Why the Pilgrims Came to America

The following is an article from Uncle John's Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader

This article started off as a short list of facts about the Mayflower, the ship that brought the Pilgrims to America in 1620. But after doing a little research, we found ourselves immersed in a much more fascinating story than we anticipated -the tale of the Pilgrims’ journey to the New World and religious freedom. Here’s part one, which begins more than a century before the Pilgrims ever set sail.


Most modern democracies regard freedom of religion as a basic human right, but if you lived in Europe in the late Middle Ages, it was a very different story. The Roman Catholic Church was the state church in most of Western Europe. Although there were periods of tolerance for other religions scattered throughout the era, intolerance was largely the norm. But by the 16th century, things were beginning to change.

It all began with the Protestant Reformation, which traces it roots to the German monk Martin Luther, who in 1517 mailed his 95 Theses do the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg. Sharply critical of the corruption of the Church, Luther’s writings (which spread throughout Europe thanks to another new invention, the printing press) ignited the growing contempt for the Church in other countries. By 1534 the discontent had spread to England, where King Henry VIII cut ties with Rome and founded the Church of England, also known as the “Anglican” Church.


But Henry had a personal reason for the break. Luther and the other Reformers broke from Rome on religious principles -they wanted a Church without a pope, or bishops, not to mention corruption. The Bible was supreme, they said, and wanted it translated into common German (instead of Latin) so that common people could read and interpret it for themselves.

Henry’s reason: The pope wouldn’t grant him a divorce. His aging wife, Catherine, hadn’t given birth to any male heirs, so the king wanted to divorce her and marry his “consort,” Anne Boleyn. Henry defied the pope: he divorced Catherine and married Anne anyway… and was promptly excommunicated. So in 1534, he created a new state religion, the Church of England, proclaiming himself as its leader.


Henry VIII also had the Bible officially translated into English for the first time. (Seventy years later, in 1611, King James I commissioned a new English version -now known as the King James Bible.) But having a Bible in English just added more fuel to an already growing fire of dissent. Now that people could read the Bible for themselves, they questioned why they needed religious leaders to explain the Scripture to them at all. By then, some English Protestants had already banded together to “purify” the Church from its Roman Catholic traditions. Called Puritans by their enemies, they were shunned -often brutally. Yet they remained loyal to the Church of England, hoping to change it from the inside.

A few of the Puritans, however, saw the attempt as hopeless. For them, the Puritan movement was becoming just as strict and oppressive as the Church of England. These people only wanted to worship as they pleased and be left alone. Seeing no other outlet, they decided to “separate” from both the Puritans and the Church of England, forming congregations in the countryside where they secretly practiced their faith in basements and farmhouses. The punishment for being captured: imprisonment, torture, and in some cases, public execution. This group of religious refugees has been known by -and called themselves- many names: Separatists, Saints, Outcomers …today we refer to them as Pilgrims.

Their first spiritual leader was Richard Clyfton, a parson from Nottinghamshire, England, who spoke openly against the Puritan movement. More importantly, he openly defied the Church of England. Two young men who attended Clyfton’s sermons would one day play very important parts in the settling of America. One was William Brewster, who would lead the Separatists to the Netherlands; the other was William Bradford, who would lead them to America. But before any of that could happen, these “enemies of the state” first had to escape from England.


At the turn of the 17th century, secret congregations of Separatists lived all over England. William Brewster led a congregation in the town of Scrooby …and he was a wanted man. King James and the Church of England had mounted a campaign of oppression against these rebels and others who did not comply with the Church’s rules.

William Bradford was another Scrooby Separatist, and years later he would write History of Plimouth Plantation. Most of what is known about the Separatists, or the “Pilgrims” as we call them today, comes from Bradford’s History. Here is his account of their decision to leave England:

They were hunted and persecuted on every side, so as their former afflictions were but as flea-bitings in comparison of these which now came upon them. For some were taken and clapt in prison, others had their houses besett and wacht night and day… Yet, seeing themselves thus molested, and that there was no hope of their continuance there, but a joint consent, they resolved to goe into the Low Countries, where they heard was freedom of religion for all men.

The “Low Countries” he referred to were the Netherlands. Brewster and the other Separatists had relocated to Amsterdam, where there was no oppressive church rule and where, because the Dutch were frequent trading partners with the English, the Separatists felt they would be welcome. And they were …at first.


After a short time in Amsterdam, the Separatists settled in Leiden, Holland. But life wasn’t much better there. The few educated “Saints,” as the Separatists were called in Holland, found work at the University; most of them, however, settled for low-paying laborer jobs. In addition, the Leiden Separatists were often ridiculed for their devout faith by the local Dutch people (some Saints were even stoned in public). Many feared that their children were losing their English identity. On top of all that, the Dutch were preparing to wage war against Spain. So after a decade of struggle, most of the Separatists chose, as Bradford later wrote, to “return to the prisons of England rather than endure the hardships in Holland.”


King James, they knew, would not welcome them back.In fact, when he learned that several Separatists were returning, James threatened them with exile …unless they pledged allegiance to the Church of England. They refused.

But where else could they go? John Robinson, pastor of the Leiden Separatists in Holland, spoke of a place across the ocean, an English settlement called Jamestown. The colony had been established a few years earlier, and those who returned told of millions of unclaimed acres of fertile land. But there were dangers: lawlessness and anarchy in Jamestown, a few unprovoked Indian attacks, and heretofore unknown diseases. Bradford recalled the group’s hesitation as well as their resolve: “It was granted the dangers were great, but not desperate; the difficulties were many, but not invincible.”

Ultimately, emigrating was the only move that made sense. They were a people without a place, and this “America” was a place without many people. So in the spring of 1620, the decision was made- a small group of Separatists would make a pilgrimage to America and build a town that would welcome more of their brethren in the future. A delegation of Separatists asked King James to give them a charter and free passage to America; James refused, but promised not to arrest them if they left on their own. The first order of business: find a ship.


The first historical reference to the Mayflower is found in a 1609 Port of London record. The entry indicates that she was a merchant ship traveling between England and the Baltic ports of Northern Europe, transporting “hats, hemp, Spanish salt, hops, vinegar, and Gascon wine” to Drontheim, Norway, and returning with “tar, deals [lumber], and herring.” The ship’s master was Christopher Jones. (Only British naval ships had captains; merchant ships had masters.) The Mayflower was just one of hundreds of similar British sailing vessels. Even the name Mayflower was a common moniker for ships back then.

Although this Mayflower would become one of the most significant ships in history, to the Separatists she was little more than a ship for hire. And to Master Jones, the Pilgrims weren’t pioneers, they were paying customers …he hoped.

Jones named a price that was beyond the Separatists’ means. But they were determined to go to America, so they offered James and his crew food and valuables to make up the difference. The deal was done. But if Jones had even an inkling of the trouble that awaited him, he might have stuck to shipping cargo.


Time was of the essence. Midsummer was already approaching, and the Separatists needed to leave before the late summer storms began. They also needed to reach America by autumn to ensure sufficient time to build shelter before winter set in. Adding to the time crunch, they had to take the longer, northern route to avoid the tropical shipping lanes that were commonly patrolled by pirates. And at this point, most of the group wasn’t even in England -they were still in Holland.

It soon became evident that the Mayflower wasn’t large enough to carry the 140 passengers and everything they needed to build a town. So the Separatists hired a second, smaller ship called the Speedwell. After Pastor John Robinson’s farewell sermon, they set sail for America, wondering if they would ever see England again. They would …and soon: Shortly after they reached the open sea, the Speedwell sprang a leak.

Both ships had to return to port, where most of the passengers and their belongings were combined onto the Mayflower. There was now so little room on board that some of the Separatists who lived in England volunteered to stay behind and remain in hiding for another year. The rest jammed their families onto the already packed Mayflower. It was going to be a long trip.

The story of the Pilgrims’ journey and life in America will be continued next week.

The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader, a fantastic book by the Bathroom Readers' Institute. The 19th book in this fan-favorite series contain such gems like The Greatest Plane that Never Was, Forgotten Robot Milestones, Ancient Beauty Secrets, and more.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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Of course, as soon as they got settled in the New World, they interpreted their "religious freedom" to mean that EVERYONE had to subscribe to their form of religious belief, and began to persecute people with other beliefs just as much as those Sainted Pilgrims had been in England.

And this happened all over the New England states: Quakers in one state or RCs in another or Anglicans in a third all disdained or actively persecuted Christians who were "not like them". Rhode Island was formed to avoid this problem, but it is telling that RI is still the smallest state: Christians really prefer to persecute some other group if they can, all in the Name of the Loving Son of God.

Even now, you see this, in the demands for a "Christian state" or "Christian country": OUR form of belief MUST supersede all others, even if that means persecution and losing the message. Those "other" people aren't really Christians (which must surprise the victims), and certainly any other person with differing beliefs must be brought into the fold forcibly.

A pox on all your houses! Especially on those where they can't even read that Bible that is so "good".
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