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A voyage of hope

A review of the new book in the St Antholin's lectures series. Pilgrims and Exiles. Leaving the CoE in the age of the Mayflower, by John Coffey. (LT Oct 2020). By Revd Daniel Kirk

I may be biased (because my first degree was in Comparative American Studies where we looked at the founding of the USA) but I loved the 2020 St. Antholin’s Lecture on Leaving the C of E in the age of the Mayflower. John Coffey knows his subject inside out and packs in a huge amount of interesting information into a short booklet which gives much pause for thought and reflection.

Three reasons why I enjoyed this so much:

Firstly, on this side of the Atlantic we know little about the Mayflower and it’s arrival in what became the States and even less about those who felt obliged to leave England during the reign of James I. Only about half ship’s crew were religious separatists, the others were ‘strangers’ including workers and artisans needed for building the new colony. They barely survived their first winter with over half the pilgrims dying and were saved by the friendly Wampanoag people. A shared feast between natives and the English the following year became the inspiration for Thanksgiving which started in the late 19 century. Another fascinating fact was that the Mayflower arrived in the states in 1620 the year after the first shipment of African slaves landed on those shores. So controversially, slave labour and the stolen land of the Indians together with European immigration formed the melting pot that became US society.

Secondly, the Mayflower story is a vignette of the huge changes that took place over the seventeenth century. Especially in the religious sphere where the century begun with ‘a genuinely comprehensive national Church, with only tiny numbers of Protestant dissenters beyond it... and ended with an Act of Toleration that recognised the fragmentation of English Protestantism’.

The decade of the 1610s that led up to the Mayflower’s departure saw the publication of the massively influential King James’ Version. It also saw the birth of the English Baptist movement and the first English declaration of religious freedom that also encompassed those who did not call themselves Christian. The first congregation church belongs to this decade and the Remonstrant controversy between ‘Calvinists’ and ‘Arminians’ that would sow the seeds that would eventually divide the C of E and later the whole country in the terrible civil war fought between royalists and parliamentarians. Truly a pivotal decade in British history which finished with the foundation of the Plymouth Plantation in America; not the first or the largest of the new colonies but probably the most famous.

Thirdly, though the author makes no current application of the events that led a group of Puritan non-conformists to leave the East Midlands and more importantly the Church of England, to go firstly to Leiden in Amsterdam and then on the perilous trip across the Atlantic, current parallels spring to mind. There was certainly intransigence on behalf of James I and some of his bishops in enforcing compliance from puritans to all aspects of the Elizabethan settlement. However, there was clearly intransigence too from those who would separate from the C of E because they saw it as ‘a false church, a Babylonian limb of Antichrist corrupted by popish idolatry’. We could say that a religious revolution begun by Luther finally devoured its children as Protestantism began to fragment and has continued to do so until this day.

The grass definitely wasn’t greener outside the Church of England because ‘economic hardship and cultural dislocation’ led to the abandonment of the new communities that had enjoyed religious toleration in Leiden, in the Dutch Republic. Theologically, the Puritan groups splintered too, but in undergoing all the hardship that followed outside the Church of England and in a new land (which the pilgrims soon realised weren’t flowing with milk and honey), a bold new step had been taken that would have a significant impact on future world history.

This booklet has few pages, but much to ponder on.


Revd. Daniel Kirk is Vicar of St Michaels and All Angels, Gidea Park



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