Back in the 1300s, Boston, on the east coast of England in Lincolnshire, had been a port rivalling London in size and trade. It was there in 1607 that a small group of brave people from Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire counties assembled secretly one dark night to embark on an illegal venture. As many do today, they were leaving their country without permission. Their plan would eventually take them to Boston in New England.
Waiting for them in the shadows was a small ship. Its captain had agreed to take the group from England to the Netherlands, where they hoped to start a new life with freedom to believe and worship as they chose. During the previous few days, small boats had inconspicuously ferried the fleeing families to the ship, in which all their precious hopes were invested.
Alas, once the entire group was on board, they found themselves caught in a trap. The captain had double-crossed them and notified authorities of their intentions. A troop of soldiers soon boarded the ship and took the passengers prisoner.
who were they?
The group was of a religious persuasion known as Puritans, fleeing official oppression in England. The 16th and 17th centuries had been a turbulent time for religious belief in Europe. The Protestant Reformation had spread across most of the continent, creating new denominations and profoundly changing the thinking and beliefs of many free-thinkers within the established church. But while some wanted more radical change, others were content to call for a pause and limit the reforms to those already made.
At that time, many in England felt that the Reformation had stopped short of changing many beliefs and practices of the Church of England, which were still too much like those of the Catholic Church for their liking and conscience. These people were called Puritans. They wanted the Reformation to continue until all the beliefs and practices of the Church of England were synchronised with the Bible, leading to a purity of lifestyle, hence the name Puritan. The word can be traced back to around 1560, although some believe it was originally a pejorative term associated with the Cathars or Albigenses of southern France, from the 12th and 13th centuries. The Cathars had a purity of life that was in contrast to the people and church of the day. Probably closer to the truth was their link with the Anabaptists of Switzerland and Holland, who had sought to worship strictly according to Scripture.
Through time and an association with some American Puritans, the term Puritan has now come to mean an extreme, ultra-conservative form of belief that shuns all pleasure. However, the well-respected author C S Lewis said, “We must picture these Puritans as the very opposite of those who bear that name today: as young, fierce, progressive intellectuals, very fashionable and up-to-date.” They were not against pleasure but did focus on right living and deepening their religious experience through sincere moral conduct and simple worship.
When King Henry VIII broke from Rome and declared himself the head of the church in England, little changed in the religious beliefs of the church. The gospel made some inroads, but the church was still seen by the Puritans as distant from the church of the apostles. The royal family see-sawed back and forth between Protestantism and Catholicism. Mary became queen with the expressed purpose of returning England to the Catholic fold. Elizabeth I continued to move England toward Protestant belief and James I was anti- Catholic, but James II converted to Catholicism. And none of these monarchs offered total freedom of belief. Whatever the belief and practice of the reigning monarch was, it was legally supposed to be the belief and practice of everyone else in the country.
The Puritans wanted not only stability within the Protestant fold but a religion that would lead to godly living. They saw true religion as something that would impact the daily life of a person in a positive way, and something much more than merely an allegiance or obeisance to a human authority. They thought of themselves as “the godly” and the rest of the Church of England as attached to what they called “Popish superstitions and worldliness.”
By the late 1500s, small groups of Puritans were beginning to believe that separating from the Church of England was the only way to have a church that accorded with their beliefs. These people were initially called Separatists or Dissenters. Congregationalism, in which each group ran its own affairs apart from any higher denominational or hierarchical authority, was one part of their thinking.
At the dawn of the 17th century James VI of Scotland became James I of England, and he viewed Puritan belief as heresy. He especially opposed their denial of the so-called “divine right of kings,” which was a convenient political and religious doctrine that gave the crown absolute power. He expected to be the final arbiter in matters of religion- something the Puritans simply would not accept.
In that age, conformity in religion was associated with loyalty to the crown. The constitutionally enshrined freedom of religion and conscience that many of us today take for granted did not exist then. Rather, they were won for us by the lives of people who saw allegiance to God as above allegiance to any man or institution on earth.
Because of the government’s hostility toward them, the Separatists of Babworth, Scrooby and Sturton-le-Steeple believed their lives were in danger. In Scrooby, their leader was William Brewster, the postmaster, along with Richard Clyfton, a defrocked parson. Other leaders were John Robinson and William Bradford.
Their fear of persecution caused them to bid farewell to their native land and seek asylum overseas. Their conflict with the government had become too intense, and they saw no other options.
It was these who were taken captive in Boston, in 1607. Today a memorial on the bank of the Haven River briefly tells the story of the group who were to become known as the Pilgrim Fathers.
left high and dry
Having been betrayed and taken into custody, a number were imprisoned. Most were released after a month or so, but the leaders were held in cells beneath what is known today as the Guildhall, awaiting the criminal courts that heard the most serious cases.
However, all were soon freed, and not long after gathered again at Scrooby. Undaunted by their failure and official threats, a second escape plan was hatched for the next year.
In 1608, members of the group made their way to the rivers Humber and Trent, with the women travelling separately from their men to avoid suspicion of an imminent departure. This time they hired a Dutch vessel, operated by a more sympathetic captain.
Small boats carried the women and children down the Humber and Trent to the entrance of Killingholme Creek, which these days is the busy Immingham Dock. Very early the next morning, the ship arrived and began to embark all the men. But the small boats containing the women and children became stuck on mud flats due to the receding tide, delaying embarkation. Then, just as the first of them came close to the Dutch ship, a large group of soldiers on horseback and foot arrived on the shore.
The Dutch captain, seeing the force of the law and the weapons they had, decided to raise the anchor, and with the wind being right, set sail down the river and out across the North Sea to Holland. The men on board could only watch distraught as their stranded wives and children disappeared in the sea mist behind them. Two weeks later, they landed in Holland.
Meanwhile, the authorities were perplexed as to what to do with the spouses and families of the escapees, as the women declared they were only wanting to be with their husbands. They were soon released, and by the end of the year, were reunited in Holland.
In Holland, they settled in Leyden, where they lived as pilgrims in a foreign land, taking the lowliest of jobs to exist while enjoying a freedom not experienced in their English home.
Conditions improved a little, but after some time, they were again faced with the pressure to conform. They decided that in order to live and worship as they chose, without constant mandates from kings and queens or from a religious hierarchy, they would have to seek asylum far across the ocean in the new world called America. We today know this group of Separatists as the Pilgrim Fathers.
It’s difficult for us today, accustomed as we are to religious freedom, to put ourselves in their place. It took a special kind of person to abandon their homes and most of their possessions in order to start a new life in an undeveloped wilderness just so they could be free to believe and worship according to the dictates of their consciences.