The Mayflower Sets Sail

What led to the first group of pilgrims to set sail in search of a new world aboard the Mayflower? Our story begins in 1620 when James I was on the throne of England. James was a staunch Protestant and he had taken the throne after the death of Elizabeth I. Elizabeth was an ardent Protestant herself and under her reign, Protestantism had flourished to the point that it was considered the official religious view of the nation. However, there was a group of Protestants who believed that Elizabeth was not fully committed to the movement of the Reformation. When James I came to the throne, the Puritans, as they came to be known, had hoped that he would champion their cause, however, this was not to be. 

The new King had one main agenda: that of increasing his power base as a monarch and thus leading England towards Royal Absolutism. He was happy to continue with the brand of Protestantism that Elizabeth had embraced before him much to the chagrin of many Puritans who found Elizabethan Protestantism decidedly lacking in true spirituality.  As the Elizabethan era came to a close and the Jacobean opened England was not Catholic but, to the Puritan mind, it was not decidedly Protestant either.

Regardless of the diversity of their theological leanings the one thing that all Puritans could unite on was the fact that the Reformation was a dynamic principle meant to take root in the heart, transform the life and move its proponents continuously onwards and upwards. Elizabethan and Jacobean Protestantism was content to rest itself on the lowest grid of the scale so as not to raise too many hackles. No Puritan in his right mind was able to accept this type of a Reformation.

Rotherhite, South London

The King’s absolutist leanings coupled with the restrictive impositions he placed upon the church in an effort to retain his authority over it annoyed the Puritan community. They believed in the separation of church and state as well as a structure of church governance that shied away from anything remotely Catholic. To have the King as the Sovereign head of the Church and the State

went against both these principles and led to a feeling of unrest and disappointment among Puritans. Many of them began to consider walking away from the church of England or walking away from England altogether. One such group were the Scrooby separatists led by Clifton their pastor, Robinson their teacher and Brewster their head elder. 30 residents left Scrooby and headed to the Netherlands around 1607 or 1609 to join John Smyth who had previously left England with another group of separatists. However, they found it difficult to settle in the Netherlands permanently and after further meetings, it was decided that they would leave Europe for the newly formed colonies in America. What they craved was freedom from the stranglehold of a monarchy and the New World seemed to be the perfect place. There were many more Puritans in England who shared similar views and after protracted dialogue, a plan for departure was put in place.  

Subsequently, in 1620, the Mayflower set sail from Rotherhithe in South London, with 53 persons on board. Its sister ship, the Speedwell set sail from the Netherlands but around 200 miles off the coast of Cornwall, the ship developed a leak and was forced to weigh anchor in Plymouth. Once in Plymouth passengers on the Speedwell disembarked and joined those on the Mayflower, swelling its numbers from 53 to around 130. Of that number 43 were Puritans who were leaving England in search of greater religious freedom.  

Conditions on board the ship were appalling. The living quarters were cramped and dingy and there was a dismal shortage of food and water. The Mayflower encountered numerous violent storms and many of the passengers suffered severe seasickness. All these factors made the voyage as arduous as it was perilous. Finally on November 9th, 

1620 they sighted land at Cape Cod and eventually anchored at Provincetown on November 21st. Of those who made the journey over half died during that first winter as a result of the harsh weather, subsequent illness and meager diet available to them. Regardless of the gruelling conditions the first wave of Puritans to disembark on American soil was not to be the last. Thousands more left England, braving the perilous voyage in order to secure freedom of conscience. Little did those on board the Mayflower realize the far-reaching implications of the choice they made or how the underlying principles behind that choice would become the cornerstone of the young nation that they would each have a hand in building.

America would come to symbolize a departure from the religiopolitical freewheeling that the Puritans had become so accustomed to in Europe. It would become a safe haven that upheld three of their most longed for freedoms: freedom from fear, freedom of speech and freedom of worship, that each man might be able to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience.

Further Reading

Recommended Listening

  • The Great Courses – Christianity in the Reformation Era – Brad S. Gregory
  • The English Reformation and The Puritans – Michael Reeves