Who were the Pilgrim Fathers and what did they believe?

The group of English colonists who settled in North America and later became known as the Pilgrim Fathers originated as a group of Puritans from Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire. By 1605 this group had come to believe that their Christian faith was incompatible with the Church of England.


The pilgrims who risked their lives to settle in a strange land were more – and less – than folklore heroes. They were extreme Puritans, that is to say they disapproved of several of the rituals and practices of the Church of England that had been established by parliament at the beginning of Elizabeth I’s reign. They believed that the official church was too similar to the Roman Catholic church and they wanted forms of worship and church organisation that would, in their opinion, be closer to what the Bible taught. All Puritans were critical of the established church, but members of this radical fringe were ‘separatists’. They refused to attend their parish churches and, when the government imposed fines upon them, some decided to leave the country.

The Pilgrim Fathers disembark the Mayflower
The Pilgrim Fathers disembark the Mayflower, November 1620. Painting by WJ Aylward (Photo by Harold M. Lambert/Kean Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Why did they leave England?

Before setting sail for America in 1620, several of the pilgrims first settled in the northern Netherlands in the early years of the 17th century – there, immigrants were welcome and permitted to set up their own churches [as the breakaway, rebel-held northern Netherlands – the United Provinces – had seceded from the Spanish-controlled south]. Unfortunately, the pilgrims encountered many difficulties in their new homeland: they did not always see eye-to-eye with their Dutch neighbours and they often fell to squabbling amongst themselves over religious matters. Some eventually decided to move on.

Their discontent coincided with a growing interest in colonisation. The English and Dutch governments were both sponsoring the establishment of settlements on the North American coast. Having claimed the territory they called ‘Virginia’, the English government offered incentives to anyone prepared to travel there and develop plantation agriculture (mainly of tobacco). So it was that, in 1620, a minority of those who had settled in the Low Countries decided to move again – this time across the Atlantic. They returned to England for the express purpose of travelling on to the New World.

The would-be colonists planned to travel from England in two ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell. Unfortunately, the Speedwell proved unseaworthy and had to be abandoned. Meanwhile long delays depleted the colonists’ provisions and arguments among the travellers caused some to abandon the venture. Eventually, out of the 102 Mayflower passengers, only 37 were (strictly speaking) ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ – that is, religious exiles who had originally settled in the Netherlands returning to England in 1620 in order to travel to the New World.

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The nucleus of this group was made up of people who had originated in the separatist congregation established at Scrooby, Nottinghamshire, the place still regarded by many as the cradle of the Pilgrim Fathers. After two false starts, those determined not to be deflected from their purpose eventually left England aboard the Mayflower on 16 September 1620.

But did you know…

The Pilgrim Fathers were not democrats

Government of the people, by the people, for the people, was a political ideal unknown in 1620. European society and the political rules that organised it were hierarchic. William Tyndale, whose translation of the New Testament into the English vernacular was the literary cornerstone of the English Reformation, also wrote a treatise The Obedience of a Christian Man (1528), in which he stated quite categorically (and taking St Paul as his authority), “the king is in this world without law; and may at his lust do right or wrong, and shall give accounts but to God only”.

It was self-evident to most people that God ordained the structure of a ‘Christian commonwealth’ with the pope at the top, then the king, nobles, gentry and so on down the scale of political authority. Nothing was more feared (not only by those at the upper levels) than rebellion. The Reformation pioneer, Martin Luther, was the first to rush into print against the leaders of the Peasants’ War (1524–5) – men who claimed religious sanction for rising against their overlords. Religion fell within the remit of kings, for the prevailing principle was “cuius regio, eius religio”, interpreted as “the ruler’s religion is the religion of the people”. Nothing but chaos could ensue if subjects were free to believe whatever they wished.By the second half of the century, the impact of religious radicalism had smashed gaping holes in several of Europe’s Christian commonwealths. Several Protestant groups had emerged, each with its own definition of the faith. One senior English ecclesiastic complained:

“Not only are those heresies reviving among us which were formerly dead and buried, but new ones are springing up every day… On the other hand, a great proportion of the kingdom so adheres to the popish faction as altogether to set at nought God and the lawful authority of the magistrate, so that I am greatly afraid of a rebellion and civil discord.”

Those who would eventually set sail for America were part of the harlequin radical fringe. They had issues with the established church and had therefore removed to the Netherlands to enjoy ‘purer’ forms of doctrine and practice. But they did not challenge the right of every sovereign to dictate the worship and doctrine in his or her dominions. For James VI and I, those dominions included the territory governed in his name by the Virginia Company of London, and when the Pilgrims sought permission to settle in ‘his’ colony they drew up Seven Articles offering, in return for a measure of religious freedom, acceptance of the king’s authority and the doctrine of the Church of England.

In a letter of encouragement to the Pilgrims in 1620, the Reverend John Robinson, one of the venerable pioneers of their movement (though he remained in the Netherlands), revealed an ongoing commitment to traditionally hierarchic political and social conventions.

“…whereas you are become a body politic, using amongst yourselves civil government; and are not furnished with any persons of special eminency above the rest, to be chosen by you into office of government; let your wisdom and godliness appear, not only in choosing such persons as do entirely love and will promote the common good, but also in yielding unto them all due honour and obedience…”

They were not victims of savage, consistent official persecution

When James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603 he was determined to put an end to all the divisions that had plagued the national church for many years. He convened a conference at Hampton Court in 1604 and made clear that he would yield no ground to the separatists and would use the law to make them conform. However, he was better at issuing threats than at putting in place the machinery of consistent and effective persecution. This was left largely to the bishops and local magistrates, some of whom were in sympathy with the radicals. As a result, fines and other penalties were applied only sporadically.

What did make life difficult for many Puritans was the hostility of their neighbours. In part they brought this on themselves, by criticising not only the religious beliefs of the majority population but also their prevailing moral standards and cultural preferences. They condemned the theatre, popular music and even contemporary styles of dress. Unsurprisingly, then, the word ‘Puritan’ became a term of abuse and the holier-than-thou Puritan was, for many years, a stock figure of fun. The radicals were metaphorically pilloried by playwrights, balladeers, preachers, pamphleteers and others in charge of 17th-century media.

James VI and I
James VI and I was better at issuing threats than at putting in place the machinery of consistent and effective persecution/ (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Ill-feeling often ran higher among the separatists themselves than between them and their orthodox neighbours

Many of those who went into voluntary exile held strong beliefs backed by their own understanding of the Bible; they had suffered much for their beliefs and were not prepared to compromise them in the interests of harmony with other religious migrants. The Pilgrims were just one group of radicals among several who left England for the Netherlands or North America and who were divided amongst themselves over points of doctrine or church order.

The Pilgrims were just one group of radicals among several who left England for the Netherlands or North America

One such group were the disciples of Francis Johnson, a Yorkshireman who suffered imprisonment for his beliefs in the 1590s. He obtained permission to establish a settlement in Newfoundland but when that failed he joined a group of religious exiles in Amsterdam and ran a church with Henry Ainsworth, a fellow Cambridge graduate. Divisions soon arose over several issues, including, bizarrely, disapproval of Mrs Johnson’s ‘unseemly’ attire. This resulted, in 1610, in Johnson excommunicating Ainsworth and his supporters, who moved to another building. Though this was a rather extreme example of friction among the separatists, it was not the only one. The separatists were very good at separating.

By no means were all the Pilgrims Puritan refugees

In the early 16th century, many Englishmen had various motives for hoping to make a fresh start in the New World. The poor, the unemployed, insolvent debtors, vagrants, criminals fleeing justice and also Catholic families fleeing from persecution, all had reason to want to escape from a life that could scarcely be worse. And the government had reasons for encouraging migration. Having entered late into the colonisation of America, the Crown was eager to profit from the lands it was claiming. The Virginia Company was set up to pour into royal coffers the proceeds of mining the gold and silver deposits which it was hoped would be discovered. Failing that, there might be profit to be had from plantation agriculture. For that reason, attractive settlement schemes were devised, offering land to be paid for by a tax-in-kind of the expected harvests. Nor did it escape the government’s notice that encouraging migration (whether of criminals, religious idealists or other undesirables) was one way of tackling a mounting social problem.

The government was not alone in sponsoring this mercantile gamble. There were businessmen who smelled profit in joining the colonial scramble. One such was Thomas Weston, an unscrupulous entrepreneur. It was he who inveigled the Pilgrims into putting their business affairs in his hands rather than working directly with the Virginia Company, and it was he who chartered the Mayflower. Having done so, he filled the ship with whatever passengers he could persuade to sign up, which was why the separatists made up less than half of the complement.

The Pilgrims did not originate solely from Scrooby

According to popular understanding about the Pilgrims, they traced their origins from a worshipping group in Scrooby, Nottinghamshire, via Amsterdam and Leyden to Plymouth, Massachusetts. But there are several links missing from this chain of events, and those who had come from Scrooby constituted only a part of the body known to history as the Pilgrim Fathers.

The standard account of the foundation of the Plymouth Colony was written by William Bradford, a Yorkshireman who ended his life as governor of Plymouth. His conversion and nurture in the separatist faith began when, as an orphaned teenager, he joined the fellowship that met in the house of William Brewster at Scrooby and enjoyed the ministrations of the Reverend Richard Clifton of Babworth. This gathered church was also pastored by John Robinson, and it was he who, in 1609, led into exile those members of the congregation who decided to settle in Amsterdam where, thanks to a truce between the Spanish rulers and the rebellious leaders of the United Provinces, there was the prospect of a peaceful life.

A depiction of the Pilgrim Fathers leaving Delft Haven
A depiction of the Pilgrim Fathers leaving Delft Haven on their voyage to America, July 1620 (1878). (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Disturbance caused by the Johnson-Ainsworth conflict prompted some members of the group to move on to Leyden. Robinson’s church there was joined by at least 25 other groups of English settlers from different places. The Leyden radicals were not spared the curse of separation and re-separation and there were bitter conflicts between rival teachers. After 10 years, fragmentation and other problems prompted some of the exiles to make another move to America. Those who had come from Scrooby constituted only a part of the body known to history as the Pilgrim Fathers. And there were English migrants, including Clifton and Robinson, who remained in the Netherlands.

If someone else had written about the founding of Plymouth Colony he might well have given a different account of its origins.

The Mayflower enterprise involved some dubious moral activities

Once several members of the Leyden settler communities had decided to move on, it was increasingly difficult to draw back – whatever the difficulties and whatever the moral choices that might be involved. Dealings with the Virginia Company and Thomas Weston and his cronies, who were all working to different agendas, involved much soul-searching for these earnest Christians, some of whom decided to abandon the project at the last moment, either remaining in England or returning to the Netherlands.

One story often told to illustrate their dilemma is that of the four More children, born by an illicit union to the wife of a wealthy businessman, Samuel More. Determined to get rid of the bastard children, Samuel used his influence to have the infants placed aboard the Mayflower as “indentured servants”. Rather than protest at this inhumane behaviour, Brewster and some of his friends consented to act as guardians to the children.


Derek Wilson is the author of several books including The People’s Bible: The remarkable history of the King James Version (Lion Hudson, 2010) and Superstition and Science – Mystics, sceptics, truth-seekers and charlatans (Robinson, 2017)​. To find out more, visit www.derekwilson.com