America’s Roots in the Bible. At times, though, the Puritans went to extremes. Their reputation as hard workers, for example, sprang in part from their belief that material prosperity indicated God’s favor. And although they genuinely loved their children, many early Puritans believed that they should “conceal their . . . inordinate affections.” Thus, “puritanical” has come to be associated with austerity, severity, and excessive strictness. In spite of their imperfections, however, the Pilgrims had a measure of moral fortitude, were devout, and made efforts to live by the Bible. Clearly, these were qualities that held the Pilgrims together and saw them through many of their trials.
True Christians do not require a specific holiday in order to give thanks to God. For additional information, please see the November 22, 1976, issue of Awake!, pages 9-13.
[Picture on page 26]
Wampanoag Indians helped the Pilgrims
Harper’s Encyclopædia of United States History
[Picture Credit Line on page 24]
Top: Model van de Mayflower