Four hundred years have passed since the epic voyage of the Mayflower, years which have enshrouded its story in myth and legend. The commonly held belief that the Mayflower carried intrepid religious refugees from persecution in England to freedom in the New World is only partially true. Less than half of the passengers aboard the vessel were Separatists; that is, dissidents separating their beliefs and religious rites from those of the Church of England. The remainder of the souls in the Mayflower were the ship’s crew and mechanics, artisans, and soldiers hired by the leaders of the Separatists. Their mission, to ensure the colony had the skills necessary to survive in the unknown, made them invaluable. The Separatists called them the Strangers, themselves Saints.
“Strangers and pilgrims”, a phrase which appears in numerous places in the Bible, gave the religious dissenters the name Pilgrims. Over history the word a became reference to all members of the party of 1620 which established Plymouth Plantation. Several of the Strangers became among the most famous of the Pilgrims, through their collective efforts to help the colony thrive. Among them were Myles Standish, John Alden, and Stephen Hopkins. In celebration of the 400th anniversary of the historic voyage of the Mayflower, here is the story of its planning, sailing, tenure in the New World, and return to England.
1. The Separatists weren’t fleeing persecution in England when they planned their voyage to America
In the early 17th century, several groups of dissenters emerged in England, dissatisfied with what they perceived as Roman Catholic rites permeating the Church of England. One group, the Puritans, wanted to purify the Church of such rites and beliefs. Another, smaller group, called themselves Separatists. They espoused separating from the Church entirely, at a time when English law made Church attendance and financial support mandatory. Rather than face fines, and potential jail time for debts for failing to pay them, they established a community in Leiden, Holland, about 1608. There, due to political issues involving England, Holland, and Spain, they soon found themselves in a quandary.
A military alliance between England and Holland against Spain placed the Leiden community of about 400 Separatists in danger of having their sect suppressed. Neither Catholic Spain nor Protestant England were known for religious tolerance. After several years in Holland, and aware of the improving conditions in the colony of Virginia, Separatist leaders began lobbying their followers to settle in the New World. They decided to travel to British America and settle in the vicinity of the mouth of the Hudson River, part of Virginia, but physically distant enough to manage their own affairs. To obtain financial support they entered negotiations with a Dutch company. English spies became aware of the negotiations, and informed their employers in London of the plans.