Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners

Editor's Note: A previous reference and post on the Pilgrims provoked a flurry of emails from scholars and others quite passionate on the subject. So, again, mea culpa; more importantly, to atone for my sin of an unnecessarily flippant tone, I'm posting below author Jeremy Bangs's explanation of his recent very extensive work Strangers and Pilgrims, based on thirty years of research in the original sources, including many years researching in the original Dutch sources in Leiden.

A note along the same lines: I made reference earlier to Nick Bunker's new book as well as a review of it in
The New Republic. Jim Cullen appreciatively reviews this work, Make Haste from Babylon, over at HNN this week.

Strangers and Pilgrims
by Jeremy Bangs

Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners – Leiden and the Foundations of Plymouth Plantation (Plymouth, Massachusetts: General Society of Mayflower Descendants, 2009). 894 pp. + xxxii; 134 ills. and maps. $55.

Of my eleven scholarly books and many articles, six concern the Pilgrims and Plymouth Colony. Four are document publications - the 17th-century town records of Scituate, Massachusetts (3 vols.), and Indian Deeds: Land Transactions in Plymouth Colony, 1620-1691. The Scituate records are more extensive than those of any other New England town outside Boston. They provide information that allows a reconsideration of the generalizations found in the detail studies of other towns from ca. 1970. In fact, most of those generalizations do not hold up to comparison with more extensive and explanatory documentation. Similarly, the information in the Scituate records contradicts the generalizations in David Hackett Fisher's famous work from the 1980s. The introductions to the Scituate records (totalling ca. 225 pp.) explain the implications for historiography.

I started that project merely as something to do, since I was living in Scituate at the time As the transcription progressed, I realized that the contents differed from what had become common knowledge - for example, it turns out that Scituate was the major town of Plymouth Colony after 1650, being sixty percent larger in population and economy than its nearest rival, the town of Plymouth. No one has paid attention to this in writing a history of the colony, or of New England. Scituate was an actively growing commercial center with interesting religious controversies as well, all overlooked in histories of New England. Similarly the introduction to Indian Deeds, again, ca. 225 pp, explains the significance of the documents that follow for the historiography of Indian relations with the colonists - The fifth book is a biography of Edward Winslow, third gov. of Plymouth Colony. Contradicting the assumption that Plymouth was of no wide importance beyond its own insignificant borders, this revises the history of Plymouth colony's early finances then continues with Winslow's role in the Cromwellian government. He returned to London in 1646 and rose in the committee structure of the government. Eventually he was appointed jointly by the Dutch States General and by Cromwell to be a member (acting as chairman) of an international committee whose task was to resolve commercial disputes remaining between The Netherlands and England after the first Anglo-Dutch war. His career puts Plymouth Colony in the middle of the now fashionable Atlantic history

As for Strangers and Pilgrims: Rejecting centuries of stereotyping both pro and con, Strangers and Pilgrims portrays the emergence of the Pilgrims as a coherent religious and social group whose goals and experimental choices when reacting to past and current events and circumstances made Plymouth Colony unique. Rather than providing neat, static definitions of who they were and then proceeding to conclude that their lives and their colony evaporated into insignificant myth, the book gives attention to the various shifting contexts – religious, political, social, industrial, and domestic - that called these people to responsive action. It is the culmination of thirty years' archival research in America, England, and The Netherlands.

The first chapter reviews the hopes that animated English Puritans when James I ascended the throne - hopes whose disappointment inspired Pilgrim leaders, William Brewster, Richard Clyfton, John Robinson, and John Smyth. They concluded that no true church could exist within the traditional hierarchies, parish structures, and rules retained from Roman Catholicism. Withdrawal from the Church of England led to persecution, while they and their congregations thought they saw God’s anger at England’s failure to achieve further reformation revealed in signs of divine wrath – the tsunami that devastated southwest England in January, 1607, followed by crop failure and famine throughout the country in the summer, the return of the plague in the fall, and a portentous comet towards the end of the year. Christians who had separated into a covenanted community seeking to lead a godly life felt the need to flee. Holland offered religious refuge.

Other English Separatists had found safety in Amsterdam a decade earlier, but sexual scandal among them threatened to associate the newcomers with their disrepute, a danger that increased when Rev. John Smyth re-baptized himself and some followers, calling up images of revolutionary Anabaptism with its end-time social chaos. Rev. John Robinson led the group now known as the Pilgrims to the university town of Leiden, famous for its cloth industry relying on refugee laborers. That city, however, had become the focal point of controversy that would split the Dutch Reformed Church and culminate in a military coup that put an end to the toleration for which Holland had become famous.

Familiarizing themselves with the town, the Pilgrims came into contact not only with the university and with Dutch Reformed and Mennonite churches, but also with English soldiers garrisoned throughout Leiden (such as Myles Standish) and with the thousands of French-speaking refugees who made up around 15% of the town’s population. Some people already in Leiden joined the Pilgrim church, while more new members came over from East Anglia, Kent, and London; the diversity of origins required communal attempts to build unity of purpose. This effort contrasts with any simplistic characterization of the structures of their colony in New England as representing a conscious or unconscious re-creation of regional folk customs and habits recalled from ye olde England.

Although the Pilgrims’ arrival in Leiden coincided with the beginning of the Twelve Years’ Truce in the Dutch revolt against Spanish Hapsburg domination, the peace was unstable. England was providing nearly half the soldiers in the Dutch army; King James exploited this dependence to demand ever greater influence in Dutch religious and political affairs. The Pilgrims found themselves under increasing pressure from England, whose ambassador successfully called for the suppression of the Pilgrims’ publishing project when he discovered offenses to the king’s majesty in Pilgrim calls for reform. King James demanded that Pilgrim William Brewster be arrested; an English bishop even made a clandestine visit to Leiden apparently to try to discover Brewster’s hiding place. The Pilgrims felt the pressure to seek a safer haven before Holland was once again engulfed in war

John Robinson participated in the university theological faculty's debates between double-predestination Calvinists (the Gomarists or Contra-Remonstrants) and their less rigid opponents (the Arminians or Remonstrants). The major focus of the controversy in Leiden was the appointment of Conrad Vorstius to be professor of theology. His opponents accused him of Socinianism and used that charge to convince King James I to retreat from religious toleration to a demand for Calvinist conformity in the Dutch church. Under his political pressure, Prince Maurits carried out a military coup, deposing the toleration-minded Remonstrants in government. The Synod of Dort then proceeded to condemn anyone with a broader theological view than that of the Contra-Remonstrants. The book's examination of documented political intrigue gives a new interpretation to the entire period in Holland. Although agreeing theologically with the decisions of the Synod of Dort, Robinson and the Pilgrims rejected calls to require everyone in Plymouth Colony to subscribe to the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession, thus taking a position that had been among those for which the Remonstrants were condemned at Dort. In the Pilgrims' view, only the Bible and Apostles' Creed (which they thought had been composed by the Apostles) could be obligatory - everything else was inevitably imperfect because all things human are imperfect. Their colony became relatively tolerant because of this literalist understanding of the story of the Fall in Genesis.

With the Mayflower Compact, the Pilgrims established independent democratic government in their colony. Introducing the Dutch custom of civil marriage registration, the Pilgrims provided equitable laws for all colonists, whether or not members of the Pilgrim church. With their constitution of 1636, they conceived a representative government that gave no role to the clergy. Recognizing the Indians as equal creatures, the Pilgrims attempted to provide fair treatment for all in their courts; and they acquired land exclusively by sale or trade from the Indians who were understood to be the proper owners. Through their familiarity with the Dutch Union of Utrecht (1579), the Pilgrims helped form the United Colonies of New England (1643) on that model - a model that in turn served to inform the confederation structure of American independence in the late 18th century. Without any emphasis on presentism or triumphalism the book shows how the Pilgrims affected the societies in which they lived and were in turn affected by them.