400 years on: the Puritans who took their faith to the New World

Image: "Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor," by William Halsall (Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts)

By Jonathan Petre

The celebrated voyage of the Mayflower, which carried a cargo of Puritan separatists to religious freedom in the New World, is a seminal event in American history.

But the 400th anniversary of that stormy crossing by the Pilgrim Fathers has a particular resonance for me, as my family home for many years has a connection to those turbulent times.

International celebrations had been planned in the UK, the United States and the Netherlands on and around 6 September, the day in 1620 when the creaking, overcrowded ship set sail from Plymouth for New England. But then came the coronavirus pandemic.

Much will nevertheless be said about the small but determined group of “saints”, as they called themselves, who overcame hardship to establish a colony on the New England coast, and governed themselves through a “compact” of guiding principles that influenced the Declaration of Independence.

They marked their survival of the harsh winter of 1620-21 by holding America’s first Thanksgiving feast, and their legacy of Bible-based family values, pioneering spirit and fierce independence is woven into the country’s DNA.

More than 30 million Americans, from movie stars to presidents, can trace ancestry to the Mayflower voyagers and, had it not been for the pandemic, many would by now have been making pilgrimages to the UK to trace their roots in far-flung bucolic villages from Scrooby in Nottinghamshire to Bures in Suffolk.

On board the ship were about 120 passengers, men, women and children from differing walks of life, gentry to indentured servants. About half were radical Puritans who felt they could no longer compromise their faith by living under what they deemed to be the corrupt, “Popish” Church of England. The others, secular settlers set on making their fortunes, were dubbed the “strangers”.

Many of the Puritans came from Leiden in Holland, where they had earlier fled religious persecution in England to set up homes and churches in the more free-thinking city. But even there they feared their children were being tempted into ungodly ways. They yearned for a promised land — a modern-day Eden or utopian “City on the hill” — where they could start afresh and free from political and religious interference.

They were to drop anchor near Cape Cod in Massachusetts after a 66-day storm-lashed voyage, and over the first freezing winter many lost their lives. But thanks to their resilience and the initial help from members of the Native American Wampanoag tribe whom they befriended, the 47 surviving colonists were able to build primitive houses and plant crops, a bridgehead that was to inspire a nation.

Religious repression in England drove fresh waves of pilgrims to follow the Mayflower to unknown shores during what is known as “the Great Migration”.

My family had no idea when we first moved into Ferriers, a handsome manor house in Bures on the Essex-Suffolk border, that a former occupant, Herbert Pelham, had led a large group in 1639 to settle near Boston, then capital of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Herbert was born in Sussex about 1600, when Elizabeth I was still queen. At the time, a fierce battle raged between Biblical purists and high church traditionalists for the soul of the Church of England. After the accession of James I in 1603, Puritans who wanted to expunge Roman Catholic beliefs and practices pressed for reforms but were resisted by the bishops. The king did, however, sponsor a new English translation of the Bible, to which he gave his name.

Herbert’s family were Puritan sympathisers, and he and his siblings were influenced by reformers such as the Dorchester rector John White, a supporter of New England colonisation.

After marrying a member of a wealthy Essex family he moved from Dorset to Ferriers, became an investor in the Massachusetts Bay Company — an astute financial decision — and befriended several of the original leaders of the Mayflower expedition.

Among friends who visited Ferriers were the Mayflower passenger Edward Winslow, a future governor of Plymouth Colony. His son Josiah, also to become a Plymouth governor, would marry Herbert’s spirited daughter, Penelope. Another was William Bradford, who co-wrote with Edward the historic Mourt’s Relation, a narrative of the colony’s founding that ends with an account of the first Thanksgiving.

Puritans grew increasingly alarmed about the future of the Church of England when Charles I became king in 1625 and married a Roman Catholic. Their fears were further realised when  in 1633 he appointed a new Archbishop of Canterbury, the anti-Puritan traditionalist William Laud, who stepped up religious persecution. Many Puritans believed that England would be visited by some terrible judgment if it continued reverting to Papist ways.

Herbert emigrated in 1639 in a later wave of the fleet, led by the wealthy lawyer John Winthrop, a leading light of the Massachusetts Bay Company. He not only took his wife Jemima (who died during the voyage), four young children and his entire household, but also paid for like-minded local people from the Bures area to accompany them.

In the New World, Herbert acquired extensive property including four houses in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and became the first treasurer of Harvard College in 1643. He promoted a new plantation at nearby Sudbury and became a commissioner for the United Colonies.

But after family disputes over property, Herbert, who had remarried, returned to Bures and became MP for Essex in 1654 in Oliver Cromwell’s Long Parliament, not long after the beheading of Charles I.

He remained an influential backer of the colonialist project and was an original member of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England, which supported missionary work in the region, before dying at Bures in 1674.

Meanwhile, the arrival of a growing number of aggressive secular fur traders on the American east coast increased tensions with the indigenous tribes and a bloody conflict broke out in the mid-1670s.

The influential Wampanoag chief Metacomet, known to the settlers as King Philip, was killed and his highly prized belts, elaborately decorated with wampum shells, the local currency, were sent back to England in 1677 by Josiah Winslow as a war trophy.

Waldegrave Pelham, Josiah’s wayward brother-in-law who had inherited Ferriers from his father Herbert, was entrusted with presenting the wampum belts to King Charles II at court, but they were never delivered.

Ferriers is their last known location and the whereabouts of this regalia has become an issue during the preparations for the 400th anniversary commemorations as the neglected role of the indigenous tribes in the Mayflower story has come under greater scrutiny.

Before King Philip’s War, also known as Metacom’s Rebellion, there was much respect between tolerant Puritans and sophisticated leaders of the Wampanoag tribe, some of whom had visited England and could speak English.

In recent years, descendants of the Wampanoag people been pressing for the return of their “crown jewels” and after a request from the US government, the former prime minister Sir John Major instigated a search by the British Museum. Even the Royal Palaces have been asked to check their attics.

The mystery of the missing belts now features in a documentary funded by the British Arts Council and a touring exhibition on the Wampanoag and other tribes,

The author is grateful for the historical research carried out by his  sister-in-law Sara and brother Hugh, who now occupy Ferriers, and by Rebecca Fraser, author of The Mayflower Generation: The Winslow Family and the Fight for the New World