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Reclaiming History: The Pilgrims Leave England


(This is Part 2 in a series on Reclaiming History. You may read Part 1 here.)

In the century after the Protestant Reformation, small bands of English citizens began to question whether the Reformation had gone far enough. Many believed that the Church of England, conveniently founded by Henry VIII during the Reformation period, was rife with corruption and unbiblical practices. These Englishmen, nicknamed “Puritans”, desired a return to the simple, straightforward practices of the New Testament church. They hoped to work within the Church of England to bring about this change.

There was a smaller, more radical subset of Puritans who believed the only real pathway to free worship was through separation from the Church (“Separatists”). The Church authorities were more suspect of this group for their open rebellion.

When King James I took the throne, the Separatists became outlaws. They were arrested and imprisoned, and had their possessions confiscated. They began to meet for worship in secret. When the persecution became too great, they began leaving in groups for Holland.

Life in their new home of Leyden, Holland was difficult. They were foreigners. They had not established businesses or trade. Their children were growing more worldly, thanks to the influences of the culture.

And so they began to turn their thoughts to the New World. There was much talk of Virginia at this time. It seemed like the perfect place to make a new start. As devout Christians, seeking God’s will in every step they took, the Separatists prayed for guidance. William Bradford, the future governor of Plymouth, writes:

It was answered that all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courages. It was granted that the dangers were great, but not desperate, and the difficulties were many, but not invincible [they had heard some horror stories from the Jamestown colony]…and all of them, through the help of God, by fortitude and patience, might either be borne or overcome… (But) their condition was not ordinary. Their ends were good and honorable, their calling lawful and urgent, and therefore they might expect the blessing of God in their proceeding; yea, though they should lose their lives in this action, yet they might have comfort in the same, and their endeavors would be honorable. (From Willliam Bradford’s book Of Plymouth Plantation.)

So, it was determined that they would sail for the New World. They negotiated a charter to help with expenses through a London Adventurer named Thomas Weston. A ship, The Speedwell, was purchased to take them to Southampton, where they would join the Mayflower for the voyage across the Atlantic. (See the original copy of the Mayflower Passenger list here.)

Original Mayflower Passenger List

While these trusting Puritans had been preparing for their short trip from Holland to England, Thomas Weston had played fast and loose with their contract. He quietly convinced one of the Puritans to agree to revised (and unfair) terms. Presenting these terms to them just before departing on the Mayflower, Weston was surprisingly rejected by the Puritans! In order to compromise with the Adventurers, the Puritans extended their original 7-year indenture to an undetermined amount of time to pay back the investment.

Before they departed, a letter from Pastor John Robinson (who had stayed behind with the main congregation in Holland) was read to the departing Puritans. His admonition would echo into the future of a nation they could not even fathom:

“…whereas you are to become a body politic, using amongst yourselves civil government, and are not furnished with any persons of special eminency above the rest” [i.e. no Gentlemen on the passenger list], they would have to choose their leaders from among equals. “Let your wisdom and godliness appear not only in choosing such persons as do entirely love and will promote the common good, but also in yielding unto them all due honor and obedience in their lawful administrations…”  (Read the entire letter here)

They were being instructed to form a civil government, of the people, by the people, and for the people!

In August 1620, they finally set sail for the New World. These Puritans had become Pilgrims.


As I stated in Part 1, everything you need to know about the Puritans (Pilgrims) and their world-changing actions is written down by the very people who lived it. The Primary Sources are available for free on the web. An incredible website, Caleb Johnson's MayflowerHistory.com has compiled links to each one. There are letters, sermons, books, and official records that detail the entire story of this amazing little band of Pilgrims. I have cited specific quotes where necessary. 

The overall story is written by William Bradford in his book Of Plymouth Plantation. My other source: The Light and the Glory by Peter Marshall and David Manuel. This is a wonderful overview of the beginnings of our nation, following the hand of God through each incident, from Columbus to the eve of the American Revolution. There is also a children's version, an activity book, and an audio version. I first read this in 1987 and it remains my Number One recommendation for an American History book. There are 2 sequels.

Check back soon for Part 3: The New World

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