when did pilgrims come to america
Pilgrim Fathers, in American colonial history, settlers of Plymouth, Massachusetts, the first permanent colony in New England (1620). Of the 102 colonists, 35 were members of the English Separatist Church (a radical faction of Puritanism) who had earlier fled to Leiden, the Netherlands, to escape persecution at home. Seeking a more abundant life along with religious freedom, the Separatists negotiated with a London stock company to finance a pilgrimage to America. Approximately two-thirds of those making the trip aboard the Mayflower were non-Separatists, hired to protect the company’s interests; these included John Alden and Myles Standish.
These first settlers, initially referred to as the Old Comers and later as the Forefathers, did not become known as the Pilgrim Fathers until two centuries after their arrival. A responsive chord was struck with the discovery of a manuscript of Gov. William Bradford referring to the “saints” who had left Holland as “pilgrimes.” At a commemorative bicentennial celebration in 1820, orator Daniel Webster used the phrase Pilgrim Fathers, and the term became common usage thereafter.
Thanksgiving is approaching, and before we turn on the football game or rush off to the mall, the more traditional among us will honor the day by reminding our families of the story of the Pilgrims. And in keeping with tradition, we’ll get much of the story wrong. Most of the inaccuracies will be trivial. In our mind’s eye, we’ll remember the Pilgrims decked out in black suits and enormous silver buckles, seated at a long table loaded with turkey and pumpkin pie. It would be more accurate to imagine them adorned in bright colors, seated on the ground, and enjoying turnips and eel, but these are superficial differences that don’t change the meaning of the story very much.
That’s not the case with how we remember the Pilgrims’ reasons for coming to America. Many people being to wonder around Thanksgiving time why the pilgrims came to America. The belief that the Pilgrims came to America in search of religious freedom is inspiring, but it’s just not so. Religious persecution had prompted the Pilgrims to move from England to Holland in 1608, but none of the Pilgrim writers so much as hinted that a desire for greater religious freedom led them to leave Holland for America in 1620. By their own account, Holland was a place where God had blessed them with “much peace and liberty.” They cited factors other than religious persecution in explaining their decision to seek a new home across the ocean.
Boiled down, the Pilgrims had two major complaints about their experience in Holland and why they decided to come to America: (1) They found it a hard place to raise their children and (2) an even harder place to make a living.
Dutch culture was too permissive, they believed. Pilgrim William Bradford commented on “the great licentiousness of youth” in Holland and lamented the “evil examples” and “manifold temptations of the place.” Compounding these challenges was what Bradford called “the hardness of the place.” Most Pilgrim families lived in houses with no more than a couple hundred square feet of floor space. The majority labored as textile workers, carding, spinning, or weaving in their own homes from dawn to dusk, six days a week, merely to keep body and soul together.
The Pilgrims’ justification for relocating to America reminds me of Jesus’ parable of the sower. You remember how the sower casts his seed (the word of God), and it falls on multiple kinds of ground, not all of which prove fruitful. The seed that lands on stony ground sprouts immediately but the plant withers under the heat of the noonday sun. The seed cast among thorns springs up and then is choked by the surrounding weeds. The former, Jesus explained to His disciples, represents those who receive the word gladly, but stumble “when tribulation or persecution arises for the word’s sake” (Mark 4:17). The latter stands for those who allow the word to be choked by “the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things” (Mark 4:19). In emphasizing the Pilgrims’ supposed search for religious freedom, we make the primary menace in their story the heat of persecution. As the Pilgrims saw it, the principal threat that they faced in Holland was not the scorching sun, but strangling thorns. To their credit, they were determined not to let the cares of this world weaken their faith or undermine their church.
This makes the Pilgrim story so much more relevant to us. When we hear of the Pilgrims’ resolve in the face of persecution in England, we may nod our heads admiringly and meditate on the courage of their convictions. Perhaps we will even ask ourselves how we would respond if, God forbid, we were to endure the same trial. And yet the danger seems so remote, the question so comfortably hypothetical. Whatever limitations we may chafe against in the public square, as Christians in the United States we don’t have to worry that the government will send us to prison unless we worship in the church that it chooses.
In contrast, the Pilgrims’ struggle with “thorns” speaks to us where we live. Their hardships in Holland were so . . . ordinary. They worried about their children’s future. They feared the effects of a corrupt and permissive culture. They had a hard time making ends meet. They wondered how they would provide for themselves in old age. Can you relate to any of their worries? If so, I encourage you to revisit the Pilgrim story this Thanksgiving season with new eyes. Set aside the caricatures—the ridiculous hats and silly buckles—and see instead their courage and perseverance and the heavenly hope that undergirded both.
The Pilgrims had their blind spots, but they were men and women of deep conviction who grappled with fundamental issues still relevant to us today. There is much in their example we might learn from.
America’s True History of Religious Tolerance
The idea that the United States has always been a bastion of religious freedom is reassuring—and utterly at odds with the historical record
Wading into the controversy surrounding an Islamic center planned for a site near New York City’s Ground Zero memorial this past August, President Obama declared: “This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are.” In doing so, he paid homage to a vision that politicians and preachers have extolled for more than two centuries—that America historically has been a place of religious tolerance. It was a sentiment George Washington voiced shortly after taking the oath of office just a few blocks from Ground Zero.
In the storybook version most of us learned in school, the Pilgrims came to America aboard the Mayflower in search of religious freedom in 1620. The Puritans soon followed, for the same reason. Ever since these religious dissidents arrived at their shining “city upon a hill,” as their governor John Winthrop called it, millions from around the world have done the same, coming to an America where they found a welcome melting pot in which everyone was free to practice his or her own faith.
The problem is that this tidy narrative is an American myth. The real story of religion in America’s past is an often awkward, frequently embarrassing and occasionally bloody tale that most civics books and high-school texts either paper over or shunt to the side. And much of the recent conversation about America’s ideal of religious freedom has paid lip service to this comforting tableau.
From the earliest arrival of Europeans on America’s shores, religion has often been a cudgel, used to discriminate, suppress and even kill the foreign, the “heretic” and the “unbeliever”—including the “heathen” natives already here. Moreover, while it is true that the vast majority of early-generation Americans were Christian, the pitched battles between various Protestant sects and, more explosively, between Protestants and Catholics, present an unavoidable contradiction to the widely held notion that America is a “Christian nation.”
First, a little overlooked history: the initial encounter between Europeans in the future United States came with the establishment of a Huguenot (French Protestant) colony in 1564 at Fort Caroline (near modern Jacksonville, Florida). More than half a century before the Mayflower set sail, French pilgrims had come to America in search of religious freedom.
The Spanish had other ideas. In 1565, they established a forward operating base at St. Augustine and proceeded to wipe out the Fort Caroline colony. The Spanish commander, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, wrote to the Spanish King Philip II that he had “hanged all those we had found in [Fort Caroline] because...they were scattering the odious Lutheran doctrine in these Provinces.” When hundreds of survivors of a shipwrecked French fleet washed up on the beaches of Florida, they were put to the sword, beside a river the Spanish called Matanzas (“slaughters”). In other words, the first encounter between European Christians in America ended in a blood bath.
The much-ballyhooed arrival of the Pilgrims and Puritans in New England in the early 1600s was indeed a response to persecution that these religious dissenters had experienced in England. But the Puritan fathers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony did not countenance tolerance of opposing religious views. Their “city upon a hill” was a theocracy that brooked no dissent, religious or political.
The most famous dissidents within the Puritan community, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, were banished following disagreements over theology and policy. From Puritan Boston’s earliest days, Catholics (“Papists”) were anathema and were banned from the colonies, along with other non-Puritans. Four Quakers were hanged in Boston between 1659 and 1661 for persistently returning to the city to stand up for their beliefs.
Throughout the colonial era, Anglo-American antipathy toward Catholics—especially French and Spanish Catholics—was pronounced and often reflected in the sermons of such famous clerics as Cotton Mather and in statutes that discriminated against Catholics in matters of property and voting. Anti-Catholic feelings even contributed to the revolutionary mood in America after King George III extended an olive branch to French Catholics in Canada with the Quebec Act of 1774, which recognized their religion.
When George Washington dispatched Benedict Arnold on a mission to court French Canadians’ support for the American Revolution in 1775, he cautioned Arnold not to let their religion get in the way. “Prudence, policy and a true Christian Spirit,” Washington advised, “will lead us to look with compassion upon their errors, without insulting them.” (After Arnold betrayed the American cause, he publicly cited America’s alliance with Catholic France as one of his reasons for doing so.)
In newly independent America, there was a crazy quilt of state laws regarding religion. In Massachusetts, only Christians were allowed to hold public office, and Catholics were allowed to do so only after renouncing papal authority. In 1777, New York State’s constitution banned Catholics from public office (and would do so until 1806). In Maryland, Catholics had full civil rights, but Jews did not. Delaware required an oath affirming belief in the Trinity. Several states, including Massachusetts and South Carolina, had official, state-supported churches.
In 1779, as Virginia’s governor, Thomas Jefferson had drafted a bill that guaranteed legal equality for citizens of all religions—including those of no religion—in the state. It was around then that Jefferson famously wrote, “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” But Jefferson’s plan did not advance—until after Patrick (“Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death”) Henry introduced a bill in 1784 calling for state support for “teachers of the Christian religion.”
Future President James Madison stepped into the breach. In a carefully argued essay titled “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” the soon-to-be father of the Constitution eloquently laid out reasons why the state had no business supporting Christian instruction. Signed by some 2,000 Virginians, Madison’s argument became a fundamental piece of American political philosophy, a ringing endorsement of the secular state that “should be as familiar to students of American history as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution,” as Susan Jacoby has written in Freethinkers, her excellent history of American secularism.
Among Madison’s 15 points was his declaration that “the Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every...man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an inalienable right.”