Penguin History of the United States of America (7 page)

Unfortunately many Englishmen and Englishwomen did demand more. Protestantism had a built-in democratic tendency in that it encouraged the literate to search the Scriptures for themselves and act in the light of what they found there. Thus strengthened by what they took to be God’s word, the Puritans frequently refused to conform their conduct to the Queen’s views: some of them dared to rebuke her to her face. Nor was even she wholly reasonable, consistent or realistic. Her own religious tastes (it would probably be excessive to speak of her convictions) were conservative, and as her reign continued she gradually found bishops who, sharing them, were happy to attempt to force them on her subjects. Hence the promotion to Canterbury of the bullying Whitgift and to London of the policeman-like Bancroft. Furthermore Elizabeth, like almost everyone else, clung to the old medieval dream of religious unity. The Church of England must be the Church of all Englishmen: the whole nation at prayer. She would not admit that the ideals of uniformity and comprehensiveness were at war with each other, but even in her lifetime Archbishop Whitgift’s conservatism and rigidity drove many of the devout to ‘separate’ from the sinful national church – to resign from it, as it were, and organize little ‘separatist’ churches of their own (they were called ‘conventicles’). Bishops grew more and more unpopular; and in the seventeenth century the ideal of a comprehensive national church crashed to the ground, bringing the dream of national religious uniformity (whether episcopalian or presbyterian) to ruin with it.

At the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign the Puritans were, in a sense, no less (and no more) than the Protestant party itself. They saw that the country was still for the most part either Catholic or indifferent. Their business was to bring the full Reformation to pass; to achieve the conversion of England. For years and years they tried to persuade their Queen to join them in the work by reorganizing the church on presbyterian lines and by
using her unquestioned right to compel her subjects to be saved. They quite agreed with her that a uniform, all-embracing national church was demanded by both reason and religion; only it must be governed on the lines that Calvin inferred from the Bible. Elizabeth, however, steadily refused to co-operate. So the Puritans were compelled, after some nasty brushes with the law, to turn from political to purely pastoral labours. As they were not to have the chance to compel their countrymen to come in, they tried to preach them in. By 1603 they were succeeding spectacularly.

The English Reformation had many causes, but its soul was the desire to renew the Christian life of the people, and Puritanism was that soul’s instrument. Episcopacy was resisted because it acted as an umbrella for such abuses as pluralism, non-resident clergy, corrupt church courts and a ‘dumb dog’, non-preaching, unlearned ministry, all of which came between the English and the good news of salvation. Even before their rebuff at the Queen’s hands the Puritan ministers had shown themselves adept at pastoral work; thereafter they moved through the land, devoted to uprooting sin from the hearts of the congregations. Their chief tool was the sermon. It had played little part in pre-Reformation church life. Now a conscientious minister would expect to have to preach once every day, and at least twice on the Sabbath; and preaching was extraordinarily popular. It was something new, and people flocked to hear good speakers – so much so that ‘gadding about to sermons’ was a vice much denounced by the conservative.
But the godly had the last word. Serious and intelligent, they had an influence on their communities out of all proportion to their numbers, though those increased rapidly. Like young Siegfried with the broken sword Nothung, the Puritans ground down the English soul to powder and then re-forged it to heroic temper. Nor is this only metaphor. The central Puritan experience was that of conversion, when a man’s sins ‘came upon him like armed men, and the tide of his thoughts was turned’. Conversion struck in many ways, as we learn from the innumerable fragments of autobiography left us: from a tract sold by a pedlar, from an insult hurled by a woman in the street (thus ‘drunken Perkins’ became ‘painful Perkins’, a celebrated preacher) – most usually from some ‘affectionate’ sermon. Conversion was the moment when God’s grace entered the soul and began the work of its redemption. It was a moment predestined from Creation, as St Paul taught:
‘Whom he did predestinate, them he also called;’ it was the moment when Hell’s gates closed: ‘Whom he called, them he also justified;’ the moment when the doors of the Celestial City opened: ‘Whom he justified, them he also glorified.’ It was a moment that enlightened and rejoiced the lives of tens of thousands of plain people. It assured them
that although life would continue to daunt them with its problems and temptations, they had only to fight ceaselessly against sin within them and without them, and whatever wounds they took in the battle, victory was sure.

It is easy to mistake the nature of this Puritanism. The word today generally connotes a loveless respectability, a Philistine narrowness, Biblical idolatry or a neurotic hatred of other people’s pleasures. ‘Show me a Puritan,’ said H. L. Mencken, ‘and I’ll show you a son-of-a-bitch.’ But while it would be absurd to deny that a certain censoriousness was present in Puritanism from the start, it would be equally absurd to let the degenerate aspect it wears today conceal the splendours of its prime. Certain of their salvation, the best Puritans were brave, cheerful, intelligent and hard-working. One of their preachers urged them to be ‘merry in the Lord, and yet without lightness; sad and heavy in heart for their own sins, and the abominations of the land, and yet without discouragement or dumpishness’. The quality of Puritan piety is best savoured in
The Pilgrim’s Progress
. John Bunyan, the old Ironside, knew how to make his simple image – one that had long been dear to Puritans, indeed to all Englishmen: Hakluyt’s continuator called his book
Purchas, His Pilgrims
– of life as a journey and a battle, not only true, but startlingly important. It is easy, reading Bunyan, to feel what immense strength those of his faith derived from their belief that the promises Christ made were literally true. For them, the trumpets were sure to sound on the other side.

What could kings, queens and archbishops do against such people? Very little; and for the most part they prudently attempted less. Puritanism was left to seep peacefully through England. But after the Hampton Court Conference in 1604 Policeman Bancroft, now Archbishop of Canterbury, was unwise enough to attempt a little persecution. ‘Apparitors and pursuivants and the commissary courts’ – the whole detested machinery of ecclesiastical officialdom – were turned against those, within and without the church, who were less than perfect conformists to the officially prescribed practices; among them a little band of Separatists living in villages on the borders of Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire. The leaders of this conventicle were educated, but its members were for the most part lowly, sincere, literate but otherwise untutored folk. Their irregular piety
was thus doubly offensive to the authorities, with their memories of Tyler, Cade and Kett.


some were taken and clapped up in prison, others had their houses beset and watched night and day, and hardly escaped their hands; and the most were fain to flee and leave their houses and habitations, and the means of their livelihood.

Understandably, these religious Lincolnshire poachers decided to emigrate. With some difficulty in 1607 and 1608 they slipped over in groups to Holland, ‘where they heard was freedom of religion for all men’, led by Pastor Robinson and Elder William Brewster.

Robinson and Brewster took their followers to Leyden, where with much difficulty they scratched a living for the next ten years or so. But Leyden could not be a permanent resting-place. There was a danger of Spanish conquest; the prospect of continuing grinding poverty was a discouragement; the children of these resolute English threatened to turn Dutch, not only as to language, which was bad enough, but as to religion, which was far worse (for the Dutch, though Calvinists, refused to keep a properly gloomy Sabbath). Finally, there seemed to be small chance in Leyden of achieving that really remarkable labour for God of which the more ardent Separatists dreamed, hemmed in as they were by the world. It would be better to move on again. Where to? England was still closed, its churches, for the most part, corrupt. Their minds began to turn to ‘some of those vast and unpeopled countries of America’.

It was not really surprising. The idea of a religious refuge across the water was tolerably obvious. The French Protestant leader, Admiral Coligny, had sent a party to settle in Florida as early as 1560 (though as the Separatists knew, it had been speedily snuffed out by the Spaniards). More particularly, the exiles were by no means cut off from English news, and these were the great years of the Virginia adventure, as we have seen. The Virginia Company of London, in its quest for funds, was advertising itself far and wide. John Smith was still busy. In 1612 he published his map of Virginia,
‘with a description of its Commodities, People, Government, and Religion’
. In 1614 he was employed by the Company to explore the North Atlantic coast from Penobscot Bay to Cape Cod. He learned enough to make another good map, to give the region a name, New England, and to begin a lengthy literary campaign extolling the excellences of those parts for settlement: thus in 1616 he published his
Description of New England
and in 1620 his
New England Trials.
In fact he became a full-fledged ‘booster’, a type we have met before and will again. Nevertheless, the Captain, as was his habit, told few lies, in spite of his enthusiasm. He could truthfully boast, for example, that

you shall scarce find any bay, shallow shore or cove of sand, where you may not take many clams or lobsters, or both at your pleasure, and in many places load your boat if you please; nor isles where you find not fruits, birds, crabs, and mussels, or all of them; for taking at a low water cod, cusk, halibut, skate, turbot, mackerel, or such like are taken plentifully in divers sandy bays, store of mullet, bass, and divers other sorts of such excellent fish as many as their net can hold: no river where there is not plenty of sturgeon, or salmon, or both, all which are to be had in abundance observing but their seasons: but if a man will go at Christmas to gather cherries in Kent, though there be plenty in summer, he may be deceived; so here these plenties have each their seasons, as I have expressed.

In this and other passages throughout his work he gave vent to his settled belief that a fortune, indeed an empire, could be founded on the fisheries of New England: Portugal, Spain, Provence and Italy would all provide ready markets for ‘our dry fish, green fish, sturgeon, mullet, caviare, and buttango’. ‘Therefore (honorable and worthy countrymen) let not the meanness of the word Fish distaste you, for it will afford as good gold as the mines of Guiana or Tumbatu, with less hazard and charge, and more certainty and facility.’

The Leyden community might well be encouraged by such talk. Furthermore, these were the years of a burgeoning Dutch interest in North America. In 1609 Sir Henry Hudson, an English mariner in Dutch pay, had rediscovered Manhattan Island and, behind it, a huge river which now bears his name. He thus opened up a rich fur-bearing region to European trade, and was soon followed. In 1613 the Dutch sailed 150 miles up the Hudson and founded a trading-post called Fort Nassau (later, Orange; later still, Albany; today, the capital of New York state). They also began to trade on the Delaware river, whose mouth is 150 miles or so south of that of the Hudson. In 1621 their activities culminated in the foundation of the Dutch West India Company, much on the lines of the various English companies: it began to send out settlers in 1624, and in 1625–6 founded a colony on Manhattan Island, called New Amsterdam. To increase its security the director of the enterprise, Peter Minuit, bought the island from the local
Indians with sixty guilders’ worth of miscellaneous goods. This transaction is now legendary as ‘the best real-estate deal in history’.

The Leyden congregation was approached by the Dutch, looking for worthy settlers, when word of their plans got about. But Dutch stirrings were not very far advanced when Pastor Robinson’s flock began its deliberations in 1616 or 1617. And neither Virginia nor New England could seem better than daunting. For the Separatists had none of the resources of the great companies; their only reliance could be on their own characters and on the God whom they were trying so earnestly to please. Trusting in that God, and in His blessing on such a great and honourable action, they refused to be daunted. They agreed on the principle of emigration to the New World and on an application to the Virginia Company of London for a patent to erect a ‘particular plantation’ on its territory. These plantations were the latest device of the London Company for encouraging, at small cost to its exhausted exchequer, more of the settlers of whom it was in desperate need.
In effect the organizers of a particular plantation were given such rights as to make it almost an independent colony. In return, it was hoped, they would provide supplies and colonists. The idea became a favourite of Sir Edwin Sandys. It so happened that Elder Brewster’s father had been Sandys’ brother’s tenant at Scrooby (a relationship that was closer than it sounds); and that Sandys himself had puritanical sympathies. The conclusion was obvious to both parties, and matters should have gone swiftly forward to a conclusion.

They did not, even with royal encouragement;
the struggle to organize the desperate voyage went on for two years, far into the summer of 1620. News came that another Separatist congregation, from Amsterdam, sailing to America on a similar errand, had met with total disaster at sea, 130 perishing: this must have lowered spirits at Leyden, though voices were not wanting to attribute the disaster to the failings, moral and ecclesiastical, of the expedition’s leader. Money was short, and Brewster, by tactlessly printing a religious tract attacking James VI and I’s church policy in Scotland, alienated the authorities and had to go into hiding. But ‘at length, after much travail and these debates, all things were got ready and provided’. They had bought
, a small ship of sixty tons, at Leyden, to carry them to England; they also hoped to make use of her in America. A larger ship,
, was hired to carry the greater part of the company and its stores across the Atlantic. She was to meet
at Southampton. Brewster would be the spiritual guide of the journeyers, for Robinson must stay in Leyden with the majority of the congregation who had declined the voyage, at any rate for the present.

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