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The Journey to the Mayflower: God’s Outlaws and the Invention of Freedom

The Journey to the Mayflower: God’s Outlaws and the Invention of Freedom

Madeleine Pennington reviews Stephen Tomkins’ book to mark the 400th anniversary of the voyage of the Mayflower. 04/09/2020

This week marks the 400th anniversary of the voyage of the Mayflower – the treacherous journey across the Atlantic which began in Plymouth in September 1620, and which took 102 pilgrims to found Plymouth Colony in the colonial ‘New World’.

The Mayflower looms large in the historic imagination of the West, above all as the overture to a dramatic American creation myth. It is deployed as a symbol of the pilgrim spirit, the heroic quest for religious freedom, and the original American dream. We are told that the pilgrims sailed to the New World to live as free Christians – and so, it is implied, American Christianity is that which is quintessentially free. Myths matter: it is arguably the potency of these same ideals that give such weight to the current American president’s (stomach–turning) politicisation of a Christian persecution narrative. ‘I will tell you, Christianity is under tremendous siege,’ Trump told the crowd at an election rally in 2016, ‘Whether we want to talk about it or we don’t want to talk about it. And yet we don’t exert the power that we should have… Christianity will have power.’ Eighty–one percent of American evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016.  

Recognising the importance of the history we choose to tell ourselves, the Mayflower anniversary celebrations have also drawn closer attention to the neglected links between Plymouth colony and the slave trade, and the whitewashing of colonial exploitation in recent months – on both sides of the Atlantic. Such warnings have perhaps never felt as urgent as they do now, following a summer of Black Lives Matter protests across the globe.

In reality, however, whatever significance we draw from the ship itself necessarily inflates the historic impact of a single journey across the ocean: if the Mayflower offers us a creation myth, it did not sail ex nihilo. A more nuanced consideration of what actually led the pilgrims to undertake such a journey is therefore always welcome, and it is this story which journalist and historian Stephen Tomkins traces meticulously in his most recent work, The Journey to the Mayflower: God’s Outlaws and the Invention of Freedom.

The Journey to the Mayflower does not consider the voyage itself until page 329; after all, it is a book about the journey to the voyage, not of it. Instead, it begins with the Marian martyrs (the Protestants put to death over sixty years earlier in the reign of Queen Mary I), before guiding the reader through a history of English Separatism (that is, those Protestants who wanted to separate from what they perceived as a corrupt state church) and the key personalities of the Brownist movement (the religious affiliation of most of the Mayflower pilgrims, named after the English church leader Robert Browne).

What really motivated the men and women who took the terrifying journey across the Atlantic in 1620? What were the formative influences on their own lives, ideas, beliefs, and choices? What, particularly, should we make of any attempt to portray the voyage as a victory for religious freedom?

In answering these questions, Tomkins does not dispense with a freedom narrative altogether. It’s in the title – and he describes his work as ‘the story of people, but… also the story of an idea: that religion should be free, and that the church of Christ is a voluntary community, not an entire church state’. It is also true that the Pilgrims’ story emerged from a religious struggle that defines global Christianity even today – that is, the Reformation – just as it is relevant that the Brownists were fiercely persecuted at various points in their history. However, Tomkins observes, it was their concern to ensure the purity of the ‘true church’ which fundamentally motivated their desire for freedom, rather than any inherent respect for diversity of belief. Simply, the impure must be allowed to leave the worshipping community if it is to remain untainted – and that is incompatible with a coercive state–sponsored religion. Clearly, this is not a defence of religious freedom as we know it. Neither were the voyagers being persecuted directly by the time they actually left for America; most of them had been settled in the (comparatively tolerant) Netherlands before 1620.

In fact, the reasons the pilgrims actually gave for leaving Europe were ‘intriguingly inconsistent and incoherent’ – the most important being the ‘grim’ reality of life in Dutch cities at the time. And it was precisely this incoherence which, Tomkins argues, necessitated their eventual system of governance by consent:

“Four months at sea together had underlined their diversity, their different religious outlooks, different reasons for coming, different social levels, different skills, in different groupings. If they were to survive, they needed a structure that would tie them together… What they had was the experience of creating and maintaining a community through a mutual, conditional covenant, so they did that.”

In other words, it was the ideas the Mayflower generated almost by accident which played such an important role in the subsequent history of religious freedom and the political history of America.

Before we conclude that our most precious rights emerged entirely by historical accident, it is worth reminding ourselves that this is only a small slice of a much larger story. Once more for those at the back: don’t exaggerate the impact of the Mayflower in the history of religious freedom. After all, throughout history there have also been plenty of voices arguing for (and enacting) what we might consider a more rounded understanding of the right to freedom of belief – including before the Mayflower set sail. Perhaps the greatest inconvenience for those hoping to exceptionalise Western freedom is the fact that the early Reformation in Eastern Europe was strikingly more tolerant than its Western counterpart: Transylvania was the first Christian state to declare that communities should be able to worship God in their own way, without interference, and that was in 1568.[1]

We should therefore take the pilgrims’ place in the struggle with a generous pinch of salt. But Tomkins’ book provides us with some of that salt – and indeed, functions best precisely as a pertinent reminder that there is always – always – a back–story which makes any quick ‘take’ simplistic. Where the long journey towards freedom of religion is concerned, he embraces all the nuance of real life to capture (for better or worse) the people behind the myth. The final paragraph of the book, recalling the closing chapter of Robert Browne’s own life story, appropriately encapsulates such a determinedly unromantic approach: we hear that Browne ‘was asked by his godson… the parish constable, to pay his rates; he responded by assaulting [the constable] and found himself in Northampton jail, where he died a month later’.  

Any historical account which sets out to trace a struggle for freedom and ends with the unlikely assault of a police officer is worth reading – not only because it is a good story, but precisely because it is complex. It is messy and doubles back on itself. And the symbolism is not yet complete, even four hundred years after the Mayflower set sail, as examples of religious and religiously–motivated persecution – in India, China and worldwide – continue to emerge. The path to freedom has not always been plain sailing, and it certainly doesn’t resemble a straight line. As Tomkins himself reflects, in the final analysis, governance by consent – and religious freedom within it – ‘was an idea with a future’.


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[1] DIarmaid MacCulloch, All Things Made New: The Reformation and its Legacy (Oxford, 2018)7–8. 

Image: Michael Sean OLeary/shutterstock.com

Madeleine Pennington

Madeleine Pennington

Madeleine is Head of Research at Theos. She joined Theos in 2018 as a researcher on the Free Churches Commission, investigating the impact of churches on social cohesion across England. She holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Oxford, and previously worked as a research scholar in Philadelphia. She is the author of The Christian Quaker: George Keith and the Keithian Controversy (Brill: 2019).

Posted 4 September 2020

History, Pilgrimage, Religious Freedom

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