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Exodus 1620 - The Mayflower Story

In September 1620 The Mayflower transported the first English Puritans, known today as the 'Pilgrim Fathers', from England to the New World. Presenting the context in which that voyage was made, Derek Wilson says the story has become 'gilded myth' 

Mayflower PilgrimsThe voyage of the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ from Plymouth, England, and their settlement in Plymouth, New England, is iconic. Unfortunately.

Why unfortunately? Because icons both simplify and glamorise. The Mayflower story is a gilded myth, a historical episode seen through the distorting lens of nationalism. Of all the accounts of New World colonisation in the 16th/17th centuries this is the one that has come to typify those qualities today’s US citizens admire and believe their nation stands for. The 102 men, women and children who made that journey in the autumn of 1620 would not have recognised themselves in the heroes and heroines portrayed in films and romantic novels over the last century or so.

In Exodus 1620 we attempt to strip away the over-painting from the icon in order to discover who the Pilgrim ‘Fathers’ (a term not invented until 1840) were, and we seek to explain them against the background of the age in which they lived. We do this by exploring with the reader a series of questions, each of which narrows the focus until the travellers on the storm-tossed Mayflower stand before us clearly delineated.

1. What was England?

The disintegration of western Christendom (after c.1520) sent shockwaves throughout Europe which reverberated for the greater part of two centuries. Half way through that period England was still struggling with conflicting beliefs and uncertain of its identity. If an opinion poll had been taken at the turn of the 17th century the main issues on people’s minds would have been revealed as migration, the economy and relations with Europe.

It all has a familiar ring except that migration was in two directions. For 50 years persecuted Protestants and Catholics had entered or fled England as the fortunes of the rival faiths fluctuated. Back in the ‘bad old days’ of Mary Tudor, Protestant individuals and families had settled in various centres of Reformed faith, where they fine-honed their theology under the guidance of Calvinist, Lutheran, Zwinglian and Anabaptist teachers. Returning home in the ‘good old days’ of Elizabeth I, they attempted to shape Ecclesia Anglicana according to their own conflicting visions. Presbyterians, Congregationalists, ‘Anabaptists’ (a term loosely applied to ‘anarchistic’ extremists) wanted to steer in different directions.

Catholics, meanwhile, aimed for a complete about turn and some zealots did not shrink from assassination attempts on Elizabeth and James I. As long as England was at war with Catholic Spain, there was considerable incentive for theological differences to be kept in check. But after 1603 two things happened which affected national unity. The crowns of England and Scotland were brought together and peace was made with Spain.

2. Who were the Puritans?

Throughout western culture the image aroused by the name Puritan is that of the killjoy. In the United States he is the thin-lipped New Englander who passed “blue laws” against all innocent pleasures, his only pastime being to hang witches. In England, he wore pointed hats, spoke through his nose, sported names like Praisegod Barebones, and after killing the king ruled a country deprived of gaiety. As usual we can turn to Shakespeare for an early snapshot: the Puritan is Malvolio in Twelfth Night, who thinks that because he is righteous there will be no more cakes and ale.
            [J. Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, New York, 2000, p.261]

The caricature began very early (c.1560). Originally Puritans were those who desired a form of ‘pure’ church order based on the New Testament pattern as they understood it but they were soon being scorned as people who thought themselves better than their neighbours. It is true that there were troublesome zealots who desired a national church purged of every vestige of medieval Catholicism.

This was a serious problem at a time when the government was trying to establish an English-style Protestantism embracing all the queen’s subjects. It is also true that, in trying to ‘live by the Book’ they set themselves the highest moral standards. For these reasons and for their exclusiveness they were easy targets for their contemporaries – from the top down: Elizabeth sacked her own archbishop for his commitment to meetings for preaching and Bible study; a poor woman of Launceston was condemned to the flames by her neighbours for ‘gossiping’ her faith and ‘holding back nothing she thought might profit them’.

The word ‘Puritan’ covered a wide variety of people. Some belonged to the quiet contemplative tradition. Others were a pain in the neck. Some were moderate. Others were extremists. Some thought to achieve further reform through parliament. Others wanted nothing to do with state religion and tried to establish independent churches. Theologically they ranged from hard-line Calvinists to equally hard-line Arminians. They varied in their interpretation of the Bible. In this section we depict the Puritan patchwork, by telling the stories of several ‘typical’ Puritans.

3. What were the Colonies?
In the 1580s England belatedly entered the sphere of European colonisation of the New World. Hitherto emigrés had looked to Ireland as the land to establish themselves as English, Protestant, grandees. Rivalry with the Catholic Iberian nations for the lucrative luxury trade of the Indies had eventually led entrepreneurs like Raleigh to exploit the nearer landmass of North America. The motives of colonists were mixed. Some were driven by the same vision that had inspired earlier religious migrants – freedom to establish a pure church.

But others had more material motives. There was widespread belief that the unknown continent would yield valuable minerals, furs and vegetable products. Land-hungry younger sons with little prospect of making their fortunes at home tried their luck across the Atlantic. Speculators applied to the Crown for grants of virgin territory in order to earn a quick buck by resale. We will meet a representative selection of these bold spirits and reckless gamblers.

The early American settlements failed. 1607 saw the first successful settlement – Virginia. This did, indeed, become a ‘little England’ with a religious and social establishment which replicated the hierarchical structure of the mother country with which contacts remained close. French and Dutch venturers were also trying to establish themselves. Home governments, including that of James I, began to see the potential commercial and strategic advantages of transatlantic possessions.

4. Who were the Mayflower Voyagers?
The cord which eventually wound its way via Holland to Massachusetts had its beginnings in Elizabethan Nottinghamshire where Richard Clyfton and his congregation of separatists held meetings of their own (unlike the majority of Puritans who remained, uncomfortably, within the official church). This congregation was part of a growing East Midlands network. Separatist hopes that James I would prove more tolerant were dashed by the Hampton Court Conference (1605). Recusants (both Catholic and Protestant) were increasingly harried by the government. In 1607 Clyfton and his followers joined others in moving to Amsterdam and, then, to Leiden.

But, like other religious migrants, these pioneers had difficulties settling among a strange people whose morals and beliefs were no better than those of their former English neighbours. Some (notably William Brewster and Thomas Brewer) courted trouble by publishing scurrilous books against the ‘Anglican Antichrist’ and smuggling them into England, just as Catholic emigrés were doing from Douai and Rheims (Brewer was later jailed for 14 years for prophesying the imminent destruction of England).

William Bradford, first historian of the New England settlements, recorded that they were inspired by the teaching of Hebrews 11, that God’s people were ‘strangers and pilgrims’ on earth. Those who resolved to found a ‘pure’ society divided into two groups. Brewster led the advance party and the rest were to follow over until the colony was established. A joint stock company was set up, funded largely by London ironmaster, Thomas Weston. The Leiden company formed the core of the Mayflower complement but were only 41 out of the 102 passengers.

Others were servants, men hired for their necessary skills (e.g. Myles Standish, the soldier), or well-wishers, (e.g. Stephen Hopkins, who had tried to reach America before). We will catalogue a cross-section of the Pilgrims to provide as accurate a picture as possible.

5. How Successful were the Pioneers?
The settlers missed their planned landfall and eventually occupied a deserted earlier colony named ‘Plymouth’. Half of them died during the voyage or the first winter in America. They were saved by the friendship of the local people, the arrival of new settlers in the Fortune (1621) and other subsequent shiploads. Life was hard, not just because of the difficult conditions, but also the pressure of Weston and other backers who sought a return on their capital in the form of exports from the colony and kept the pioneers on a tight rein.

But the hardest thing the idealists had to deal with was the realisation that they could not escape religious discord and persecution. Their exclusivity was internal. When other Puritan emigrés arrived at Salem (1629), Rhode Island (1636) and elsewhere the differences of theological emphasis fuelled fresh conflict. Like the Israelites of old, these courageous, God-fearing adventurers, reached their promised land only to discover that it did not flow with milk and honey. The perfect, ‘pure’ Kingdom of God cannot be established by Christians excluding themselves from the kingdoms of this world.


Derek Wilson is one of the UK’s leading authors of history and historical fiction. He is the author of The Mayflower Pilgrims - Sifting fact from fable (SPCK)

Baptist Times, 04/09/2020
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