If life was good in Leiden, Holland, why did the pilgrims depart for the New World? William Bradford gave several reasons:
- They were working hard but living in small houses and their families were growing
- They were beginning to experience extreme poverty
- Their children were becoming more Dutch than they were English
- The Netherlands was too liberal and they feared for their children
- Threat of war from Catholic Spain
- King James of England would fight against Spain, but would take control of all Dutch congregations
- Their religious freedom was under threat
- They strongly opposed the many followers of Jacobus Armenius’ doctrine in Leiden
- The pilgrim printing press of William Brewster had been confiscated by the British Ambassador, and he had to go into hiding
- It was increasingly difficult to maintain their language, religion and habits
So they began to make preparations for leaving Holland. It was not going to be easy. Only one third of their six hundred-plus congregation could go. This meant that the one they most wanted to go–John Robinson–would have to stay behind. When it came time for departure, Robinson declared a day of fasting and prayer, culminating in a farewell dinner that celebrated with goose, pudding and wine; along with the singing of psalms. Edward Winslow wrote:
We refreshed ourselves, after our tears, with the singing of Psalms, making joyful melody in our hearts as well as with the voice, there being many in the congregation very expert in music; and indeed it was the sweetest melody that ever mine ears have heard. [The Light and the Glory, Peter Marshall & David Manuel, pg. 113]
Many accompanied them by barge to Delftshaven (Rotterdam).
The chosen boat–the Speedwell–was loaded with all the supplies, and before departure, John Robinson knelt on the dock and prayed for them, as they followed his lead in kneeling. They sailed for Southampton, where they would meet the ninety-ton Mayflower and a good number of “strangers” that would make the voyage with them. It’s interesting that the colonies here would be founded by people of various faiths, some of no faith at all. They came from different backgrounds and careers. They wanted to establish a free and open society. It truly was a remarkable event.
John Robinson didn’t live much longer after the Pilgrims left; he died in Leiden in 1625 and is buried at Pieterskerk. There are signs for him inside and outside of the church. This is what it says (note that the dates are of his ministry in Leiden to the pilgrims):
In Memory of
Pastor of the English Church in Leyden
1609 – 1625
His Broadly Tolerant Mind
Guided and Developed the Religious Life of
THE PILGRIMS OF THE MAYFLOWER
of Him These Walls Enshrine All That Was Mortal
His Undying Spirit
Still Dominates the Consciences of a Mighty Nation
In the Land Beyond the Seas
This tablet was erected by the General Society of Mayflower
Descendants in the United States of America A.D. 1928.
This sign memorializes family members that died in Leiden before the journey to America. Included are children of both Isaac Allerton and John Allerton, Robert Cushman’s wife and children, Samuel Fuller’s wife and child, William Brewster’s child and John Robinson’s three children.
These brave people faced many hardships, but their days were only going to get harder, for 1/2 of the pilgrims would die in the first harsh winter in America.
It appears that the fears of the Pilgrims regarding staying in Holland were well founded. It was true that the Dutch society caused the church to merge into the culture. A sign in the church says this:
For a small minority like the Pilgrims, it was difficult to maintain their own language, religion and habits. There were several marriages with Walloons, who had similar religious viewpoints. After many of the Pilgrims left for America it proved impossible to remain a clearly defined community. After their own preacher Robinson died, the people left behind in Leiden joined Dutch churches and, after 1630, the English reformed church. Finally the group merged into the Leiden population.
I had always heard that they fled to America for religious freedom, but it was also about not losing the specific doctrines and beliefs that they held so sacred. They were concerned for their children above all. Their leaders had often debated with other religious leaders in public, such as follower of Jacobus Arminius, who is buried in Pieterskerk.
Another thing I had not known previously was that the tradition of Thanksgiving most likely came from Leiden. It had been a custom there since October 3, 1574. From another sign in the church:
After the siege of 1574 it became custom to have an annual service of thanksgiving in St. Peter’s Church, for the liberation and the delivery of food to a hungry city. Herring and white bread are distributed to remind people of the ships with food that came into the city via the river Vliet. People also eat “hotspot,” a kind of vegetable stew that the Spaniards are reputed to have left behind. Some people believe that Thanksgiving Day consists of elements of this celebration added onto a harvest festival.
Another sign reveals the practice of civil marriage, which also came from Leiden:
Civil marriage is a Dutch invention. Normally, only a marriage performed by the state church was legal. Because the Republic had such a large Roman Catholic minority it was impossible to deny marriage to almost half the population. The justices could marry those who did not belong to the state church. Their own church could bless the marriage afterwards. Only the civil marriage was legally binding. The Pilgrims brought this invention with them to America.
Finally, the custom of elected administrators came from Leiden:
Leiden was divided into districts (bon) and neighborhoods (gebuurte). Chosen district governors ruled a city district. The district took care of fire fighting and prevention, preventing pollution, the collection of special taxes and the distribution of money amongst the poor. The neighbourhood took care of things like burial rituals and other neighbourly tasks. The election of civil administrators, as proscribed by the Mayflower Compact, can be traced back to this system and to the election of church officials.
As you can see, there is much to learn about the Pilgrim Fathers from travels and from many great books. I would recommend The Light and the Glory, by Peter Marshall and David Manuel, Saints and Strangers, by George F. Willison, Mayflower, by Nathaniel Philbrick, and Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners, Leiden and the Foundations of Plymouth Plantation, by Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs. Of course, original books by the pilgrims are always great too — William Bradford, Edward Winslow, John Robinson, Thomas Morton and others. What courageous lives they lived, and all because of their deep religious beliefs and concerns that these be properly handed down to their children!