What Thanksgiving is Really About: Part1 – Puritan Persecution and the Pilgrim Journey

arrivalIn the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century a group of Separatists or Puritans, who later formed the core group of Pilgrims which would flee to America, came under persecution for their non-conformist attitude toward the Church of England.  When the 1559 Uniformity Act was passed, it became mandatory to attend the Church of England or pay a fine of one shilling for each Sunday or holy day missed.  Holding otherwise illegal meetings led to confinement in prison or larger fines.

Two separatist leaders, John Greenwood and Henry Barrowe, were hanged for the act of sedition.  When King James ascended to the throne of England it was hoped that he would relent and allow more religious freedom.  King James met with officials of the Church of England and the Puritans in January 1604 (Hampton Court Conference).  In April of 1603 a petition (The Millenary Petition) written by the Puritans had been presented to King James on his way to London to officially ascend to the throne.  The Puritans stated that they had no desire to do away with the state ecclesiastical system (Church of England), but they did want the freedom to worship according to their own belief system.

At the Conference the Puritans’ pleas were met with opposition.  Some of their requests were:

  • Making the sign of the cross at the time of baptism should be done away with.
  • Women should not be allowed to administer baptism.
  • Remove the requirement for the cap and surplice (vestments).
  • Remove the requirement for a ring in marriage ceremony.
  • Shorter services (“the longsomeness of service abridged”).
  • Change the rules for excommunication to avoid being removed for trifling matters.

While largely unsuccessful in obtaining the changes they desired, the Puritans’ efforts did bear fruit.  One of their desires was that everyone should know God’s Word without an intermediary.  Thereafter, King James commissioned the translation of the Bible to English.

Appointees of King James continued to persecute and harass the Puritans who were then meeting in secret.  In 1608 the group escaped from England and traveled to Amsterdam, Holland where they found a refuge from religious persecution.  They joined other separatists who had already escaped, one of them being William Bradford who would lead the Puritans to America on the Mayflower.bradford_wWilliam Bradford kept a journal over a period of several years.  He described the persecution of the Puritans (special note: Bradford’s use of “ye” for “the” has been revised in the passages quoted below for ease of reading – as you will see their spelling wasn’t what ours is today):

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 the most were faine to flie & leave their howses & habitations, and the means of their livelehood.

The group moved on to Leiden, Holland but in the end found the culture and language difficult to assimilate – morals were much laxer and they feared their young people would abandon their belief system.  The group also hoped to send out missionaries to other parts of the world (from Bradford’s “Of Plimoth Plantation”):

…a great hope & in ward zeall they had of laying some good foundation, or at least to make some way therunto, for the propagating & advancing the gospell of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world ; yea, though they should be but even as stepping-stones unto others for the performing of so great a work.

Plans began to be formulated and discussions were held as to where the group should go.  Guiana was a possibility – some thought the warm climate with a “perpetuall spring” would be ideal.  Others were in favor of Virginia where the English had already established a colony – there it would be easier to assimilate.  Ultimately they decided against Guiana:

 And first, the such hott countries are subject to greevuos diseases, and many noysome impediments, which other more temperate places are freer from, and would not so well agree with our English bodys.

Virginia also had its drawbacks:

On the other hand, for Virginia it was objected, that if they lived among the English wch[which] wear ther planted, or so near them as to be under their goverment, they should be in as great danger to be troubled and persecuted for the cause of religion, as if they lived in England, and it might be worse.

Negotiations for land grants began and representatives of the Puritans communicated with representatives of the Virginia Council.  Later, though, the Puritans decided to pursue a land grant in an area north of Virginia that was to be called “New England”.  The first order of business, however, was to begin to migrate people from the Netherlands – not everyone was able to make the first trip, however.

In July of 1620, the Speedwell departed from Delfes-Haven to meet up with the Mayflower in Southampton, England.  The Puritans would be joined by another group and depart for America on August 5, 1620, even though their land grant and charter to be known as the “Plymouth Council for New England” had not yet been approved.mayflowerIn Chapter IX of his book, Bradford describes the hardships encountered by the immigrants:

…they put to sea againe with a prosperus winde, which continued diverce days togeather, which was some incouragmente unto them ; yet according to the usuall maner many were afflicted with sea-sicknes.

After this passage, Bradford was careful to include a narration of a “spetiall worke of Gods providence.”  One of the seamen was described as a:

proud & very pro fane yonge man, one of the sea-men, of a lustie, able body, which made him the more hauty; he would allway be contemning the poore people in their sicknes, & cursing them dayly with greeous execrations, and did not let to tell them, that he hoped to help to cast halfe of them over board before they came to their jurneys end, and to make mery with what they had ; and if he were by any gently reproved, he would curse and swear most bitterly. But it plased God before they came halfe seas over, to smite this yong man with a greeveous disease, of which he dyed in a desperate maner, and so was him selfe the first that was throwne overbord. Thus his curses light on his owne head ; and it was an astonishmente to all his fellows, for they noted it to be the just hand of God upon him.

The waters became calm for a time and then fierce storms arose once more.  At some point, out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, discussions began as to whether the ship should turn around and head back to England.  It was determined, however, that the ship was more than capable of withstanding the storms and so continued on.  One young man was thrown overboard in a storm and rescued, and although he was injured “yet he lived many years after, and became a profitable member both in church & comone weal the.”  According to Bradford, other than the profane young sailor only one other young person (William Butten), a servant to Samuell Fuller, died.

On November 9, 1620 land was sighted and the Pilgrims landed on the 11th in the area known as Cap-Codd (Cape Cod).

Being thus arived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees & blessed the God of heaven, who had brought them over the vast & furious ocean, and delivered them from all the periles & miseries therof, againe to set their feete on the firme and stable earth, their proper elemente.

Personal Note:  The research I did for this article helped me to understand a “curious” thing I had encountered in my own ancestry research recently.  One of the lines in our family (Hall) descends from Thomas Boon (later changed to “Boone”).  I was puzzled as to his being born in the Netherlands because I always assumed that most of our line was English.  I suspect that those Boons, who eventually made it to America, were perhaps Puritans and were living in the Netherlands to escape persecution.

Next Week: Hardships, Blessings and Lessons Learned (Part 2)

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© Sharon Hall (History Depot), 2013.

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