Sunday, March 08, 2020

My 1620 project: those Massachusetts Pilgrims

This year is the 400th anniversary my ancestors' arrival on this continent. They were among the Puritan colonists at Plymouth, Mass. Family lore says we are descended from both Priscilla Alden and Miles Standish, the couple who were protagonists of unrequited love in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's popular 1858 romantic poem The Courtship of Miles Standish. They married others and had large families. Massachusetts was a lightly populated, much inter-related place for many years.

The Plymouth settlement acquired a huge role in the U.S. national legend as the northern "founding" -- a source of much of our religious and colonial history. This is mostly myth, but these were nonetheless intriguing people. All I was ever told about Plymouth as the child of a mother somewhat proud of her ancestry was that "they must have been very brave." Indeed these Puritans must have been. They crossed the Atlantic on a leaky, overcrowded cargo ship, 102 passengers on deck with 30 crew members. They failed to find their intended destination, the mouth of the Hudson River, and put ashore of necessity on the coast of Massachusetts two months later. Only 50 survived the first winter.

It seems fitting to share one last tidbit from Diarmaid MacCulloch' The Reformation: A History about this unpromising colonial enterprise. He sets them in their place in the conflicted landscape of England on the eve of the Civil War over state and religion (1642-1651). He agrees they were stubborn -- and perhaps a little daft.

[There were] those who saw the early Stuart Church of England as too flawed to be truly God's Church. ...The godly made their venture far to the north up the Atlantic coast from [Anglican and royalist] Virginia, in an area of forests and deep sea inlets that was soon named New England. The first colony in this northern region, Plymouth, in what later became a part of Massachusetts, was founded in 1620 by self-conscious separatists who made no bones about their wish to separate completely from corrupt English religion. These "Pilgrim Fathers" had first migrated as a single congregation to the Netherlands, but now sought a more challenging and less restricting place to become a "civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation." For all its subsequent fame in American mythology, their settlement remained small and poor, for not many wished to join them; they had made their brave voyage in the years before the group around William Laud achieved power in England [repressing their beliefs in the name of the king]. Notably, for all their intense practice of piety, there was no clergyman among them for the first nine years of Plymouth's existence.

[Though unwarranted by actual history, a] rhetoric of covenant, chosen-ness, of wilderness triumphantly converted to garden, has come down into American political and religious consciousness ... the varied spectrum of American Protestantism has grafted onto its memories of Massachusetts the appearance of the obstinate individualism and separatism of the Plymouth Pilgrim Fathers [an ethos deplored by the later Massachusetts congregationalist colony at Boston led by Governor "City on a Hill" John Winthrop].

My determination to learn a little more about these people this year was one impetus for my long exploration of MacCulloch's opus. There's much to unpack. More will follow this year from more sources.

Previous posts in my The Reformation: A History series:
The Reformation: Islamophobia and a slavery past
The subversive weapon of the Reformation: musical propaganda
Bishop Laud and his cats
On blaming capitalism on the Protestant Reformation
But how did Reformation-era people live?

The illustration is from an 1884 Plymouth tourist postcard.

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