THE STORY of the Pilgrim Fathers really begins with the Separatist5 in England. One of them, William Bradford of Austerfield, ex plained that: “Many in the North of England and other parts became enlightened by the word of God, and had their ignorance and sins discovered to them, and began by His grace to reform their, lives and pay heed to their ways. [But] the work of God was nö sooner manifest in them than they were scorned by the profane multitude . . . Their ministers were compelled to subscribe or be silent, and the poor people were persecuted with apparators and pursuants and the commissary courts.
“Nevertheless, they bore it all for several years in patience, until by the increase of their troubles they began to see further into things by the light of the word of God. They realized not only that these base ceremonies were unlawful, but also that the tyrannous power of the prelates ought not to be submitted to, since it was contrary to the freedom of the gospel and would burden men’s consciences and thus profane the worship of God (24).”
A number of Separatists lived in villages along the Great North Road in Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire: “These people became two distinct bodies or churches and congregated separately; for they came from various towns and villages about the borders of Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, and Yorkshire. One of
these churches was led by Mr. John Smith, a man of able gifts, and
a good preacher, who was afterwards made pastor; but later, falling into some errors in the Low Countries, most of its adherents buried themselves—and their names!
“To the other church, which is the subject of this discourse, belonged besides other worthy men, Mr. Richard Clifton, a grave and reverend preacher, who by his pains and diligence had done much good, and under God had been the means of the conversion of many; also that famous and worthy man, Mr. John Robinson, who was afterwards their pastor for many years, till the Lord took him away; also Mr. William Brewster, a reverend man, who was afterwards chosen an Elder (25).” Born at Sturton-le-Steeple, John Robinson lived and worked in the Lincolnshire village of Gainsborough. He had spent twelve years at Cambridge University, some of them as a fellow of Corpus Christi College and had married L local girl, Bridget White of Fenton Hall.
The group from which the Pilgrim Fathers sprang originated in Scrooby, a village in Nottinghamshire. The group was led by William Brewster, a university graduate who later worked with an English embassy to Holland: “Afterwards he went and lived in the country [at Scrooby] in good esteem amongst his friends, and the Gentlemen of those parts; especially the godly and religious (26).”
A devout man, William Brewster sympathized with the Puritans and tried to have Puritan clergymen appointed to local parish churches: “He did much good, in the country where he lived, in promoting and furthering Religion; not only by his practice and example, and provoking and encouraging of others: but by procuring good Preachers to the parish churches in the places thereabouts; and drawing on of others to assist and help forward in such a work, he himself being most commonly deepest in the charge, and sometimes above his ability (27).”
Brewster was an educated man, a former Cambridge student. He had been appointed postmaster and bailiff in 1590, at the age of twenty-three, in succession to his father, John. The good salary he received undoubtedly helped the local cause.
But as the bishops began to take action against the Puritans in the Church of England, Brewster and his friends decided they must leave the Church: “And, in the end, by the tyranny of the bishops against godly preachers and people, in silencing the one and persecuting the other; he, and many more of those times, began to look further into things; and to see into the unlawfulness of their callings, and the burthen of many anti-Christian corruptions: which both he, and they, endeavoured to cast off; as they also did (28).”
In 1606 they formed a Separatist congregation, which met in the manor house at Scrooby where Brewster lived: “After they were joined together into communion he was a special stay and help unto them. They ordinarily met at his house on the Lord’s Day, which was a Manor of the Bishop’s [the Archbishop of York]; and with great love he entertained them when they came, making provision for them, to his great charge, and continued to do so, whilst they could stay in England (29).”
In the same year (1606), Brewster’s wife gave birth to a daughter, whom they christened with the highly unusual name of Fear, apparently a reference to a proper fear of God.
A contemporary tells why William Bradford decided to join these Separatists. Seeing how the Church “had been deformed by the apostacy of the succeeding times, and what little progress the Reformation had yet made in many parts of Christendom towards its recovery: he set himself, by reading, by discourse, by prayer, to learn whether it was not his duty to withdraw from the communion of the parish assemblies, and [to] engage with some society of the faithful that should keep close unto the written Word of God as the rule of their worship. And, after many distresses of mind concerning it, he took up a very deliberate and understanding resolution of doing so: which resolution he cheerfully prosecuted, although the provoked rage of his friends tried all the ways imaginable to reclaim him from it (30).”
As a man of private means, Bradford never feared loss of employment, a shadow which hung over many other Puritans working as clergy, schoolteachers, or government agents. Brewster, for example, was to be dismissed as Scrooby postmaster for his Separatist activities in 1607.
As Puritan persecution intensified under James I, the Scrooby Separatists at last decided to escape to Holland. A diary entry of 1608 explained: “Seeing themselves thus molested, and that there was no hope of their continuance there, by a joynte consente they resolved to go into the Low Countries, where they heard was freedome of Religion for all men (31).”
The decision surprised their friends, who saw the difficulties that lay before them: “Being thus constrained to leave their native soil and country, their lands and livings, and all their friends and familiar acquaintance: it was much, and thought marvellous by many. But to go into a country they knew not, but by hearsay; where they, must learn a new language, and get their livings they knew not how; it [also] being a dear place, and subject to the miseries of war: it was by many thought [to be] an adventure almost desperate, a case intollerable, and a misery worse than death. Especially seeing they were not acquainted with trades or traffic, by which that country doth subsist: but had only been used to a plain country life, and the innocent trade of husbandry (32).”
Moreover, no one was allowed to leave the kingdom without royal permission. This was not likely to be granted to Separatists: “The ports and havens were shut against them. So as they were fain to seek secret means of conveyance; and to bribe and fee the mariners, and give extra-ordinary rates for their passages. And yet were they often-times betrayed, many of them; and both they and their goods intercepted and surprised, and thereby put to great trouble and charge (33).”
But the Separatists were not to be deterred. In Autumn 1607, those who had not yet been arrested and thrown into prison resolved to smuggle themselves out of the country. Packing their personal belongings they set out on foot, led by their pastor, Richard Clifton, to go to Boston in Lincolnshire, sixty miles from Scrooby, where a ship’s captain awaited them.
But no sooner had they reached Boston than they met with disaster, for “the master perfidiously betrayed them into the hands of those persecutors who rifled and ransacked their goods; and clapped their persons into prison at Boston, where they lay for a month together. But master Bradford, being a young man of about eighteen, was dismissed sooner than the rest (34).” Clifton, Brewster and Robinson were less fortunate, and were the last to be set free.
William Bradford and some others were able to make a second attempt to sail to Holland, in the spring of 1608: “So that, within a while, he had opportunity with some others, to get over to Zealand, through perils both by land and sea not inconsiderable (35).”
In the spring of 1608 also, another departure was planned for Holland, “made by some of the same people, with others, to get over from a different place. They heard of a Dutchman at Hull who had a ship of his own belonging to Zealand, and they made an agreement with him, and acquainted him with their plight, hoping to find him more reliable than the English captain had been; and he bade them have no fear. He was to take them aboard between Grimsby and Hull, where there was a large common a good way from any town (36).”
But when they arrived on the coast a slight mishap occurred: “The women and children, with all their effects, were sent to the place at the time arranged in a small bark which they had hired; and the men were to meet them. by land. But it so happened that they all arrived a day before the ship came, and the sea being rough, and the women very sick, the sailors put into a creek hard by, where they grounded at low water. The next morning the ship came, but they were stuck fast and could not stir till about noon (37).11
When at last the ship was ready to sail, the captain sent a small boat to the shore to collect the men of the party “whom he saw were ready walking about the shore. But after the first boatful was got aboard and she was ready to go for more, the captain espied a large body of horse and foot, armed with bills and guns and other weapons, for the countryside had turned out to capture them. The Dutchman, seeing this, swore his country’s oath, sacramente !and having a fair wind, weighed anchor, hoist sail, and away!
“The poor men already aboard were in great distress for their wives and children, left thus to be captured, and destitute of help, and for themselves, too, without any clothes but what they had on their backs, and scarcely a penny about them, all their possessions being aboard the bark, now seized. It drew tears from their eyes, and they would have given anything to be ashore again. But all in vain, there was no remedy; they must thus sadly part (38).”
The men had to endure a terrible sea crossing, but at last the storms blew away and they reached Holland. It had been “fourteen days or more before they reached port, in seven of which they saw neither sun, moon, nor stars, being driven near the coast of Norway. The sailors themselves often despaired, and once with shrieks and cries gave over all, as if the ship had foundered and they were sinking without hope of recovery. But when man’s hope and help wholly failed, there appeared the Lord’s power and mercy to save them. For the ship rose again, and gave the crew courage to manage her, and in the end brought them to their desired haven, where the people came flocking, astonished at their deliverance, the storm having been so long and violent (39).”
Meanwhile, the woman and children left behind in England had been arrested. But in the end they were released because they had, in seeking to go abroad, merely sought to obey their husbands, their natural Christian duty. “It was pitiful to see these poor women in their distress. What weeping and crying on every side: some for their husbands carried away in the ship; others not knowing what would become of them and their little ones; others again melted in tears, seeing their poor little ones hanging about them, crying for fear and quaking with cold!”
After being arrested, “they were hurried from one place to another, till in the end the officers knew not what to do with them; for to imprison so many innocent women and children only because they wished to go with their husbands, seemed unreasonable and would cause an outcry; and to send them home again was as difficult, for they alleged, as was the truth, that they had no homes to go to
for they had sold or otherwise disposed of their houses and livings.
“To be short, after they had been thus turmoiled a good while, and conveyed from one constable to another, they were glad to be rid of them on any terms; for all were wearied and tired of them, though in the meantime, they poor souls endured misery enough. So in the end, necessity forced a way for them (40).”
When the women were set free, they too escaped to Holland. In an age when foreign travel was rare, the reunited families found their new home rather strange. “They saw many fine fortified cities, strongly walled, and guarded with troops of armed men; and they heard a strange and uncouth language, and beheld the different manners and customs of the people, with their strange fashions and attire—all so far differing from their own plain country villages wherein they were bred and had lived so long, that it seemed they had come into a new world (41).”
Joined by the last members of the group to leave England, the Pilgrims settled in Amsterdam. But here they fell out with other Separatist refugees from England who had already made homes in the city. “When Mr. Robinson, Mr. Brewster, and the other principal members had arrived—they were among the last, having stayed to help the weakest over—such things were deliberated as were necessary for their settling and for the best ordering of the church affairs.
“When they had lived at Amsterdam about a year, Mr. Robinson, their pastor, together with the most discerning of the others, seeing that Mr. John Smith and his followers had already fallen out with the church which was there previously, and that nothing could avail to end the quarrel, and also that the flames of contention were likely to break out in the parent church itself [as afterwards, alas, came to pass]; they thought it best to move, before they were in any way involved, though they knew it would be to their worldly disadvantage, both at present and probably in the future—as indeed it proved to be (42).”
Against this background of religious argument, they still had to support themselves. Most of the Pilgrims took poorly-paid, semi‑ skilled work in the woollen, leather and metal trades: “For though they saw fair and beautiful cities, flowing with abundance of all sorts of wealth and riches, it was not long before they saw the grim and grisly face of poverty coming upon them like an armed man, with whom they must buckle and encounter and from whom they could not fly; but they were armed with faith and patience against him and all his encounters; and though they were sometimes foiled, yet, by God’s assistance, they prevailed and got the victory (43).”
At last the exiles decided to move to Leyden. A scholar, who was a Professor at the University of Leyden when the Pilgrims were there, believed that “the Low Countries are the best part of Europe. Of the Seventeen Provinces of the Low Countries Holland is the richest, the most flourishing, and the finest. The most beautiful and altogether charming city of Holland is Leyden (44).”
They quickly obtained permission from the Leyden magistrates to settle in the city. In February, 1609, the magistrates replied “that they refuse no honest persons free ingress to come and have their residence in this city; provided that such persons behave themselves and submit to the laws and ordinances (45).”
For’ the Pilgrims, however, life was harder in Leyden. Work was not easy to find. Leyden was “a fair and beautiful city, of a sweet situation, made famous by its university, in which recently there had been so many learned men. However lacking any seafaring trades, which Amsterdam enjoys, it was not so favourable in providing means of livelihood. But being settled here, they fell to such trades and employments as they best could, valuing peace and their spiritual comfort above any other riches whatever; and at length they came to raise a competent and comfortable living, though only by dint of hard and continual labour (46).”
Nevertheless, the Pilgrims persevered, and the Leyden congregation flourished. “After numerous difficulties, they continued many years in good circumstances, enjoying together much sweet and delightful intercourse and spiritual comfort in the ways of God, under the able ministry and prudent government of Mr. Robinson, and Mr. William Brewster, who before had been his assistant in place of an Elder, to which position he was now called and chosen by the church. So they grew in knowledge and other gifts and graces of the spirit of God, and lived together in peace and love and holiness; and many came to them from different parts of England, so that there grew up a great congregation (47).” Robinson used the garden of his large house, Groene Port, to build twenty-one tenements for English families.
Among their other officials was “one ancient widow for a deaconess; who did them service many years, though she was sixty years of age when she was chosen. She honoured her place, and was an ornament to the Congregation. She usually sat in a convenient place in the Congregation, with a little birchen rod in her hand; and kept little children in great awe, from disturbing the Congregation.
“She did frequently visit the sick and weak, especially women; and, as there was need, called out maids and young women to watch, and do them other helps as their necessity did require. And, if they were poor, they would gather relief for them of those that were able, or acquaint the deacons. And she was obeyed as a Mother in Israel, and an Officer of Christ (48).”
William Brewster had at first been forced into menial work like the rest of the Leyden congregation, who found jobs as blacksmiths, hatters, tailors, weavers, glovers and silk-workers. But later, as an educated man, Brewster was able to earn money by teaching: “His outward condition was mended, and he lived well and plentifully. For he fell into a way, by reason he had the Latin tongue, to teach many students who had a desire to learn the English tongue, to teach them English : and by his method they quickly attained it with great facility; for he drew Rules to learn it by, after the Latin manner. And many Gentlemen, both Danes and Germans, resorted to him, as they had time from other studies: some of them being Great Men’s sons (49).”
From 1616, Brewster also printed anonymous Puritan pamphlets, with the aid of Reynolds, a master printer, and his 22-year-old assistant Edward Winslow. Some of these pamphlets were smuggled into England to help the Puritan cause. “He also had means to set up printing, by the help of some friends; and so had imployment enough: and by reason of many books which would not be allowed to be printed in England, they might have had more than they could do (50).” But King James’s government regarded these books as treasonable, and when the Leyden magistrates heard of this, Brewster had to slip into hiding.
Some of the Pilgrims had found a religious climate more suited to their beliefs than in England; but many of them were now beginning to wonder whether the twelve years spent in Leyden (1608-1620) were really an improvement. They were still overshadowed by persecution and religious strife. Were there, perhaps, other alternatives? Already some of the Pilgrims had begun to dream of a “New England,” far away across the great Atlantic Ocean.