Founding father of Pilgrims set example for Americans standing up for religious freedom.
He was twelve when he began to have his doubts about the Church of England.
But unlike most of his neighbors, William Bradford of Austerfield, England, was not one to sit quietly by, saying and doing nothing.
In Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2006 book Mayflower, a portrait of breathtaking courage emerges of Bradford and his fellow believers, the 102 souls Americans know today as the Pilgrims. The English refugees from Royal tyranny who have long since been marbleized in the annual tableau of Thanksgiving did not have an easy time of it, and it is, in 2009, perhaps useful to take a moment and reflect.
Just what is it they accomplished that enables their literal and figurative descendants to spend a day chowing down on turkey and pumpkin pies after hours of parades and football games? How hard was this to do? What happened as they did this? In particular, for those Americans caught up in the howling winds of recession, the old true tale is perhaps a bit of perspective.
Over the entrance to young Bradford’s church in Austerfield, Philbrick tells us, was a stone carving of an open-mouthed snake. This lent a perhaps unplanned emphasis to the notion of English Puritans that the Church of England “had been poisoned ‘by that old serpent Satan.’” In any event, the youthful William made the decision to seek out a congregation of like-minded believers who believed that worshipping God was something to be done as God and the Bible, not the King of England, instructed.
This placed Bradford squarely on the inevitable path of breaking the law. In the century before Bradford arrived, English Separatists had been both jailed and executed for daring to believe other than their monarch. The coronation of King James in 1603 had begun to turn up the pressure even more. James was not a Puritan fan. He viewed them, says Philbrick, as troublemakers — which, if you were sitting on a throne whose occupant was not just head of state but head of church, was surely not an unreasonable perspective. Requesting the presence of the nation’s religious leaders at the royal estate of Hampton Court for what is known as the Hampton Court Conference, an angry James declared of the dissenters: “I shall harry them out of the land.” Which is precisely what he devoted his reign to doing.
This meant that the Separatists who formed a congregation in the small town of Scrooby, not far distant from the Sherwood Forest of Robin Hood lore, were gathering together in violation of the law. In 1607, the Bishop of York learned of this, promptly doing his duty to his King and his God. Members of the congregation were arrested and packed off to prison. Others were chilled to know their houses were being watched. Not surprisingly, they decided to leave England and take their beliefs with them.
King James may have threatened to “harry” them out of England, but in point of fact, one needed the King’s permission to leave the country legally. Leaving the country, in those days defined as heading across the English Channel to Europe. Surprise, surprise — the King was not about to give them that permission. In other words, they were to remain in England and worship as instructed — or face prison. Or death.
To which the Separatists responded by making a series of covert plans to secretly leave without the King’s permission. They would, they decided, take off in the dead of night — and escape to the Continent.
This was not easy. As Philbrick notes wryly, the attempt to flee “did not go well.” The first ship captain they hired turned them in to the King’s constabulary, in a town in Lincolnshire called “Boston.” The leaders served their time — and then the decision was made to try again. The second captain was Dutch — and more to the point he was trustworthy. Arriving at the appointed hour, boarding the ship on the southern bank of the Humber River — they saw trouble appear in the form of the local militia. Since the women and children were to board last, the distinctly unfeminist men doing all the literal heavy lifting of lading the ship while the women and children waited on the embankment — when the militia showed up unexpectedly the captain abruptly lifted anchor and took off. They got away — with a shipful of agonized male Separatists watching their weeping wives and children recede in the distance. The captain decided the best way to evade capture was to sail to Amsterdam. They made it. And yes, plans were immediately laid to do it all again — and the women and children, in another middle of the night scenario — this time minus the militia — finally made their way to Holland to join their husbands and fathers.
Once together in Holland, the reality of real religious freedom appeared. There were, it was now apparent, dissidents within the dissidents. Focused on resisting the King, once free of that restraint, not unlike the tale of today’s barking dog that catches the truck, the question presented itself: how exactly did these people wish to worship God? This minister and that minister had this or that idea, ideas that did not go down well with their congregations. One pastor refused to do infant baptisms, another, caught up in what Philbrick describes as “messy scandals,” airily sought to dismiss his critics by insisting that he as the minister, along with the church elders, could simply dictate policy to the congregation. In short, chaos.
With this, a leader in the group, one John Robinson, who like his flock had been forced into exile due to his Kingly problems, took a majority of the worshipers from Amsterdam to the Dutch city of Leiden. There they settled. And it was there that William Bradford, who had taken what he could of his small inheritance with him from England, “emerged as one of the leading members of the congregation.”
Bradford was a corduroy worker, and in 1613 became a new husband with his marriage to his beloved Dorothy May. In 1617 they had a son, John. Life in Holland was not easy, and Bradford’s business life suffered, resulting in a loss of a good bit of his inheritance. His response? His losses were “a correction bestowed by God…for certain decays of internal piety.” A Puritan, was Bradford, to the core.
Slowly the English Separatists got their act together, with Bradford and Robinson leading the way. So focused were these Separatists on their religious lives, however, that they had difficulty with the outside world of Leiden. Mostly farmers, they were in a city now, and the primary occupation of Leiden was commerce, which is to say there was nothing seasonal about intense work. It was, as we might say today, 24/7, an aspect of life that was something of a culture shock.
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