Miles Standish - John S. C. Abbott

The Pilgrims in Holland

Elizabeth's Act of Uniformity.—Oppressive Enactments.—King James and his Measures.—Persecution of the Non-Conformists.—Plans for Emigration. The Unavailing Attempt.—The Disaster near Hull.—Cruel Treatment of the Captives.—The Exiles, at Amsterdam.—Removal to Leyden.—Decision to Emigrate to America.—The reasons.—Elder Brewster Selected as Pastor.—The Departure from Leyden.—Scene at Delft Haven.—The Embarkation.

Elizabeth, the maiden queen of England, commenced her long and eventful reign by issuing in May, 1659 a law concerning religion entitled the "Act of Uniformity." By this law all ministers were prohibited from conducting public worship otherwise than in accordance with minute directions for the Church of England, issued by Parliament. Any one who should violate this law was exposed to severe penalties, and upon a third offence to imprisonment for life.

England, having broken from the Church of Rome, and having established the Church of England, of which the queen was the head, Elizabeth and her counselors were determined, at whatever cost, to enforce entire uniformity of doctrines and of modes of worship. In their new organization they retained many of the ceremonies and much of the imposing display of the Papal Church. There were very many of the clergy and of the laity who, displeased with the pageantry of the Roman Catholic Church, with its gilded robes and showy ceremonial, were resolved to cherish a more simple and pure worship. They earnestly appealed for the abolition of this oppressive act. Their petition was refused by a majority of but one in a vote of one hundred and seventeen in the House of Commons.

The queen was unrelenting, and demanded uniformity in the most peremptory terms. Thirty-seven out of the ninety-eight ministers of London were arrested for violating this law. They were all suspended from their ministerial functions, and fourteen of them were sent to jail.

There were now three ecclesiastical parties in England—the Papal or Roman Catholic, the Episcopal, or Church of England, and the Presbyterian or Puritan party. The sympathies of the queen and of her courtiers was much more with the Papists than with the Presbyterians, and it was greatly feared that they would go over to their side. The queen grew daily more and more determined to enforce the discipline of the English Church. The order was issued that all preachers should be silenced who had not been ordained by Episcopal hands, or who refused to read the whole service as contained in the Prayer book, or who neglected to wear the prescribed clerical robes. Under this law two hundred and thirty-three ministers, in six counties, were speedily deposed. A Court of High Commission was appointed invested with extraordinary powers to arrest and punish all delinquents.

Any private person who should absent himself from the Episcopal Church for a month, or who should dissuade others from attending that form of worship, or from receiving the communion from an Episcopal clergyman, or who should be present at any "conventicle or meeting under color or pretence of any exercise of religion," should be punished with imprisonment and should be held there until he signed the "Declaration of Conformity." Or in default of such declaration he was to be sent to perpetual exile under penalty of death if he were ever again found within the British realms.

Notwithstanding that many were banished, and some died in prison and several were hanged, the cause of dissent secretly gained ground. As they were deliberating in the House of Commons upon a more rigid law to compel all to adopt the same creed and the same modes of Worship, Sir Walter Raleigh said that he thought that there were then nearly twenty thousand dissenters in England. Many driven from their homes by this violent persecution emigrated to Holland where, under Protestant rule there was freedom of religious worship.

Upon the accession of James the Sixth of Scotland to the throne of England, eight hundred clergymen petitioned for redress. Among other things they prayed for the disuse of the cap and surplice in the pulpit, for an abridgement of the Liturgy, for the better observance of the Lord's day, and for a dispensation of the observance of other holy days; that none but pious men should be admitted to the ministry, and that ministers should reside in their parishes and preach on the Lord's day. To this appeal the king turned a deaf ear. In a conference which was held upon the subject, in Hampton court, the petitioners were received with contumely and insult. The king refused to pay any respect to private consciences, saying, "I will have one doctrine, one discipline, one religion. And I will make you conform or I will harry you out of this land or else worse."

A book of Common Prayer was published as "the only public form established in this realm," and all were required to conform to its ritual and discipline as the king's resolutions were unchangeable. Ten of the petitioners for a redress of grievances were sent to jail. The king himself; a conceited pedant drew up a Book of Canons consisting of one hundred and forty-one articles, expressed in the most arrogant style of pretensions to infallibility. The clergy and the laity were alike commanded to submit to them under penalty of excommunication, imprisonment and outlawry. The importation of all religious books from the Continent was prohibited. No religious book could be published in England unless approved by a court of Bishops. It is estimated that, at that time there were fifteen hundred Non-Conformist clergymen in England. Bishop Coverdale, with many others of the most prominent ecclesiastics of the Episcopal church, publicly announced their refusal to subscribe to the Liturgy or to adopt the ceremonies it enjoined. In their protest they declared that since "they could not have the Word freely preached, and the sacraments administered without idolatrous gear, they concluded to break off from the public churches and separate in private houses."

The persecution of the Non-Conformists was continued with so much vigor, that the friends of religious reform became hopeless. Some sought refuge in concealment, while many fled from their country to Holland where, the principles of Protestantism prevailing, there was freedom of worship. In the county of Nottinghamshire, England, there was a small village called Scrooby, where there was a congregation of Non-Conformists, meeting secretly from house to house. This was about the year 1606. A recent traveler gives the following interesting description of the present appearance of the little hamlet, which more than two and a half centuries ago was rendered memorable by the sufferings of the Puritans:

"The nearest way from Austerfield to Scrooby is by a path through the fields. Unnoticed in our history as these places have been till within a few years, it is likely that when, towards sunset on the 15th of September 1856, I walked along that path, I was the first person, related to the American Plymouth, who had done so since Bradford trod it last before his exile. I slept in a farmhouse at Scrooby and reconnoitered that village the next morning. Its old church is a beautiful structure. At the distance from it of a quarter of a mile the dyke, round the vanished manor house, may still be traced; and a farmer's house is believed to be part of the ancient stables or dog kennels. In what was the garden is a mulberry tree so old that generations, before Brewster, may have regaled themselves with its fruit. The local tradition declares it to have been planted by Cardinal Wolsey, during his sojourn at the manor for some weeks after his fall from power."

The little church of Non-Conformists at Scrooby had Richard Clifton for pastor and John Robinson for teacher. William Brewster, who subsequently attained to much distinction as pastor of the Puritan church in Plymouth, New England, was then a private member of the church. This little band of Christians decided to emigrate in a body to Holland that they might there worship God in freedom.

It was a great trial to these Christians to break away from their country, their homes, and their employments, to seek exile in a land of strangers. To add to their embarrassments cruel laws were passed forbidding the emigration of any of the Non-Conformists or Puritans as they began to be called. Bands of armed men vigilantly guarded all the seaports. Governor Bradford, who shared conspicuously in these sufferings, wrote:

"They could not long continue in any peaceable condition, but were hunted and persecuted on every side. Some were taken and clapped up in prison. Others had their houses beset and watched night and day, and hardly escaped capture. The most were fain to fly and leave their houses and habitations and the means of their livelihood. Yet seeing themselves thus molested, by a joint consent they resolved to go into the Low Countries where they heard was freedom of religion for all men; as also that sundry persons from London, and other parts of the land, had been exiled and persecuted for the same cause, and were gone thither, and lived at Amsterdam and other places of the land.

"Being thus constrained to leave their native soil and country, their lands and living, and all their friends and familiar acquaintance, it was much, and thought marvelous by many. But to go into a country they knew not except by hearsay, where they must learn a new language, and get their livings they knew not how, it being an expensive place and subject to the miseries of war, it was by many thought an adventure almost desperate, a case intolerable, and a misery worse than death. Especially seeing they were not acquainted with trades or traffic, by which the country doth subsist, but had been only used to a plain country life and the innocent trade of husbandry.

"But these things did not dismay them, though they did at times trouble them, for their desires were set on the ways of God and to enjoy his ordinances. But they rested on His providence and knew whom they had believed. Yet this was not all; for though they could not stay, yet were they not suffered to go; but the ports and havens were shut against them; so as they were fain to seek secret means of conveyance, and to bribe and fee the mariners, and give extraordinary rates for their passages. And yet they were often betrayed, many of them, and both they and their goods intercepted and surprised, and thereby put to great trouble."

The company at Scrooby however secretly chartered a vessel, at Boston, in Lincolnshire, about fifty miles southeast from Scrooby, the nearest port for their purpose. The peril of the enterprise was so great that they had to practice the utmost caution and to pay exorbitant passage money. They travelled by land to the appointed rendezvous, where to their bitter disappointment, they found neither captain nor vessel. After a long delay and heavy expenses, for which they were quite unprepared, the vessel made its appearance and, in the night, all were received on board. Then this infamous captain, having previously agreed to do so for his "thirty pieces of silver," betrayed them, and delivered them all up to the search officers.

Rudely they were seized, their trunks broken open, their clothing confiscated, and even the persons of their women searched with cruel indelicacy. Thus plundered and outraged they were placed in open boats and taken to the shore, where they were exhibited to the derisive gaze and the jeers of an ignorant and a brutal populace. A dispatch was immediately sent to the Lords of the Council in London, and they were all committed to prison. After gloomy incarceration for a month, Mr. Brewster and six others of the most prominent men were bound over for trial, and the rest were released, woe-stricken, sick and impoverished, to find their way back, as best they could, to the Scrooby which they had left, and where they no longer had any homes. Oh man! what a fiend hast thou been in the treatment of thy brother man!

The next spring a portion of these resolute men and women made another attempt to escape to Holland. They did not venture again to trust one of their own countrymen, but made a contract with a Dutch shipmaster, from Zealand. He agreed to have his vessel, at an appointed day, in a retired spot upon the river Humber, not far from the seaport of Hull. Arrangements were made for the women and children, with their few goods, to be floated down the Humber in a barque, while the men made the journey by land. This was all done under the protection of night.

The Humber here swells into a bay, a long and wide arm of the sea. The wind was high, and the little barque, plunging over the waves, matte the women and children deadly sea sick. Having arrived near their point of destination, before the dawn of the morning and the vessel not yet having arrived, the boatmen put into a little creek to find still water.

Here the receding tide left them aground. In the morning came the ship. The captain, seeing the barque containing the women and children aground, and the men, who had come by land walking near by upon the shore, sent his boat to bring the men on board, that they might be already there when the returning tide should float the barque. One crowded boat load had reached the ship when a body of armed men, horse and foot, was seen rapidly approaching. The captain was terrified. Fine, imprisonment, and perhaps a worse fate awaited him. Uttering an oath, he weighed anchor, spread his sails, and a fresh breeze soon carried him out to sea.

Dreadful indeed was the condition of those thus abandoned to the insults and outrages of a brutal soldiery. Husbands and wives, parents and children were separated. The anguish of those, thus torn from their families, on board the ship, was no less than the distress of the mothers and daughters left upon the shore.

A storm soon rose—a terrific storm. For seven days and nights the ship was at the mercy of the gale, without sight of sun or moon or stars. The ship was driven near to the coast of Norway; and more than once the mariners thought the ship sinking past all recovery. At length the gale abated and, fourteen days after they had weighed anchor, the vessel reached Amsterdam, where from the long voyage and the fury of the tempest, their friends had almost despaired of ever again seeing them.

But let us return to those who were left upon the banks of the Humber. They were all captured. Deplorable was the condition of these unhappy victims of religious intolerance, women and children weeping bitterly in their despair. Some of the men, who knew that the rigors of the law would fall upon them with the greatest severity, escaped. But most of those who had been left behind by the ship allowed themselves to be taken to share the fate of the destitute and helpless women and children, that they might if possible, assist them. The troops were very cruel in the treatment of their prisoners. They were roughly seized and hurried from one justice to another, the officers being much embarrassed to know what to do with them.

Governor Bradford, who witnessed these scenes, writes:—"Pitiful it was to see the heavy care of these poor women in this distress; what weeping and crying on every side; some for their husbands that were carried away in the ship; others not knowing what would become of them and their little ones; others melted in tears seeing their little ones hanging about them, crying for fear and quaking with cold."

In view of their sufferings general sympathy was excited in their behalf. It seemed inhuman to imprison, in gloomy cells of stone and iron, women and innocent children, simply because they had intended to accompany their husbands and fathers to another land. It was of no use to fine them, for they had no means of paying a fine. Neither could they be sent to their former homes, for their houses and lands had already been sold, in preparation for their removal.

At last the poor creatures were turned adrift. No historic pen has recorded the details of their sufferings. Some undoubtedly perished of exposure. Some were kindly sheltered by the charitable, and some succeeded in various ways in crossing the sea to Amsterdam. There were similar persecutions in other parts of England. Quite a large company of pilgrims from various sections of England had succeeded, some in one way and some in another, in effecting their escape to Holland. They had nearly all taken up their residence in Amsterdam. This flourishing city was so called because it had sprung up around a dam which had been thrown across the mouth of the Amstel river. It was even then renowned for its stately buildings, its extended commerce and its opulence. Ships, from every clime, lined its wharfs; water craft of every variety and in almost countless numbers floated upon its canals, which took the place of streets.

From many parts of Europe Protestants had fled to this city, bringing with them their arts, manufactures and skill in trade. The emigrants from Scrooby were nearly all farmers. They had no money to purchase lands, and they found it very difficult to obtain remunerative employment in the crowded streets of the commercial city. Governor Bradford writes, of his companions in affliction:

"They heard a strange and uncouth language and beheld the different manners and customs of the people with their strange fashions and attires; all so different from their plain country villages, wherein they were bred and had so long lived, as it seemed they were come into a new world. But these were not the things they much looked on, or which long took up their thoughts. For they had other work in hand and another kind of war to urge and maintain. For it was not long before they saw the grim and grisly face of poverty come on them, like an armed man, with whom they must buckle and encounter and from whom they could not fly:"

The new comers did not find perfect harmony of agreement with those who had preceded them. After a few months tarry at Amsterdam they retired in a body to Leyden, a beautiful city of seventy thousand inhabitants, about forty miles distant. In allusion to this movement Governor Bradford writes:

"For these and some other reasons they removed to Leyden, a fair and beautiful city, and of a sweet situation; but made more famous by the university, wherewith it is adorned, in which of late had been so many learned men. But wanting that traffic by sea which Amsterdam enjoys, it was not so beneficial for their outward means of living. But being now established here, they fell to such trades and employments as they best could; valuing peace and their spiritual comfort above any other riches whatever.

"Being thus settled, after many difficulties, they continued many years in a comfortable condition, enjoying much sweet and delightful society, and spiritual comfort together in the ways of God, under the able ministry of Mr. John Robinson and Mr. William Brewster, who was an assistant unto him, in the place of an Elder, unto which he was now called and chosen by the church. So they grew in knowledge and other gifts and graces of God, and lived together in peace and love and holiness; and many came unto them from diverse parts of England so as they grew a great congregation.

"And if at any time any differences arose, or offenses broke out, as it cannot be but some time there will, even among the best of men, they were even so met with and nipped in the head betimes, or otherwise so well composed as still love, peace and communion were continued."

The condition of the Pilgrims in Holland was a very hard one. They were foreigners; they found the language difficult to acquire. They were generally poor, and notwithstanding their honesty and frugality, could obtain but a scanty support. Their sons were strongly tempted to enlist as soldiers, or to wander away as sailors. The future of their families seemed very gloomy.

"Lastly," writes Governor Bradford, "and which was not least, a great hope and inward zeal they had of laying some good foundation, or at least to make some way thereunto for propagating and advancing the kingdom of Christ, in those remote parts of the world, yea, though they should be but the stepping stones unto others for the performing of so great a work."

"Their numbers assembled at Leyden can only be conjectured. It may, when at the largest, have counted between two and three hundred persons. Rev. John Robinson was chosen their pastor, and William Brewster their assistant pastor."

Thus gradually the Pilgrims came to the conviction that Holland was not a desirable place for their permanent home. Notwithstanding the oppression which they had endured from the British government, they were very unwilling to lose their native language or the name of Englishmen. They could not educate their children as they wished, and it was quite certain their descendants would become absorbed and lost in the Dutch nation. They therefore began to turn their thoughts to the New World, where every variety of clime invited them, and where boundless acres of the most fertile land, unoccupied, seemed to be waiting for the plough of the husbandman. Hereby they thought they might more glorify God, do more good to their country, better provide for their posterity, and live to be more refreshed by their labors than ever they could do in Holland."

Unsuccessful attempts had already been made to establish colonies in Maine and Virginia. They had also received appalling reports of the ferocity of the savages. Deeply, solemnly, they pondered the all important question with many fastings and prayers. Bradford writes that,

"They considered that all great and honorable actions were accompanied with great difficulties, and must be both enterprised and overcome with answerable courages. The dangers were great, but not desperate; the difficulties were many, but not invincible. For, though there were many of them likely, yet they were not certain. It might be, sundry of the things feared might never befall; others, by provident care and the use of good means, might, in a great measure, be prevented. And all of them, through the help of God, by fortitude and patience, might either be borne or overcome. Their ends were good and honorable, and therefore they might expect the blessing of God in their proceeding."

The Dutch endeavored to induce them to join a feeble colony which they had established at the mouth of the Hudson river. Sir Walter Raleigh presented in glowing terms the claims of the valley of the Orinoco, in South America, which river he had recently explored for the second time.

"We passed," writes the enthusiastic traveler, "the most beautiful country that my eyes ever beheld. I never saw a more beautiful country or more lively prospects. There is no country which yieldeth more pleasure to its inhabitants. For health, good air, pleasure, riches, I am resolved that it cannot be equaled by any region either in the east or west."

There was a small struggling English colony in Virginia which they were urged to join. But Bradford writes that they were afraid that they should be as much persecuted there for their religion as if they lived in England. After pondering for some time these questions and perplexities, they decided to establish a distinct colony for themselves, obtaining their lands from the Virginia Company in England. A delegation was sent to the king of England, soliciting from him a grant of freedom of worship. The Virginia Company gladly lent its co-operation to the emigrants. The king, however, was so unrelenting in his desire to promote religious uniformity throughout all his domains, that though the Secretary of State, and others high in authority, urged him to liberality, he could only be persuaded to give his reluctant assent to the assurance "that his majesty would connive at them, and not molest them, provided they carried themselves peaceably."

The very important question now arose, Who should go. Manifestly all could not be in a condition to cross a wide and stormy sea, for a new world, never to return. As only a minority of the whole number could leave, it was decided that their pastor, Mr. Robinson, should remain with those left behind, while Elder Brewster should accompany the emigrants as their spiritual guide. For nearly twelve years they had resided in Leyden. The hour of their departure was a sad one for all. Many very grievous embarrassments were encountered, which we have not space here to record.

A small vessel of but sixty tons burden, called the Speedwell, was purchased, and was in the harbor at Delft Haven, twelve miles from Leyden, awaiting the arrival of the pilgrims. Their friends, who remained, gave them a parting feast. It was truly a religious festival.



"The feast," writes Winslow, was at the pastor's house, which was large. Earnest were the prayers for each other, and mutual the pledges. With hymns prayers, and the interchange of words of love and cheer, a few hours were passed." The pilgrims, then, about one hundred and twenty in number, accompanied by many of their Leyden friends, repaired on board canal boats, and were speedily conveyed to Delft Haven. Here another parting scene took place. The description of it, as given by Bradford, in his Brief Narration, is worthy of record:

"The night before the embarkation was spent with little sleep by the most; but with friendly entertainment and Christian discourse, and other real expressions of true Christian love. The next day, the wind being fair, they went on board, and their friends with them, where truly doleful was the sight of that sad and mournful parting. To see what sighs and sobs did sound among them; what tears did gush from every eye, and pithy speeches pierced each heart; that sundry of the Dutch strangers that stood on the quay as spectators, could not refrain from tears. Yet comfortable and sweet it was to see such lively and true expressions of dear and unfeigned love. But the tide, which stays for no man, calling them away that were thus loath to part, their reverend pastor falling down upon his knees, and they all, with him, with watery cheeks, commended them, with most fervent prayers to the Lord and His blessing. And then, with mutual embraces and many tears, they took their leaves one of another."