The fanatics who founded America

Fundamentalist zealots dreaming of a New World Order, sexual repression, scary old blokes with beards. So what’s new? Simon Worrall recalls the men who became the Pilgrim Fathers

Religious fundamentalism of the sort that lay behind the July 7 outrages in London is nothing new to Britain. We’ve seen it before, or something very like it, in the early 17th century, when a fanatical group of extremists sought to transform England into a theocracy governed by a strict interpretation of scripture. These were the Protestant Christians remembered as the Pilgrim Fathers.

Their story begins in the village of Scrooby, in Nottinghamshire, the birthplace of William Brewster, the leader of the small band that eventually sailed to America on the Mayflower. William Bradford, an orphan from nearby Austerfield, would become the first governor of the New England colony, and write the only eyewitness account of the Pilgrim Fathers in America, Of Plimoth Plantation. Other members of the group came from local villages.

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Though most accounts of Brewster portray him as a worthy who chose to devote his life to God out of profound religious conviction, in fact he turned to God more because of worldly failure than piety.

Brewster had become interested in radical religious reform while studying at Cambridge University in the 1570s. After graduating he got a job as an assistant to one of the most powerful politicians of the day, Sir William Davison. But Davison — who signed the death warrant of Mary Queen of Scots — suffered a spectacular fall from grace and Brewster returned to Scrooby a broken man. Like many before and since, he found God. To make a living, he took over his father ’s job as village postmaster and devoted the rest of his time to creating a New World Order ruled by God’s commandment. With him, perhaps inevitably, as its first leader.

His first step was to establish an underground cell — a small group of men who met in secret in the villages around Scrooby. These were the Separatists, who formed the core of the group of pilgrims who were to found a new country over the Atlantic.

They were known as Separatists because they planned to found a church outside the official Church of England. Sounds harmless? It wasn’t. In their fundamentalist theocracy pubs would be closed, maypole dancing and gambling would be banned, men and women would be forced to dress in a sober and godly way and, above all, the Bible would become the foundation of civil society.

Among the draconian measures later introduced by Brewster and his associates at Plymouth Rock was a law making it illegal to live alone. Solitude was seen as a breeding ground for sin and antisocial behaviour. Children and women — always a favourite target of male religious fanatics — were treated with shocking severity. A statute on the books in the Plymouth Colony allowed for execution of minors who did not obey parents.

By demanding religious freedom, and a spiritual life outside the control of the Church of England, the Separatists had lit a match that threatened to ignite English society. If caught, they had their nostrils slit, their right ears cut off, and the letters SS (“stirrer of sedition”) branded on their foreheads. At Clink prison in London (an Abu Ghraib of Puritan England) they were chained up, tortured and beaten, as they stood knee-deep in foetid water. Little wonder that Brewster christened his second child Fear.

In 1608 Brewster plus 14 adults and children, including William Bradford and his family, fled to Amsterdam on the first stage of a journey that would end at Plymouth Rock 12 years later. All except four of the 41 “Saints” who sailed on the Mayflower had previously been in Holland.

Much as London has now become a home to the Islamic jihad, 17th-century Amsterdam was a haven for Protestant fundamentalists, including another group of religious firebrands known as the Ancient Brethren.

The Ancient Brethren was the sort of cult that every Elizabethan father feared his daughter would join. They numbered about 300 and lived communally. Like the Taleban, they wore their beards long. Their spiritual leader was Robert Browne, a Cambridge intellectual and radical pastor. Two of the leading members, brothers George and Francis Johnson, had done time in London’s torture cells.

The sect was a minefield of vicious, personal feuds, theological battles, poverty and sexual tensions. Soon Brewster and his group were sucked in. At the centre of the storm was the thing that religious fundamentalists, almost invariably men, fear most: female sexuality. Like the Mormons, Brewster and his group wore underwear designed to prevent sexual arousal. Like most Muslims, they frowned upon the wearing of sexually suggestive clothing by women.

Enter Thomasine Boyes. Little is known of her except that she was the widow of a successful London haberdasher and had then married one of the most radical Puritan theologians of the day. Her sin was a taste for fine clothes, which flew in the face of the strict dress codes — the Puritan version of the all-enveloping burka was a formless black garment that left no bare skin exposed — demanded by the self-appointed, male guardians of sartorial correctness. But Thomasine persisted in wearing fine clothes and even jewellery.

As a result of her “scandalous” behaviour she became the focus of a vicious (and to us, risible) war of words that became known as the Millinery Wars. She was vilified in pamphlets. Her brother-in-law, George, wrote a vitriolic, 290-page tract denouncing her as a whore and a servant of the Devil. Eventually, the Millinery Wars moved into the Amsterdam courts in the form of a libel suit, much to the bemusement of the tolerant Dutch.

Faced with the increasingly chaotic scene in Amsterdam, the Scrooby congregation, and a number of members of the Ancient Brethren, decamped to Leyden, where they settled on Stincksteeg, or Stink Alley, one of a network of insanitary lanes in the poorest part of the city.

Eventually, they clubbed together to buy a spacious old house that served as both a home and a meeting house. They also built a further 12 houses in the surrounding area and opened an office on Choir Alley, or Vicus Chorali, as it is known in Leyden today. From there, they ran a clandestine printing press to produce religious pamphlets that were “vented underhand in His Majesty’s kingdoms”, as the English Ambassador to Holland wrote back to London.

English undercover agents traced a copy of one of the press’s pamphlets back to Leyden and it was denounced as an “atrocious and seditious libel”. The Pilgrim Press was shut down with the help of the Dutch authorities and William Brewster and the rest of the Leyden group went into hiding.

Two years later they made their way across the Atlantic to found a new country. Their attitudes to sex, God and the Bible would become the cultural DNA of the United States. Now, at a time when fanatics are seeking to turn back the wheel of history, when twice as many Americans are said to believe in the Devil as Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the most powerful nation on earth has a President described by The New York Times as a “messianic American Calvinist”, it is worth looking over our shoulders at the fanatics who fled these shores to America in 1620.

Simon Worrall is the author of The Poet and the Murderer. He is writing a book about the Pilgrim Fathers

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
Times Online, UK
Aug. 20, 2005
Simon Worrall

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