Monday, March 2, 2009

Freedom of Religion in the Myth of the Pilgrims

Virtually every school aged child in the US is taught at an early age that the desire for the freedom to worship as the conscience dictates motivated the Pilgrims to brave a perilous ocean journey and come to the new world. And it is true that the Puritans left England in search of the freedom of religion. But that they found that freedom in Holland is generally not taught. Nor are the reasons for leaving Holland for the new world generally given. The freedoms that the Puritans sought in the new world were more economic in nature than religious and, in fact, they felt that Holland had too much religious freedom. In some ways, the Pilgrim flight to the new world was a flight from religious freedom.

The persecution of the Pilgrims in 17th century England is certainly hard to understate. Many of their members were imprisoned for their beliefs. Quite frequently charges were trumped up against them. It took them three attempts to even leave the country as at that time British subjects could not leave the country without permission of the crown. The first time they were stopped by the authorities. The second time they were betrayed by the captain hired to smuggle them out of the country who turned them into the authorities for a bounty while keeping all of their belongings. On the third attempt, they finally were able to leave the country and settle in Holland where they began a life of manual labor. While the Pilgrims did find the freedom to worship according to their own consciences in Holland, their economic choices were severely limited. Between language difficulties and Dutch laws regarding vocational occupations, the Puritans found that the only jobs open to them were ones of physical labor.

In his tome on the Pilgrim experience, Of Plymouth Plantation, the eventual governor of the Pilgrim colony William Bradford gave four reasons that the Puritans decided to emigrate from Holland to the new world. Their life of physical labor was difficult, so much so that many of the Puritans ``preferred and chose the prisons in England rather than this liberty in Holland with these afflictions'' [Bradford, William, Of Plymouth Plantation, Edited by Samuel Eliot Morison, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf: 1952), 24.]. Further, this life of manual work ill-suited to a congregation increasing in age whose servants and children would not remain in such conditions. And under such conditions, in a place where the practitioners of other Christian sects tended to celebrate on Sundays with games and festivities rather than keeping it holy in somberness and sobriety in line with Calvinism, the Puritans were fearful that their children would abandon their faith for the ways of the native Hollanders or even to leave the community to join the English army. Lastly, the Puritans wanted to spread the Gospel to the remote parts of the world and the Americas were seen as such.

These four conditions can really be broken down into three: economic freedom, a religiously united community of the correct form of Christianity, and the opportunity to proselytize. From Bradford's account, it would appear that the economic freedom was the chief concern. As stated above, the life of manual labor that was open to the Puritans in Holland was so hard that some preferred English prisons. Those that remained in Holland also feared that they would not be able to keep up with the grueling physical work as they grew older. Further, They were also concerned that servants would abandon their masters and, even more importantly, that children would leave their parents. So rather than residing in a religiously pluralized nation where some other faiths might be more attractive to the children of the Puritans, the Pilgrims desired a home where there was only one religion, their own, enforced by the coercive power of the government. This religiously united community could then serve as a base from which to proselytize the native peoples of the Americas.

This fear that the Puritans had for the marketplace of religion and culture turned out to be well placed. Samuel Morison makes a note in his edition of Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation that the ``fear of the Dutch `melting pot' was well taken; for the offspring of those English Puritans who did not emigrate to New England or return to England became completely amalgamated with the local population by 1660'' [Ibid, 25]. The twin engines of economic hardship and religious freedom threatened the very viability of the Pilgrim community as a community. It became clear to them that true freedom of religion was a threat to the their ability to preserve their way of life in the generations to come.

Those who are familiar with the story of the Pilgrims might object that the settlement at Plymouth did have freedom of religion. After all, in response to the accusations by preacher John Lyford that they only allowed those of their sect to settle, Bradford wrote that the Pilgrims, ``were willing and desirous that any honest men may live with them, that will carry themselves peaceably and seek the common good, or at least do them no hurt'' [Ibid, 153]. But this reply from Bradford neglects that freedom of conscience at Plymouth was a very Hobbesian affair. Honest men and women might be able to believe whatever they want, but if they did not conform their actions to Puritanism, they were punished. 

For example, on Sundays men were sent out to search all the places where it was common for people to socialize and anyone caught there rather at the Sunday morning service was forcibly brought to the service. As another example, when some complained that they ought not have to work on Christmas as it was a Holy Day, the day was given off but when some began feasting and playing games to celebrate rather than observe the day in solemn Puritan fashion, they were forcibly put back to work. In Of Plymouth Plantation one can further read the theological complaints lodged against this preacher or that minister as they were driven from the community. Throughout the work, one thing becomes very clear, that freedom to worship for the Pilgrims meant the freedom to worship in the correct fashion as defined by the community rather than the freedom to worship according to one's own conscience.

But one thing the Pilgrims did find in the new world was economic freedom. While the first years were incredibly difficult and over half of the original colonists died, the Puritans did eventually establish a community which thrived economically and in which their children could be ensured a somewhat secure future. That the search for and attainment of economic freedom did not make into the mythos of the Pilgrims taught to every American school child is a bit ironic. The myth that America was a land of economic opportunity and had streets literally paved with gold would eventually become known throughout the world. But rather than emphasize that aspect of the Pilgrim experience, what gets emphasized is the historically unsupported claim that what the Pilgrims sought in the new world was religious freedom. 


Anonymous said...

Great work Lee, remember I loved you an Jen before it was cool.

nptexas said...

I wish I could figure out how to share on FB . Very informative and useful!