Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

Women of Washington is an educational organization with a focus on understanding local, national, and global issues that are critical to our world today.

THE PILGRIMS- Part I: Guided by Their Faith

History tells us that the peoples of the world were ruled by chieftains, emperors, and kings.  In other words, conquer or be conquered.  These rulers kept most of the world’s population under the control of an elite few.  Out of this authoritarian system, family dynasties emerged, convincing themselves that their authority came from the “Divine right of kings.”  In order to legitimize their power, as early as the 8th century, monarchs sought and received support from the Vatican in Rome.  Hence, the Vatican became the ultimate seat of power for all of Europe and it was heretical to hold views that were not approved by the sitting popes.

Having their positions of power sanctioned by the Vatican, the monarchs of Europe, and their courtiers, were given license to interpret the laws of the Church in ways that often meant an increased dominance over their own citizens.  In the 1400s and 1500s, England and other Catholic countries were rife with religious persecution of anyone not adhering to the doctrines of the Catholic Church.  People of the Protestant faith could face having their property seized, possible imprisonment, or even being put to death.            

However, kings were also fearful of losing favor with the Vatican, including being excommunicated.  One exception was England’s powerful King Henry VIII.  In the early 1500s, when his first wife had failed to give him a male heir, he petitioned the Pope to grant him an annulment that would allow him to remarry.  The Pope’s refusal was an affront to King Henry, so he severed ties with the Vatican, proclaiming that the Church in England would become Protestant and no longer under the Roman Catholic dictates. 
The struggle for control of the official religion of England continued beyond Henry III’s reign.  Henry’s various marriages had produced one son, Edward, and two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth.  When the king died, nine-year-old Edward became king.  At the age of fifteen, Edward died of tuberculosis.  The crown was then passed on to Henry elder daughter Mary, a staunch Catholic and ruthless defender of the faith.  During her five-year reign she earned the moniker “Blood Mary,” as she persecuted non-Catholics, including burning three hundred innocent Protestants at the stake. 

At Mary’s death, her half-sister Elizabeth became queen.  As Regent, Elizabeth assumed the title of “The Defender of the Faith” and, by taking a more neutral faith position, eased religious tensions in England.  She reigned for a remarkable forty-four years, however, by refusing to marry and having no heirs, she passed her throne on to her nephew, James Stuart.  Once he became King of England and head of the English Church, he believed that he alone represented God. Therefore, neither Catholics nor Protestants could differ from his “divine authority.”

Christians, known as Separatists and Puritans, attempted to reform the state-run Church of England so that it would better reflect the Bible’s tenets of peace, love, and mercy.  After years of being harassed in their homes, they also wanted freedom of speech, the right to peaceful assembly, and the freedom to worship as they chose.  Failing in that mission, they sought to separate themselves from the Church, which meant they would have to leave their homeland.  Even though attempting to leave England carried the risk of being arrested, the Puritans believed that in the Netherlands they would have fewer restrictions on practicing their faith.     

The Puritans set sail for Holland in 1608, although storms and rough seas nearly cost them their lives.  Once in Amsterdam, the weary travelers were disheartened to find “A strange and uncouth language, customs, and attire…” among its citizens.  The beleaguered Puritans eventually moved to the Dutch city of Leiden, established a church, and lived in reasonable safety for the next decade.  However, as non-citizens, they could only find work as laborers.  Work that was so strenuous that adults and children alike aged prematurely, some even dying from their exhausting labor.  Having come from farming and sheepherding backgrounds, they also had to learn new trades such as silk weaving and making Dutch-style pottery to supplement their meager wages.

In 1609, Spain threatened war with Holland.  Fearing they could not withstand attacks by the powerful Spanish Navy, the Dutch government entered into an eleven-year truce with the Catholic King of Spain.  An additional concern for the Puritans was that if Spain were to conquer Holland, the terrifying Spanish Inquisition would soon follow.  It was well known that one of the Inquisition’s main tasks was to root out any opposition to Catholicism, especially from Protestants.

In 1619, as the truce was nearing its end, the Dutch government tried to curry favor with the King of Spain by passing a law that outlawed non-Catholics.  This was not a good omen for the Puritans.  They considered joining the newly settled Jamestown Colony in Virginia but had serious concerns about having to face the native “savages” in the New World.  Although looking at their limited options, they decided going to Virginia would be less dangerous than facing the Spanish Inquisition!  

Even though King James was relentless in harassing the Puritans, when they petitioned him, he allowed them to secure passage to the New World.  With few resources of their own, the Pilgrims had to find financing for their Atlantic crossing.  Fortunately, they were successful in making an agreement with the Merchant Adventurers, a group of English businessmen.  The goal of the investors was to participate in the development of Jamestown by financing people who would help colonize the settlement.  In order to repay their investors, the colonists would also be expected to exploit natural resources such as timber; animal pelts; gold; and silver to send back to London.