The Pilgrims and American Liberty: An Interview with John Turner

Today’s interview is with John Turner, professor of religious studies at George Mason University, and the author of books such as the recently released They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty (Yale University Press).

[TK] Your book came out in the 400th anniversary year of the founding of Plymouth Colony. Can you explain who the Plymouth “separatists” were in the context of the English Reformation? Were they “puritans”?

[JT] Many of the passengers on the Mayflower had separated from the Church of England. Like other “puritans,” they thought England’s church was insufficiently reformed. They objected to anything that smacked of Catholicism—like priestly garments, the set liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer, and the sign of the cross during baptism. Most puritans retained hope that reform efforts would eventually succeed, and they clung to the ideal of a national church. Some men and women, however, insisted that true Christians could not wait. They were obliged to reclaim their liberty to form covenanted congregations, elect their own leaders, exercise church discipline, and worship according to their understanding of the Bible. For them, Jesus Christ—not a king or queen—is the church’s only head. Royal officials understood separatism as rank sedition, and a number of separatists were executed in the 1580s and 1590s.

Persecution never fully extinguished separatism, though. During the first decade of the 1600s, men and women in several English communities—Scrooby, Gainsborough, Sandwich, London—withdrew from the church and formed their own congregations and other religious gatherings. They too experienced persecution, in the form of fines, imprisonment, and harassment, and they chose to leave England before they suffered worse. They took refuge in the Netherlands, many joining a congregation in Leiden led by John Robinson.

Where does the title “they knew they were pilgrims” come from? Would the Plymouth separatists understand what we mean when we call them “the Pilgrims”?

The title comes from a phrase in a history of Plymouth Colony written by William Bradford, its long-term governor. In 1620, a portion of the Leiden congregation prepared to leave the Dutch Republic, sailing back to England in preparation for their voyage across the Atlantic. Other members of the congregation came to bid them farewell and to pray and worship with them for a final time. They wept. Bradford recounted that despite their sorrow, “they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lift[ed] up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.” The words allude to the Hebrews 11, which calls exemplars of faith “strangers and pilgrims on the earth.”

The separatists on the Mayflower never talked about themselves as the Pilgrims. For them, like the author of Hebrews, all true Christians are pilgrims whose earthly journeys are uncertain but whose ultimate destination is heaven. Only in the early 19th century did Americans start referring to them as “the Pilgrims.”

As an aside, I love this phrase in Bradford’s history. This year has been a reminder of the uncertainty that characterizes mortal existence. It’s hard not to be fearful about what is transpiring in our world and nation, especially if we keep our eyes fixed only on news headlines and tweets. Bradford wasn’t saying that Christians should pretend that suffering and afflictions are not part of earthly life. Rather, lifting up our eyes to God helps us find the strength to face those trials.

You say that your book uses Plymouth Colony as a “fresh lens for examining the contested meaning of liberty” in early America. How so?

Many generations of Americans have lauded the Pilgrims for planting the seeds of democracy and religious freedom that blossomed during the Revolution and the Constitutional Convention. There were always voices that dissented from this hackneyed hagiography. Especially over the last 50 years, Native Americans and others have critiqued the Pilgrims as conquerors whose descendants stole Indian lands and killed those who resisted. In this vein, the Plymouth story is one of dispossession and slavery, not liberty.

Both of those versions of Plymouth Colony’s history are well-worn arguments. What I do in my book is take a fresh look at the ways that the Pilgrims—and others within Plymouth Colony—understood liberty. For them, “Christian liberty” was preeminent. By this, they meant liberty from the “yoke of bondage” as described by the apostle Paul in Galatians, the liberty to form and govern their own churches, and the liberty to worship according to their reading of the Bible. Political liberty also mattered to the Pilgrims. In the Mayflower Compact, the Pilgrims articulated the widely held English principle that the validity of laws and offices rests on the consent of the people, in this case the adult male passengers on the ship. Other groups of English settlers brought and developed different understandings of liberty, which was always a matter of contention rather than consensus.

Any discussion of liberty in Plymouth Colony also has to reckon with slavery. Slavery was not just a Southern phenomenon. Even in tiny Plymouth Colony, there were African slaves, and in later decades of the colony, settlers enslaved many Natives.

Speaking of which, how would you assess the Plymouth colonists’ relationship with the Native Americans living around them?

The Mayflower arrived in the wake of an epidemic that devastated the Wampanoag people of what is now southeastern Massachusetts. In some cases, entire communities disappeared. The Pilgrims, meanwhile, lost half of their population during their first winter at Plymouth. So two weakened peoples formed an alliance that at first was mutually beneficial. Starting in the 1630s, however, the English population grew quickly. English settlers encroached on Wampanoag lands, and colonial magistrates treated the Wampanoags as subjects rather than allies. In 1675, this conflict turned into a war—known as King Philip’s War—that soon spread across most of New England. When the English prevailed, they enslaved hundreds if not thousands of Wampanoags. Many of those Native were exported. Some were taken to the Caribbean; others ended up in Spain and Tangiers. It is a grim story.

TGC readers might also be interested in the fact that many Wampanoags embraced Christianity, either before or after the war. It is worth emphasizing that the story of early American Christianity includes Wampanoags who insisted that they too possessed the liberty to form their own churches and select their own leaders.

If you could choose one myth to dispel about “the Pilgrims,” what would it be?

Just one? There are a lot of myths surrounding the Pilgrims, from the rock to the First Thanksgiving to the excessive credit they have received for the birth of religious liberty and democracy. What stands out to me is that there is so much in the history of Plymouth Colony even after one sets these myths aside. We should at least begin with an examination of the 17th century on its own terms. We should try to figure out how English settlers and the Native peoples of New England thought about the world in which they lived and why they acted in the ways they did. People in the past—like those in the present—are always more complex than we might think at first glance.

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