Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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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.  The latter 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.”

This divine right was enhanced and supported by the doctrine with even greater power than the European monarchs, that of the papal supremacy in Rome.  Beginning in the 8th century, monarchs attempted to align themselves with the Vatican in order to legitimize their positions of power.  Hence, the Vatican grew to become the ultimate seat of power for all of Europe.

It was heretical to hold views that were not sanctioned by the sitting popes, or, for that matter, from the sitting monarch’s interpretation of the laws.  In the 15th and 16th centuries, as in other Catholic countries, England was rife with religious persecution for anyone holding differing religious views from the Church of Rome.  If you were a Protestant, your possessions could be taken, and you might even be tortured or killed.

In the early 1500’s, England’s King Henry VIII blamed his first wife for her inability to give him a male heir, so he petitioned the Pope to grant him an annulment so he could remarry.  The Pope’s refusal to the king’s request drove Henry to break with the Roman Catholic Church.  He now proclaimed that the Church in England was Protestant and no longer under the Roman Catholicism dictates.

Throughout the 1500’s, the struggle for control of the official religion of England continued.  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 from 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 the 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 to have freedom of speech, the right of peaceful assembly, and 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 rural city of Leyden, where they lived 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 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 which 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 secure passage to the New World.  With few resources, the Pilgrims had to find financing for their Atlantic crossing.  Fortunately, they were successful in making an agreement with a group of English businessmen known as The Merchant Adventurers.  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 to send back to the London markets.