How Plowboys Became Pilgrims

"IF GOD spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth a plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost." When William Tyndale, the first translator of Holy Writ into English, made that prediction to a learned clergyman in 1525, he did not foresee that ere a hundred years some plowboys up north, close by Robin Hood's Sherwood Forest, would plow the ocean and make the Bible the fundamental law of a new England.

As usual with them in great crises, the English were "muddling through" the Reformation, which was shaking the rest of Northern Europe to its foundations and brewing the desolating Thirty Years War. They merely changed the Church of Rome into the Church of England in 1524, retaining the old episcopacy of bishops and archbishops and leaving all the old forms of worship to be lopped off little by little.

While that slow process was under way, a revolutionary faction rose up, with the demand that every remaining vestige of the Roman rites be swept away at once and the church restored to its "ancient purity." The phrase fastened upon them the derisive nickname of "Puritans," which was regarded as so opprobrious that a member of the House of Commons was expelled for applying it to a colleague.

As Time rounded the corner into the sixteen hundreds, the more radical of the Puritans advanced to the point where they proposed that the laity should have a voice in church government. King James flew off the handle at the suggestion that "Jack and Tom and Will and Dick shall meet, and, at their pleasure, censure me and my council. . . . I will make them conform or I will harry them out of the land."

Have a care, Jamie Stuart! These puritanical Jacks and Toms, Wills and Dicks may chop off your head, as in due time they will chop off your son Charles' and ultimately will harry out of the land your entire tribe of Stuarts.

Most of the Puritans, being of the well-to-do middle class, hesitated to risk an open revolt. They remained in the church, where they "bored from within," in the hope of reforming it—purifying it. Ultimately they bored clear through and found themselves on the outside.

Certain plowboys up in the North, round about the village of Scrooby, bolted outright and at once. They were Separatists or Independents, and they started a church of their own.

Those tenant farmers and farm laborers soon decided to go over to Holland, one of the few spots of earth in those days which tolerated more churches than one, and they became Pilgrims. As the law provided that neither money nor goods should leave England without official permission, they feared to draw upon themselves the attention, perhaps the persecution of the authorities and they attempted to steal away from the port of Boston in Lincolnshire. They were caught, stripped of their money, books and some other goods and were clapped into prison.

Shortly after their liberation, while they were in the midst of a second effort to escape the tight little isle, the Pilgrims were swooped down upon by a mob of rustics. Their frightened skipper put off with some on board and some still on shore, including weeping wives and children of several of his passengers. The offended law did not know what to do with the poor, stranded lot, and winked at their departure.

After the exiles were united in Holland and settled at Leyden in 1609, many of them began to agitate a second exodus. Simple country people that they were, most of them could not work at the more skilled trades in Holland and had to labor hard at the least skilled crafts in order to earn a bare living.

As English men and women, those strangers in a strange land dreaded the marriage of their children to Dutch girls and boys and the prospect of being swallowed up in the Dutch Nation and the Dutch Church. Also they were fearful of themselves being engulfed in a war that was impending. Only in some unpeopled wilderness of the New World could they hope to keep their English language and civilization and bequeath their faith to after generations.

When the King was sounded on the subject of the exiles at Leyden going to America, he inquired how they could live alone in the wilds, and he was told that they could fish. "So God have my soul!" James exclaimed. "'Tis an honest trade; it was the Apostles' own calling!"

That was the only royal or official authority the Pilgrims could obtain for planting a colony in America. They shrewdly reckoned that the monarch's jesting hint was as good as his bond, which they truly said he would break, if he chose, no matter if it were "under a seal as broad as the house floor."

With that mere nod from the throne the colonists turned to the market place for money. Every penny of the £200,000 put up by backers of the Virginia colony having sunk out of sight, London investors naturally were bearish on America. They insisted that they should have one share of stock in the company for every £10 they advanced.

Since each man or woman who put his or her life into the colony, who went to America, fished, traded, chopped and built should have only one share in the stock, we arrive at the market value of a Pilgrim father—£10. At the end of seven years all the land the colonists should have cleared, their very homes and the accumulated profits of all their labor, would be divided equally among the shareholders in England and in the colony.

The colonists murmured and balked, bickered and dickered. Borrowers cannot be choosers. With that heavy yoke about their necks the Pilgrims embarked upon their great adventure.

James Morgan, Boston Daily Globe, Oct 22, 1927, p. 14