“They decided that God must be leading them to North America”: the Puritans journey to the Mayflower

Stephen Tomkins talks to Ellie Cawthorne about his book The Journey to the Mayflower: God's Outlaws and the Invention of Freedom, an origin story of the Mayflower that explores the troubled emergence of Puritanism in England

The Pilgrim fathers arrive at Plymouth, Massachusetts on board the Mayflower. (Photo by Harold M. Lambert/Kean Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Launched in 1620, the Mayflower voyage – which carried the first English Puritans to North America – had a long gestation period in EnglandBBC History Magazine’s section editor, Ellie Cawthorne, caught up with Stephen Tomkins to find out more about the Protestant separatist movement that eventually culminated in the journey…

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Ellie Cawthorne: How did Puritanism begin in England?

Stephen Tomkins: England had a state church at the time, which every person in the country would be expected to attend. Anyone who went against this would be breaking the law.

During Elizabeth I’s reign, the government knew they would have to deal with Catholics, but then a rather unexpected problem sprung up: Protestant dissenters. In 1559, Elizabeth introduced far-reaching church reforms, but many Protestants thought she hadn’t gone far enough. These people had lived through Mary’s attempts to burn Protestantism out of England – many of them had suffered and their peers had even died for the sake of reformation. And now it seemed like Elizabeth was taking a step back towards Catholicism. So a movement for reform in the church emerged. People felt so strongly about the need for change that they left and founded their own churches, which was completely illegal.

Context: Puritanism

Puritanism emerged under the Protestant regime of Elizabeth I, fuelled by dissatisfaction at perceived church corruption. The dissenters splintered into several groups – including Baptists and Brownists – all of which were illegal. Faced with fierce state persecution, they looked to move abroad, eventually turning to North America.


Listen: Author and journalist Stephen Tomkins discusses the rise of Puritanism in England and explains how state persecution led some Puritans to embark on the Mayflower voyage to North America in 1620


EC: What exactly did the Puritans want?

ST: The Puritans believed that the Bible has ultimate authority and gives us a blueprint of what the church should look like. This meant that they wanted to get rid of anything that wasn’t mentioned in the Bible, such as church decoration, priestly robes, or using the sign of the cross. It also extended to Christian rituals that didn’t appear in the Bible, like having godparents. Essentially, they wanted to streamline the church and focus more on sermons and the Bible.

Bishops also turned out to be an obstacle to the Puritans getting what they wanted. So they looked in the Bible and said, “Huh, no bishops in here either – let’s get rid of them too.” More radical Puritans joined the Presbyterian movement, which advocated a more egalitarian structure, where ministers and local churches worked together in synods, with no bishop or hierarchy above them. Others had an even more radical vision. They came up with the ‘congregational theory’ – instead of a minister being in charge, the congregation decided everything themselves. As the separatist leader Robert Browne put it, the voice of the people was the voice of God.

EC: How did underground churches operate, and how big were they?

ST: Anyone who established their own church could expect to have their services raided. Spies were known to infiltrate congregations, so they had to be as secretive as possible. Networks grew organically, spread by word of mouth. They met in woods and caves, on ships or in the top rooms of pubs – wherever they thought they could go undetected.

On one occasion, the bishop of London’s men even raided an illicit religious service masquerading as a wedding. It’s not clear how many people were involved. The bishop put the figure at 200, but the Spanish ambassador said 5,000. From the reports of members themselves, I would estimate that it was somewhere around 1,000, which is getting on for around 1 per cent of London’s population at that time. There seems to have been around an even number of men and women, and a fair spread of ordinary London people involved – from the lists of those arrested, we know that there were woodchoppers, goldsmiths and well-to-do bakers.

EC: Why was religious freedom deemed to be so threatening?

ST: The separatists started developing the idea that religion should be free and that the church should be a voluntary organisation. This was a totally new way of thinking at the time.

Although mainstream Protestantism said every person should read the Bible for themselves and follow their own mind, it also believed that everyone should agree on what Christianity is. Protestants believed that the church had to encompass an entire nation, and if it didn’t, it would lose control of society and civilisation would collapse. But once you have voluntary churches, of course, you simply can’t have a single state church controlled by the government.

Initially, the church started off by trying to persuade people back to the ‘right’ way of thinking, and the measures taken against these underground Christians were relatively gentle. But in the end, they found it wasn’t working, so they turned to stronger forms of coercion.

EC: What made the separatists decide to leave England?

ST: Whenever there was an attempt to crush separatism and impose conformity, there were waves of migration and exile. At points, if people didn’t leave the country, they faced imprisonment or execution.

Sometimes the government was even involved in arranging these exiles. In the early years of the first London movement, they sent letters recommending the separatists’ fervent Protestantism to the Scottish church in the hope they might resettle up there. But when they did, it didn’t last long. It was cold and, as it turned out, they didn’t approve much of the Scottish church either, so they came back.

In the 1590s, some separatists even negotiated a deal with the Privy Council to form a colony in Newfoundland. From the government’s point of view, this was both a chance to get rid of troublemakers and a colonial opportunity. Four separatists went on a scouting expedition, but once again the venture failed – one of their ships was wrecked, and they found that there were already more people out there, with fishing stations, than they had expected. Plus, the Canadian shoreline was a really hostile environment. You can understand why they would take one look and think: “OK, maybe not.” So throughout the period, there were people toying with exile, trying it out, finding it didn’t work and coming back again.

EC: Several groups also emigrated to the Netherlands. Why was that chosen as a destination?

ST: The Netherlands had probably the most tolerant religious regime in Europe. It had a reformed church, which the Puritans thought would be more according to their taste, and people were free to set up their own independent churches. Even Anabaptists, who in England were viewed with horror and burned at the stake, were free to worship.

But while at home these communities had been united by adversity, as soon as they were abroad they were plagued by infighting. The movement was thoroughly individualist, in that it was believed every person should follow their own conscience and interpret the Bible for themselves. But it was also communitarian. When anyone stepped out of line, it was the community’s duty to correct them and make them repent. Or kick them out, if need be. These churches were full of strong-minded, passionately committed believers who were willing to risk everything for their own interpretation of the Bible. But of course, when a whole congregation reads the 66 books of the Bible, they all find different things in it. And because of the type of passionate people they were, there was no way they could live with those differences.

They had to take a terrifying leap into the dark. If they had gone back to England, they would have been turning their backs on God

EC: After these failed ventures, why did they then turn to America?

ST: The separatists didn’t leave the Netherlands to escape persecution, so we have to find a different motivation. By 1617, the success of the church in the Netherlands was tailing off. The older generation were dying, and the younger were wandering off or assimilating into Dutch society, so it seemed like the English church would lose its distinction.

It’s also hard to overstate just how much they understood their own experiences as following the story of the Exodus, when the children of Israel were taken out of slavery in Egypt and led through the wilderness into the promised land. England was their Egypt, the land of slavery. God had led them out of that, and it turned out that Amsterdam must have been the wilderness, so where was the promised land? They didn’t know – it could be anywhere. But they had a deeply ingrained sense that they had to keep moving forward, even if that meant taking a terrifying leap into the dark. God was leading them onward and if they had gone back to England, they would have been turning their backs on God. In the end, they decided that God must be leading them to North America. Although they were terrified of the dangers from the environment and from the indigenous people, it was a clean slate. This was going to be their promised land.

EC: How did they prepare for the voyage?

About a third of the passengers on the Mayflower were separatists. But to finance the expedition, they also had to take others who were going there for their own reasons – or ‘strangers’, as they called them.

In order to launch their venture, the separatists needed investment for ships and provisions, but the negotiations were fraught with difficulties. They wanted to be taken under the auspices of the Virginia Company, but it took two years to negotiate a land grant. They had hoped to secure a fishing monopoly over a certain stretch of coastline. If they could make profits by sending the fish back to England, the colony was more likely to be a success. But that fell through. Then the separatists offered their investors a contract where they would work for four days a week on land owned by the investors. After seven years, the land would revert to the settlers. But that wasn’t a good enough deal for the investors and those contracts also proved a failure.

In the end, they had to sail without those investors. That was not the plan at all; they were supposed to be part of a colonial opportunity with proper financial backing. So they really were an intrepid bunch of pilgrims, heading to the other side of the world under their own sails and fending for themselves. It was a huge risk. They didn’t know what was in store, but they knew it would be a hostile environment. Indeed, half of them died in the first winter, so as it turned out they were absolutely right to be frightened.

EC: Four hundred years on, what do you think we need to remember about the origins of the Mayflower voyage?

The thing that emerged most powerfully while writing this book is how difficult it was for people in England to live under a one-state church. I’m a Christian, and I know a lot of fellow Christians who look back with nostalgia to a time when the country was united together in one church. But this story shows that a state religion is only ever sustainable by coercion. When faced with prison, exile or even death, people are forced to take huge risks to escape persecution.

When you take the freedom to practise any religion you choose for granted, you can quickly find that freedom slipping away – that’s why we have to hold onto it as tightly as we can.

Stephen Tomkins is an author and journalist. His book The Journey to the Mayflower: God’s Outlaws and the Invention of Freedom is out now (Hodder Faith, 384 pages, £20)

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This article was first published in the January 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine