Why Seek the New World?
The people we know as Pilgrims have become so surrounded by legend that we are tempted to forget that they were real people.
Against great odds, they made the famous 1620 voyage aboard the ship Mayflower and founded Plymouth Colony, but they were also ordinary English men and women. To understand them, it is important that we look beyond the legend. This story will help you get to know these people, now known as the Pilgrims, through their first years in New England.
England was a Roman Catholic nation until 1534, when King Henry VIII (reigned 1509-1547) declared himself head of a new national church called the Church of England. Although he and his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603), changed some things that made the Church of England different from the Roman Catholic Church, a few people felt that the new Church retained too many practices of the Roman Church. They called for a return to a simpler faith and less structured forms of worship. In short, they wanted to return to worshipping in the way the early Christians had. Because these people wanted to purify the church, they came to be known as “Puritans.” Another group, considered very radical, went even further. They thought the new Church of England was beyond reform. Called “Separatists,” they demanded the formation of new, separate church congregations. This opinion was very dangerous; in England in the 1600s, it was illegal to be part of any church other than the Church of England.
The Separatist church congregation that established Plymouth Colony in New England was originally centered around the town of Scrooby in Nottinghamshire, England. Members included the young William Bradford and William Brewster. Like others who refused to follow the Church of England’s teachings, some of them were harassed, fined or even sent to jail. When they felt they could no longer suffer these difficulties in England, they chose to flee to the Dutch Netherlands. There, they could practice their own religion without fear of persecution from the English government or its church.
The Pilgrims in Holland (the Netherlands)
Although they had religious freedom, life in the Netherlands was not easy. The Separatists had to leave their homeland and friends to live in a foreign country without a clear idea of how they would support themselves. The congregation stayed briefly in Amsterdam and then moved to the city of Leiden. There they remained for the next 11 or 12 years. Most found work in the cloth trades, while others were carpenters, tailors and printers. Their lives required hard work. Even young children had to work. Some older children were tempted by the Dutch culture and left their families to become soldiers and sailors. Their parents feared that they would lose their identity as English people. To make matters worse, the congregation worried that another war might break out between the Dutch and Spanish. They decided to move again.