The Pilgrims who boarded the Mayflower were a diverse, disordered group of religious rebels.
In a richly detailed chronicle, British historian Tomkins (David Livingstone: The Unexplored Story, 2013, etc.) examines the violent religious conflicts that roiled England from Queen Mary’s reign to the advent of Elizabeth I’s nephew James. When Mary took the throne in 1553, she “embarked on a Catholic spring-clean” that involved defrocking, excommunication, torture and mutilation, hangings, and the public burning to death of accused heretics. “This is where the story of the Pilgrim Fathers starts,” Tomkins writes, “with Mary’s campaign to burn Protestantism out of England.” As violently as Protestants hated Catholicism, many deeply opposed the Church of England, whose “whole shape and organisation,” they believed, “were still founded on unbiblical Catholic principles,” with authority vested in the monarch and a hierarchy that bowed to—and remunerated—the pope. The author examines many reformist movements, the rivalries among leaders, and the beliefs that impelled them. Presbyterianism, for example, “raised the standard of active involvement of ordinary believers in their religion,” requiring discipline and “promoting the virtues that led to success in the growing arenas of industry and commerce.” Puritans, frustrated in their inability to transform the church from within, split off to form radical new sects that edited the Prayer Book, chose their congregation, and elected pastors and elders; “lay members could pray in their own words, preach to one another and even create a new church through a communal act of covenant.” Persecuted in England, some established themselves in the Netherlands. However, in the early 1600s, “life in Dutch cities seemed just too grim” for their church to survive, and young people, especially, were disgruntled. Longing for a brighter future, and seeing their “reflection in countless scriptural parallels, but above all in the exodus,” pilgrims undertook the arduous, four-month sea journey to Cape Cod. There, they created a settlement “governed by consent”—“an idea,” Tomkins notes, “with a future.”
A dramatic history of religious intolerance and oppression.