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Pilgrim Fathers (act. 1620) were the separatist exiles from England to the Netherlands who in 1620 founded Plymouth Colony in what became Massachusetts. The collective title appears first in eighteenth-century commemorative poetry, where ‘pilgrim’—a term the settlers applied to themselves and other earnest Christians who were ‘strangers and pilgrims on the earth’ (Hebrews 11: 13)—is elided with the patriarchal piety of the phrase ‘founding fathers’, referring to their role in American history. They originated about 1605 or 1606 in the area of Scrooby, Nottinghamshire. Their minister, Richard Clifton, formerly rector at Babworth, was assisted by John Robinson from Sturton-le-Steeple, who had been dean of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and then preacher at St Andrew's Church in Norwich. The separatists' deacon, William Brewster, opened his house, Scrooby Manor, to the meetings of these covenanted believers who rejected the authority of the national church and its episcopal hierarchy. A similarly covenanted congregation formed under the leadership of John Smyth in nearby Gainsborough, Lincolnshire. Pursued in court by ecclesiastical and civic authorities, in 1607 and 1608 both groups fled to Amsterdam in the United Provinces, where they initially joined, then withdrew from, a like-minded refugee congregation settled there since the 1590s, led by Francis Johnson and Henry Ainsworth.

The refugees attempted to pattern their religious life on New Testament example, avoiding association with what they considered the impurity of any national church (whose geographic organizational boundaries counted all parish residents as members without regard to quality of religious experience). Smyth went so far as to reject his own Church of England baptism. Rebaptizing himself and then his followers, Smyth formed a congregation. After Smyth died in 1612 some of his followers were accepted into one of Amsterdam's Mennonite congregations. Smyth's assistants Thomas Helwys and John Murton returned to England and gathered a congregation that marks the origin of the General Baptist church.

In early 1609 Clifton and Smyth debated extensively about scriptural warrant for infant baptism. When Smyth persisted in calling all supporters of infant baptism heretics, the groups parted, and John Robinson led most of the Scrooby refugees to Leiden. Clifton, however, remained in Amsterdam to assist Johnson, whose own congregation was the focus of scandalous rumour. Robinson's congregation arrived in Leiden at the beginning of the twelve years' truce in the war for Dutch independence from Hapsburg rule. The truce stimulated rapid economic expansion in Leiden, with employment for refugees especially in the cloth industry. Protestant refugees, mostly Flemish and Walloon, made up about a third of the town's population. The separatist congregation grew from about 100 adult members to around 400 families (according to their own estimate about 1618). English sympathizers joined from East Anglia, Kent, and London. Some English soldiers garrisoned in Leiden joined, most notably Myles Standish, their future military leader. Theologically the congregation asserted their agreement with the Calvinism of the Belgic confession, differing from the Reformed church only on the point of organization by independent congregations without ‘classes’ and synods. Pilgrims sometimes attended Reformed services in Dutch and French, and they welcomed numerous visitors, including Henry Jacob and William Ames. Some Walloon (or Huguenot) refugees already in Leiden joined them, as did Dutch. By 1620 the congregation consisted of people from many geographic origins, united by a shared religious attitude. Many became weavers or worked in related trades, or as tailors, carpenters, or labourers. Brewster published books in English, Latin, and Dutch, to spread the Pilgrims' ideas. The books were sold in the Netherlands, in Britain, and at the Frankfurt book fair. Brewster also taught English to university students. Robinson developed his theology in a series of published responses to attacks by Joseph Hall, Richard Bernard, and John Murton. Professor Johannes Polyander, the successor to Franciscus Gomarus, invited Robinson to debate with Professor Simon Episcopius, the leading proponent of Jacobus Arminius's ideas on grace and free will. Robinson defended the Gomarists in the arguments about predestination that gripped the country. Syllogistic reasoning based on the analytical methods of Petrus Ramus (Pierre de la Ramée) and Giacomo Zabarella gave Robinson's exegesis an air of urgent, innovative, and incontrovertible authority that must explain his followers' willingness to emigrate first to the Low Countries, and then as social conditions changed, to New England. That biblical explanation could be practised as a form of logic (viewing the entire book as a field of related points that needed to be understood as elements of syllogisms) underlies the practice of lay ‘prophesy’ in which all men in the congregation might discuss possible interpretations of scripture under the guidance of the clergy. Robinson held that the primacy of truth meant that women were to be allowed to speak up against perceived injustice or impropriety of doctrine, despite subordinate biblical injunctions that women were to remain silent in the congregation.

Robinson gradually shifted away from rigid separatism towards a cautious toleration of religious dissent and variety of practice. He was vilified by some contemporaries for his willingness to listen to godly members of the Church of England. Discussions in 1617 with Pieter Twisck, the Dutch Mennonite author of a book on toleration, Religions vryheyt (1609; ‘Religion's freedom, a brief chronological description of the freedom of religion against the coercion of conscience’), probably contributed to the moderation of Robinson's thought that is basic to the Pilgrim colony's relatively mild treatment of Quaker and Baptist dissenters in later years.

In 1618 the military coup by Prince Maurice of Orange brought suppression of dissent in the United Provinces and a certainty of return to war with Spain. From 1619 independent ministers were forbidden; discussion of religion in private homes was no longer allowed; care for widows, orphans, and the aged was organized solely under Dutch Reformed control (raising the spectre of forced assimilation). English military assistance was being negotiated on condition that the English government had supervision over all English-language congregations in the Netherlands. English diplomatic efforts succeeded in suppressing Brewster's publishing activities, forcing him into hiding. These conditions formed the background to the decision to move to northern Virginia, then beginning to be known as New England.

Supported by a company of English investors, the Leiden émigrés obtained a charter to found an English colony at the mouth of the Hudson River. The Leiden group, swelled by a smaller number of settlers organized by the investors, emigrated in 1620 on the Mayflower. (Several other ships brought more colonists in the next dozen years.) Arriving at Cape Cod in November 1620, the colonists were prevented by prevailing winds from reaching their intended destination. Among the Mayflower passengers were ‘strangers’ (probably meaning foreign refugees who had been living in England, who were added to the group by the investors). Discontented strangers asserted their intention to be free from subordination to English law if settlement occurred outside the limits of the land granted by charter. Responding, the leaders drafted a document—now known as the ‘Mayflower compact’—by which the signatories acknowledged the king of England as their sovereign and pledged submission and obedience to laws they themselves would enact and to leaders they would choose. All adult men not bound as servants signed. This civil covenant established a democratically elective government. The colonists viewed it as their foundation, considering official charters obtained later to cover their actual location as augmentations of it.

Adequate shelters could not be built until spring. Half the colonists died in the first winter, including the governor, John Carver. William Bradford succeeded Carver, serving thirty one-year terms. During the summer of 1621 the Pokanoket Indian leader Massasoit and the Pilgrims, represented by Edward Winslow, negotiated a treaty of mutual friendship, defence, and assistance that lasted until the outbreak of King Philip's War (1676). (Plymouth Colony did not participate in the Pequot War of 1637.) Massasoit confirmed the Europeans' tenure of the land they occupied, which was empty following a devastating epidemic three years earlier. Tisquantum (d. 1622), a Patuxet Indian who had learned English in England, taught the Pilgrims aspects of native farming. After the colonists' first harvest, the survivors celebrated for several days according to the Old Testament injunction for the feast of tabernacles (Deuteronomy 16: 13–14), inviting the ‘strangers … within [their] gates’ (as they considered the Indians to be). About ninety Indians participated, and when they perceived the inadequacy of the settlers' supplies, they went hunting and returned with three deer they presented as gifts. Inspired by Leiden's 3 October thanksgiving for the lifting of the siege of the city in 1574, the Pilgrims' festivity included prayers, feasting, military exercises, and games. In the nineteenth century the 1621 event served in the promotion of the American national holiday and became known as ‘the first thanksgiving’.

For the first seven years the colony, including settlers' labour, was effectively mortgaged to the investors. Neither personal real property nor individual profit from produce was possible. Experiments in land distribution resulted in quasi-personal, non-rotating assignments of fields. About 1646 Bradford interpreted this situation as a move away from communalism, but Bradford was warning against the Levellers and his later characterization is inaccurate for the mortgaged, capitalist system of the early 1620s. In 1627 a small group of colonists purchased the remaining debt, which they expected to pay off from profits from the fur trade, now restricted to them. Plymouth Colony's northern outpost on the Kennebec River (sold in 1661) was one of several that facilitated these Pilgrims' fur trade. Reorganizing the colony's debt opened the possibility of private land ownership. The existing personal assignments were confirmed as property. Further land grants followed. Soon new towns arose as private farms were laid out at some distance from Plymouth.

In 1633 Edward Winslow became governor. He presided over the drafting of the colony's distinctly non-theocratic constitution. In keeping with Robinson's views, church membership was not made obligatory for suffrage; the clergy were given no role in government; creditors were restrained from impoverishing widows and orphans by collecting the unpaid debts of the deceased. On advice from Roger Williams, then preaching in Plymouth's church, the court determined that private colonists could not acquire land directly from Indians. Indian land had to be obtained by fair sale, exchange, or gift to the court, which in turn saw to its distribution to individual colonists. This system was intended to protect the legal rights of Indian landowners (as equal subjects of the English king, by treaty). Not until the 1660s was there any perception of the cumulative negative effects on Indian society of transfer of large tracts of land to be cleared of timber and fenced.

As towns were established, it became inconvenient for all freemen to attend every court session. From 1636 elected representatives called ‘selectmen’ were sent to court by the towns. After Plymouth (1620), Duxbury, Scituate, and Marshfield were settled by 1636; Sandwich, Yarmouth, Barnstable, Taunton, Rehoboth, Eastham, and Middleborough by 1646. In the next twenty years Bridgewater and Falmouth were settled and land between the settlements was cleared. The pressure on Indian hunting areas grew steadily as towns spread towards each other. King Philip's War was primarily a response to land loss, which brought with it major changes to Indian economy and social custom.

Plymouth's poor harbour contrasted with that of Boston, soon a superior competitor, while the rapidly increasing population of Massachusetts Bay Colony threatened Plymouth's territorial integrity. Membership of the New England confederation (1643) was a defensive measure, not only against possible Indian attack but also against encroachments by Massachusetts. Winslow was sent to London to represent the interests of the federated colonies in government committees. Rising in importance, in 1649 he was one of the founders of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England; from that year to 1654 he was a member of the committees for advance of money, compounding, sequestrations, and petitions; and in 1654 he was named to a committee established by the treaty of Westminster to resolve differences between England and the Netherlands after their first war—an appointment by Cromwell and by the Dutch states. Winslow died in 1655 while serving as chief civil adviser to the English expedition to Jamaica. Other important leaders in the colony were the international traders Isaac Allerton, Peter and Anthony Collamore, and John Cushing; the ministers Charles Chauncy and Henry Dunster, who also served as presidents of Harvard College; William Vassall, who brought complaints against Massachusetts's tyranny before parliamentary committees in London; and the philosopher Ralph Cudworth's brother James, a magistrate from Scituate (the colony's largest town in the second half of the century). James Cudworth was the co-author with George Fox and John Rous of an important complaint against the persecution of New England's Quakers, published in London in 1659.

Plymouth Colony was absorbed into the Massachusetts province in 1691.

Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs


E. Arber, ed., The story of the Pilgrim Fathers, 1606–1623: as told by themselves, their friends, and their enemies (1897) · J. D. Bangs, Indian deeds: land transactions in Plymouth Colony, 1620–1691 (2002) · J. D. Bangs, Pilgrim Edward Winslow, New England's first international diplomat: a documentary biography (2004) · J. D. Bangs, The seventeenth-century town records of Scituate, Massachusetts, 3 vols. (1997–2001) · Bradford's history ‘Of Plymouth plantation’: from the original manuscript (Boston, 1901) · R. Harris, S. K. Jones, and others, The Pilgrim Press: a bibliographical and historical memorial of the books printed at Leyden by the Pilgrim Fathers, ed. R. Breugelmans (1987) · G. D. Langdon, Pilgrim colony: a history of New Plymouth, 1620–1691 (1966) · R. A. McIntyre, Debts hopeful and desperate: financing the Plymouth Colony (1963) · The works of John Robinson, ed. R. Ashton, 3 vols. (1851) · N. B. Shurtleff and D. Pulsifer, eds., Records of the colony of New Plymouth in New England, 12 vols. (1855–61) · E. A. Stratton, Pilgrim colony: its history and people, 1620–1691 (Salt Lake City, 1986) · E. Winslow and others, A relation or journall of the beginning and proceedings of the English plantation setled at Plimoth in New England (1622)