Chronicles of America ´╗┐

The Exodus of the Pilgrims

More important than the promptings of land-hunger and the desire for wealth and adventure was the call made by a social and religious movement which was but a phase of the general restlessness and popular discontent. The Reformation, in which this movement had its origin, was more than a revolt from the organization and doctrines of the medieval church; it voiced the yearning of the middle classes for a position commensurate with their growing prominence in the national life. Though the feudal tenantry, given over to agriculture and bound by the conventions of feudal law, were still perpetuating many of the old customs, the towns were emancipating themselves from, feudal control, and by means of their wealth and industrial activities were winning recognition as independent and largely self-sufficing units. The gild, a closely compacted brotherhood, existing partly for religious and educational purposes and partly for the control of handicrafts and the exchange of goods, became the center of middle-class energy, and in thousands of instances hedged in the lives of the humbler artisans. Thus it was largely from those who knew no wider world than the fields which they cultivated and the gilds which governed their standards and output that the early settlers of New England were recruited.

Equally important with the social changes were those which concerned men's faith and religious organization. The Peace of Augsburg, which in 1555 had closed for the moment the warfare resulting from the Reformation, not only recognized the right of Protestantism to exist, but also handed over to each state, whether kingdom, duchy, or principality, full power to control the creed within its borders. Whoever ruled the state could determine the religion of his subjects, a dictum which denied the right of individuals or groups of individuals to depart from the established faith. Hence arose a second revolt, not against the mediŠval church and empire but against the authority of the state and its creed, whether Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, or Calvinist, a revolt in which Huguenot in France battled for his right to believe as he wished, and Puritan in England refused to conform to a manner of worship which retained much of the mediaeval liturgy and ceremonial. Just as all great revolutionary movements in church or state give rise to men who repudiate tradition and all accretions due to human experience, and base their political and religious ideals upon the law of nature, the rights of man, the inner light, or the Word of God; so, too, in England under Elizabeth and James I, leaders appeared who demanded radical changes in faith and practice, and advocated complete separation from the Anglican Church and isolation from the religious world about them. Of such were the Separatists, who rejected the Anglican and other creeds, severed all bonds with a national church system, cast aside form, ceremony, liturgy, and a hierarchy of church orders, and sought for the true faith and form of worship in the Word of God. For these men the Bible was the only test of religious truth.

The Separatists organized themselves into small religious groups, as independent communities or companies of Christians, covenanted with God and keeping the Divine Law in a Holy Communion. They consisted in the main of men and women in the humbler walks of life — artisans, tenant farmers, with some middle-class gentry. Sufficient to themselves and knit together in the fashion of a gild or brotherhood, they believed in a church system of the simplest form and followed the Bible, Old and New Testaments alike, as the guide of their lives. Desiring to withdraw from the world as it was that they might commune together in direct relations with God, they accepted persecution as the test of their faith and welcomed hardship, banishment, and even death as proofs of righteousness and truth. Convinced of the scriptural soundness of what they believed and what they practised, and confident of salvation through unyielding submission to God's will as they interpreted it, they became conspicuous because of their radical thought and peculiar forms of worship, and inevitably drew upon themselves the attention of the authorities, both secular and ecclesiastical.

The leading centers of Separatism were in London and Norfolk, but the seat of the little congregation that eventually led the way across the sea to New England was in Scrooby in Nottinghamshire. There — in Scrooby manor-house, where William Brewster, the father, was receiver and bailiff, and his son, the future elder of the Plymouth colony, was acting postmaster; where Richard Clayton preached and John Robinson prayed; and where the youthful William Bradford was one of its members — there was gathered a small Separatist congregation composed of humble folk of Nottinghamshire and adjoining counties. They were soon discovered worshiping in the manor-house chapel, by the ecclesiastical authorities of Yorkshire, and for more than a year were subjected to persecution, some being "taken and clapt up in prison," others having "their houses besett and watcht night and day and hardly escaped their hands." At length they determined to leave England for Holland. During 1607 and 1608 they escaped secretly, some at one time, some at another, all with great loss and difficulty, until by the August of the latter year there were gathered at Amsterdam more than a hundred men, women, and children, "armed with faith and patience."

But Amsterdam proved a disappointing refuge. And in 1609 they moved to Leyden, "a fair and bewtifull citie," where for eleven years they remained, pursuing such trades as they could, chiefly weaving and the manufacture of cloth, "injoying much sweete and delightful societie and spiritual comfort togeather in the ways of God, under the able ministrie and prudente governmente of Mr. John Robinson and Mr. William Brewster." But at last new and imperative reasons arose, demanding a third removal, not to another city in Holland, but this time to the New World called America. They were breaking under the great labor and hard fare; they feared to lose their language and saw no opportunity to educate their children; they disapproved of the lax Dutch observance of Sunday and saw in the temptations of the place a menace to the habits and morals of the younger members of the flock, and, in the influences of the world around them, a danger to the purity of their creed and their practice. They determined to go to a new country " devoyd of all civill inhabitants," where they might keep their names, their faith, and their nationality.

After many misgivings, the fateful decision was reached by the "major parte," and preparations for departure were made. But where to go became a troublesome problem. The merits of Guiana and other "wild coasts" were debated, but finally Virginia met with general approval, because there they might live as a private association, a distinct body by themselves, similar to other private companies already established there. To this end they sent two of their number to England to secure a patent from the Virginia Company of London. Under this patent and in bond of allegiance to King James, yet acting as a "body in the most strict and sacred bond and covenant of the Lord," an independent and absolute church, they became a civil community also, with governors chosen for the work from among themselves. But the dissensions in the London Company caused them to lose faith in that association, and, hearing of the reorganization of the Virginia Company of Plymouth,' which about this time obtained a new charter as the New England Council, they turned from southern to northern Virginia — that is, to New England — and resolved to make their settlement where according to reports fishing might become a means of livelihood.

But their plans could not be executed without assistance; and, coming into touch with a London (In 1606 King James had granted a charter incorporating two companies, one of which, made up of gentlemen and merchants in and about London, was known as the Virginia Company of London, the Other as the Virginia Company of Plymouth. The former was authorized to plant colonies between thirty-four and forty-one degrees north latitude, and the latter between thirty-eight and forty-five, but neither was to plant a colony within one hundred miles of each other. Jamestown, the first colony of the London Company, was now thirteen years old. The Plymouth Company had made no permanent settlement in its domain.) merchant, Thomas Weston, who promised to aid them, they entered into what proved to be a long and wearisome negotiation with a group of adventurers — gentlemen, merchants, and others, seventy in number — for an advance of money to finance the expedition. The Pilgrims entered into a partnership with the merchants to form a voluntary joint-stock company. It was understood that the merchants, who purchased shares, were to remain in England; that the colonists, who contributed their personal service at a fixed rating, were to go to America, there to labor at trade, trucking, and fishing for seven years; and that during this time all profits were to remain in a common stock and all lands to be left undivided. The conditions were hard and discouraging, but there was no alternative; and at last, embarking at Delfthaven in the Speedwell, a small ship bought and fitted in Holland, they came to Southampton, where another and larger vessel, the Mayflower, was in waiting. In August, 1620, the two vessels set sail, but the Speedwell, proving unseaworthy, put back after two attempts, and the Mayflower went on alone, bearing one hundred and two passengers, two-thirds of the whole, picked out as worthy and willing to undertake the voyage.

The Mayflower reached the waters of New England on the 11th of November after a tedious course of sixty-five days from Plymouth to Cape Cod; but they did not decide on their place of landing until the 21st of December. Four days later they erected on the site of the town of Plymouth their first building.

Back to: Plymouth and New England Colonies