The Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock; their journey in search of religious freedom; the first Thanksgiving; these are all images of America's foundation etched in our minds in holidays and at school. They've been repeated and eulogized so often they've become part of the mythos of our nation's journey towards freedom and democracy. Like most myths, there's at least a kernel of fact underlying them. Close examination, however, sometimes reveals that that's all it is; a kernel.
Take the idea that the Pilgrims came to America looking for religious freedom, for instance. That's almost true, but things are a bit more complicated than that. The Pilgrims, you see, were one of a number of dissenter sects that fled persecution by the Church of England. The thing is though, they found religious freedom long before they'd ever thought of going to America. They found it when they went to Holland.
And it caused them lots of problems.
That's because the Dutch were largely indifferent to how anyone worshipped and this didn't sit well with the Pilgrims. Religious freedom to them meant the freedom to worship their way and they weren't particularly interested in extending that freedom to anyone else. In this respect, the main difference between them and the Church of England was in which church ought to be on top. Government, to them, was not just the protector of civil order; it was also an instrument to promote the greater glory of God and God's laws.
Another problem for the Pilgrims was that they weren't the only English religious dissenters to find refuge in Holland. These groups' views were similar to those of the Pilgrims (along with the Pilgrims they all fall under the umbrella term "Brownists" but that's another story) and differed only in minor doctrinal matters, but that was enough to cause friction between them. Because there was nothing to bar it, individual pilgrims had the freedom of conscience to attend whoever's sermons they felt like and, when some of these individuals switched congregations, it alarmed the group's leaders. They decided that religious freedom of this kind was almost as bad as religious persecution and that it was time to move on.
There were also some nonreligious reasons for wanting to leave. The Pilgrims came from a largely rural area originally and rural skills were not in high demand in Leiden where they had settled. Leiden was an industrial center and offered only limited opportunities to the non-industrially skilled. The Pilgrims stayed desperately poor while they remained there. Additionally, they were in danger of losing their cultural identity as well if they stayed too long. Over the years, their children were becoming more familiar with Dutch customs than English ones and, indeed, cultural absorption was the eventual fate of all the dissenting sects they left behind them.
So the Pilgrims began casting about for another home; eventually negotiating an agreement with an English merchant/adventurer company for two ships (later reduced to one, the Mayflower) to take a little over a hundred of them to new land in America. Ahead lay the landing at Plymouth Rock, the signing of the Mayflower Compact, the death of over half their number during that first starving Winter and the feast of Thanksgiving the survivors celebrated the next Fall.
But did the Pilgrims come to America to find religious freedom? Or did they come because they were fleeing from it? You tell me.
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