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Pilgrim Fathers


A painting by Robert W. Weir (1803-1890) showing Protestant pilgrims on the deck of the ship Speedwell before their departure for the New World from Delft Haven, Holland, on July 22, 1620. William Brewster, holding the Bible, and pastor John Robinson lead Governor Carver, William Bradford, Miles Standish, and their families in prayer. The prominence of women and children suggests the importance of the family in the community. At the left side of the painting is a rainbow, which symbolizes hope and divine protection.

The Pilgrim Fathers is the common name for a group of English separatists who fled an environment of religious intolerance in Protestant England during the reign of James I to establish the second English colony in the New World. Unlike the colonists who settled Jamestown as a commercial venture of the joint-stock Virginia Company in 1607, the Pilgrims migrated primarily to establish a community where they could practice their religion freely while maintaining their English identity.

Worshiping in various separatist churches in London, Norfolk and the East Midlands, the future pilgrims fled to religiously liberal Holland from 1593. Concerned with losing their cultural identity, the group arranged with English investors to establish a new colony in North America and made the dangerous Atlantic crossing on the Mayflower in 1620.

The founding of the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts and its historic charter, the Mayflower Compact, established early precedents for autonomous self rule and the belief that political and civil rights were God-given. The Compact promised "all due submission and obedience to such just and equal laws" that the fledgling community might pass and, according to Samuel Eliot Morrison, was "a startling revelation of the capacity of Englishmen in that era for self-government."1

The Plymouth colony's relations with Native Americans were largely peaceful, despite profound cultural misunderstandings. The devout Christian settlers not only won the sincere friendship of Indian leaders, they "set a model for interracial diplomacy that was followed, with varying success, by later Puritan colonies," according to New England colonial historian Alden Vaughn. "Justice, tolerance, decisiveness, and amity became the keystones of Plymouth's Indian policy." 2 Relations deteriorated with the passing of the first generation and the expansion of English settlement in New England, culminating in the regional King Phillip's War (1675), a watershed event that permanently altered the balance of power in favor of the numerically and technologically superior English colonists.

The Pilgrims' epic voyage, perseverance amid crushing hardships, and settlement in the New England wilderness, have come to be regarded as part of the narrative describing the birth of the United States. The Pilgrims' motivation of risking everything for the freedom to worship according to their conscience set a precedent that would come to be enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing the free exercise of religion.

The origins of Separatism

In 1586 a group of religious dissenters were sent to the Clink, the prison in the London Borough of Southwark used for the detention of heretics, for refusing to obey the religious laws of the realm. Elizabeth I was trying to chart a middle course between Roman Catholicism, which until recently had been the religion of England and was still close to the lives of her people, and the Reformed Church, which had broken with Rome during the reign of Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII. The Elizabethan religious settlement had tried not to unnecessarily offend the Catholic sentiments of many Englishmen whose loyalty was necessary, while effectively restoring the Reformed Church after the interregnum of the Catholic Queen ("Bloody") Mary.

English Puritans, influenced by the more radical reform movement on the Continent, specifically by Calvinist doctrine, deplored the compromise and sought to abolish the episcopate, clerical vestments, and any authorized books of prayer. Radical Puritans went further, finding accommodation impossible and "separating" into unauthorized congregations to worship according to the dictates of conscience. Separatists were cruelly persecuted under Mary, and enjoyed little tolerance under Elizabeth. The penalties for conducting "seditious" unofficial services included imprisonment, large fines, and execution. The London dissenters in the Clink nevertheless founded a church under the guidance of John Greenwood, a clergyman, and Henry Barrowe, a lawyer. They called themselves Independents, but were also known as Brownists because of the separatist ideas of Cambridge-educated Robert Browne.

Cambridge separatists

Cambridge University played an important role in advancing Puritan and separatist principles. Browne, Greenwood, Barrowe, and the future Pilgrim leader William Brewster were educated at Cambridge, as were other separatist leaders who would influence the theological, ecclesiastical, and political ideals of the Pilgrim Fathers. The atmosphere at Cambridge at this time was pro-Puritan and with a new spirit of reform. As a student Browne came under the influence of the Puritan theologian Professor Thomas Cartwright (1535-1603) and after a period of teaching returned to Cambridge and preached sermons that burned with criticism of the established church. His brother had obtained licenses to preach for both of them, but Robert had burnt his in protest. He came to reject the Church of England as unscriptural and also the Puritan view that the Church could be reformed from within. Browne set up a Separatist congregation with his college friend Robert Harrison in Norwich, but was imprisoned for unlicensed preaching after complaints from local priests.

While in Norwich Browne probably came into contact with Dutch Anabaptists who reinforced his call for a new "true church ethic" that came to be known as Congregationalism. Due to persecution Browne and Harrison moved most of the congregation to Zealand in Holland in 1582, where Cartwright had already established a Puritan congregation. In Holland Browne and Harrison wrote a number of works advocating reform of the Church of England. The books were soon banned and burned in England, and several members of the Norwich congregation were hanged for selling them. Browne later traveled around England and Scotland preaching dissident views for which he was imprisoned many times, but because of family connections he was soon released each time. Browne ultimately reconciled with the established church, yet his writings were major contributions to the development of Elizabethan English religious dissent and the separatist movement. Many English dissidents would set sail for America and establish congregations along the lines of basic Brownist theology, which is why Browne has often been called the father of Congregationalism.

View over Trinity College,Gonville and Caius College, and Clare College at Cambridge University

Like Browne, Henry Barrowe (1550?-1593) studied at Cambridge under Thomas Cartwright, an expert on the Acts of the Apostles and history of the early Church. By profession a lawyer and from an old privileged family, Barrowe converted to strict Puritanism in 1580 after concluding that the Church of England had been tainted by Catholicism and was beyond any hope of redemption. Barrowe believed all their clergy and sacraments including infant baptism were invalid and rejected a church structure that placed layers of authority between the congregation and its ministers, as well as the use of written public services such as the Book of Common Prayer. In its place he advocated a New Testament-oriented service "to reduce all things and actions to the true ancient and primitive pattern of God's Word."

With important implications for the Plymouth settlement and later Congregational church structure in colonial America, Barrowe believed that true religion could only exist in an ecclesiastical framework outside the control of the state or any other external church authority. All authority was to be given to each congregation to govern themselves as independent religious bodies. Ministers would not be appointed but elected by the membership of each individual congregation, and day-to-day management was delegated to its elected spiritual representatives: the pastor, elders, teachers, or deacons.

In 1587 members of an illegal congregation of John Greenwood (1554-1593), a graduate of Cambridge and ordained at Lincoln in 1582, were discovered and imprisoned in the Clink by order of the Archbishop of Canterbury John Whitgift. Barrowe, a friend of Greenwood and whose name was on the congregation list, was also arrested. While in prison Greenwood and Barrowe continued to write and their publications were smuggled out of England to be published in Holland. Barrowe was charged with seditious writing, and held in prison. Meanwhile, in July 1592 Greenwood and other members were released on bail only to found a new separatist church, with yet another Cambridge graduate, Francis Johnson (1562-1618), elected as its pastor. (From a respected Yorkshire family, Johnson had previously been commissioned to assist local English authorities in Holland to buy and burn the books by Greenwood and Barrowe. But inspired by what he read, he embraced Barrowism and joining the church in Southwark in 1586.) However the reprieve was short-lived and in December Greenwood, Johnson, and others were again arrested. The church authorities examined Greenwood and Barrowe and sentenced them to death, and they were hung at Tyburn for sedition (a crime against the government), not heresy.

The "Tyburn Tree"

The persecution of dissenters belied Elizabeth's expressions of moderation and famous affirmation that she didn't want to "make windows into men's souls." But suppression of dissent, including harsh imprisonment and execution, can be understood as a response to civil unrest as much as to religious intolerance. The church authorities seem to have been determined that the sentence would be carried out. However, four days later Queen Elizabeth I issued a statute allowing for the banishment of nonconformists instead of execution, although a third Cambridge separatist, John Penry (1563-1593), was executed in May.

In 1597 members of Johnson's congregation were released from prison and encouraged by the authorities to leave the country. Some joined the other Barrowists who had fled to Holland in 1593, while others were sent them to Canada to establish an English colony on Rainea Island in the Saint Lawrence River. Four prominent Barrowist leaders set off on in April 1597, but ran into problems with French nationals and privateers and so eventually made their way to Holland to join the rest of the congregation.

Nottinghamshire separatists

Another significant group of people who would formed the nucleus of the future Pilgrims were brought together through the teachings of Richard Clyfton, parson at All Saints' Parish Church in Babworth, Nottinghamshire, between 1586 and 1605. This congregation held Separatist beliefs similar to the nonconforming movements led by Barrowe and Browne. William Brewster, a former diplomatic assistant to the Netherlands, was living in the Scrooby manor house and serving as postmaster for the village and bailiff to the Archbishop of York. Brewster may have met the teenage William Bradford from nearby Austerfield on the so-called Pilgrim Way, a still-extant trail that led to the Babworth church. Orphaned and with little formal education, Bradford would later serve as governor of Plymouth Colony for nearly 40 years, author the historical chronicle Of Plimoth Plantation (the most important primary source of the Plymouth colony), and be remembered as the leading figure in seventeenth-century colonial American history.

Having been favorably impressed by Clyfton's services, Brewster and Bradford began participating in Separatist services led by John Smyth, a Barrowist and friend of Johnson, in unincorporated (and thus largely unmonitored) Gainsborough, Lincolnshire.3The lord of the ancient manor house, William Hickman, was an ardent Protestant whose family had survived the religious persecutions of Henry VIII. Sympathetic to the separatists, Hickman offered his protection and hosted the secret meetings.

The All Saints Parish Church in Babworth, where William Bradford and William Brewster heard the separatist sermons of Richard Clyfton.

During much of Brewster's tenure (1595-1606), the Archbishop of Canterbury was Matthew Hutton. He displayed some sympathy for the Puritan cause, writing in 1604 to Robert Cecil, a relative of Robert Browne and secretary of state to James I:

The Puritans (whose phantasticall zeale I mislike) though they differ in Ceremonies & accidentes, yet they agree wth us in substance of religion, & I thinke all or the moste parte of them love his Majestie, & the presente 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.4

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. To the demand to abolish the episcopate James responded, "No Bishop, no King." Reform along Puritan lines could have unravelled the whole political system causing more instability at a time of continuing foreign threats. These important issues resurfaced later resulting in the English Civil War. 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.

Upon Hutton's 1606 death, Tobias Matthew was elected as his replacement. Matthew, one of James' chief supporters at the 1604 conference, promptly began a campaign to purge the archdiocese of nonconforming influences, both separatists and papists. Disobedient clergy were replaced, and prominent Separatists were confronted, fined, imprisoned, or driven out of the country.5

At about the same time, Brewster arranged for a congregation to meet privately at the Scrooby manor house. Beginning in 1606, services were held with Clyfton as pastor, John Robinson a graduate of Corpus Christi, Cambridge, as teacher, and Brewster as the presiding elder. Shortly thereafter, Smyth and members of the Gainsborough group moved on to Holland, first joining Johnson's congregation and later establishing his own congregation in Amsterdam in 1608.

In September 1607 Brewster resigned from his postmaster position and according to records was fined £20 (2005 equivalent: about £2000) in absentia for his noncompliance with the church.6 Facing increasing harassment, the Scrooby congregation decided shortly after to follow the Smyth party to Amsterdam. Scrooby member William Bradford of Austerfield kept a journal of the congregation's events that would later be published as Of Plymouth Plantation. Of this time, he wrote:

But after these things they could not long continue in any peaceable condition, but were hunted & persecuted on every side, so as their former afflictions were but as flea-bitings in comparison of these which now came upon them. For some were taken & clapt up in prison, others had their houses besett & watcht night and day, & hardly escaped their hands; and ye most were faine to flie & leave their howses & habitations, and the means of their livelehood.7

Migration to Holland

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 was 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 atmosphere was difficult because of the growing tensions between Smyth and Johnson. Smyth had embraced the idea of believer's baptism, which Clyfton and Johnson opposed. 8

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 while Clyfton, advanced in age, chose to stay behind in Amsterdam.


Title page of a pamphlet published by William Brewster in Leiden

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.9

Of their years in Leiden, Bradford wrote:

For these & some 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.10

Holland 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 in Holland. They wanted to either return to England or move as free Englishmen to a new English homeland beyond the sea.

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 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.11

Reasons for departure are suggested by Bradford, when he notes the "discouragements" of the hard life they had in Holland, 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 gospel of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world."

Pilgrim Edward Winslow's recollections support Bradford's account: In addition to the economic worries and missionary possibilities, Winslow 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.12

At the same time, there were many uncertainties about moving to such a place as America. Stories had come back about the failed Sagadahoc colony in today's Maine and of the hardships faced by the Jamestown settlement in Virginia. 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.

Possible destinations included Guiana, where the Dutch had already established Essequibo; or somewhere near the existing Virginia settlement. 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 and thus fall into the same restrictive political environment as in England.


The congregation decided to petition the English Crown for a charter to establish an English colony in the New World. Some were concerned about approaching the government of King James that had forced them into exile. However William Brewster had maintained the contacts he had developed during his period of service with William Davison, sometime Secretary of State under Queen Elizabeth. John Carver and Robert Cushman were dispatched to London to act as agents on behalf of the congregation. Their negotiations were delayed because of conflicts internal to the London Company, but eventually a patent was secured in the name of John Wincob on June 9, 1619.13 The charter was granted with the king's condition that the Leiden group's religion would not receive official recognition.14

Because of the continued problems within the London Company, preparations stalled. The congregation was approached by competing Dutch companies, and the possibility of settling in the Hudson River area was discussed with them. These negotiations were broken off at the encouragement of another English merchant, Thomas Weston, who assured the anxious group that he could resolve the London Company delays.15

Weston did come back with a substantial change, telling the Leiden group that parties in England had obtained a land grant north of the existing Virginia territory, to be called New England. This was only partially true; the new grant would come to pass, but not until late in 1620 when the Plymouth Council for New England received its charter. It was expected that this area could be fished profitably, and it was not under the control of the existing Virginia government.16

A second change was known only to parties in England who chose not to inform the larger group. New investors who had been brought into the venture wanted the terms altered so that at the end of the seven-year contract, half of the settled land and property would revert to them; and that the provision for each settler to have two days per week to work on personal business was dropped.

Brewster's diversion

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. Brewster's type was seized, but only the financier Thomas Brewer was in custody. Brewster's whereabouts between then and the colonists' departure remain unknown. 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. Brewster was ultimately convicted in England in absentia for his continued religious publication activities and sentenced in 1626 to a 14-year prison term.17


As many members were 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. Accordingly, the decision was made for Robinson to remain in Leiden with the larger portion of the congregation, and Brewster 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. The Speedwell was to bring some passengers from the Netherlands to England, then on to America where the ship would be kept for the fishing business, with a crew hired for support services during the first year. A second, larger ship, the Mayflower, was leased for transport and exploration services.18

Voyage on the Mayflower

In July 1620 one hundred and twenty members of the Leyden Barrowist congregation under the spiritual leadership of William Brewster as Elder departed Delfshaven in the Speedwell for Plymouth. There they met the London Company representatives, and their sister ship the Mayflower that would transport the employees of the London Company to establish their trading post. When they arrived in Plymouth the Barrowists were welcomed by the local church. However before the ships set sail a number of disagreements occurred between the representatives of the London Company and the Leiden colonists. Some of the London Company representatives tried to make a profit off the colonists in Plymouth and many of the colonists had disagreements with the London Company employees on the Mayflower.

The Mayflower and the Speedwell set sail from Plymouth on August 5, 1620. After a week problems developed on the Speedwell and they had to return to Dartmouth Harbor. After repairs they set sail again for America. Within a few days they had to return to Plymouth for additional repairs to the Speedwell. It was decided to abandon the Speedwell and put everyone on the London Company's ship the Mayflower. Of the 120 Speedwell passengers, 102 were chosen to travel on Mayflower with the supplies consolidated. The Mayflower set sail from Plymouth on September 16, 1620.

Initially the trip went smoothly, but under way they were met with strong winds and storms. One of these caused a main beam to crack, and although they were more than half the way to their destination, the possibility of turning back was considered. Using a "great iron screw" they repaired the ship sufficiently to continue. One passenger, John Howland, was washed overboard in the storm but caught a rope and was rescued. One crew member and one passenger died before they reached land, and one child was born at sea, and named "Oceanus."19

Arrival in America

Land was sighted on November 20, 1620. It was confirmed that the area was Cape Cod, within the New England territory recommended by Weston. An attempt was made to sail the ship around the cape towards the Hudson River, also within the New England grant area, but they encountered shoals and difficult currents around Malabar (a land mass that formerly existed in the vicinity of present-day Monomoy). It was decided to turn around, and by November 21 the ship was anchored in what is today known as Provincetown Harbor.

Mayflower Compact

This bas-relief depicting the signing of the Mayflower Compact is on Bradford Street in Provincetown directly below the Pilgrim Monument.

With the charter for the Plymouth Council for New England incomplete by the time the colonists departed England (it would be granted while they were in transit, on November 13), the Pilgrims arrived without a patent. Some of the passengers, aware of the situation, suggested that without a patent in place, they were free to do as they chose upon landing and ignore the contract with the investors.20

To address this issue and in response to certain "mutinous speeches," a brief contract, signed on November 11, 1620 on board the Mayflower, later to be known as the Mayflower Compact, was drafted promising cooperation among the settlers "for the general good of the Colony unto which we promise all due submission and obedience." The document was ratified by majority rule, with 41 adult male passengers signing.21

The original document has been lost, but Bradford's transcription is as follows:

In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God of Great Britain, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, etc. Having undertaken, for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the First Colony in the Northern Parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and