The Mayflower Pilgrims: Sifting Fact from Fable, Derek Wilson. London: SPCK Publishing, 2019.
Summary: A historical account of the movements and political developments that shaped the composition of the 102 who made the voyage on the Mayflower.
There is a kind of mythology that has developed around the passengers on the Mayflower who settled in Plymouth, ostensibly on a quest for religious freedom. Derek Wilson, in this new book, traces the separatist movements and the political conditions that shaped them in the century before this voyage. What emerges is a far more complex account than is often given of a persecuted minority who were paragons of Christian virtue seeking religious freedom. It wasn’t quite that simple.
The broad strokes of this narrative go back to Henry VIII and the formation of the Church of England, and the succeeding reigns down to James I. One one side there is the Catholic reaction, and brief ascendancy during the reign of Queen Mary I. On the other, and especially during the reign of Elizabeth I onward, there was the pressure from the separatists who did not believe the church went far enough.
Wilson traces these reigns and movements in both moderate and more radical forms down to the time of the Mayflower Pilgrims, thirty-seven of which were from a particularly vigorous separatist group, many having taken shelter in Leiden in the Netherlands. The remainder of the 102 consisted of everything from indentured servants, some of which were children, to others simply seeking a new start in the New World and economic opportunity. Needless to say, they did not all share the vision of a new Christian commonwealth, free from interference from the crown.
The striking thing about this book is that only about the last sixty pages are about the group of people from which the Mayflower passengers were drawn. The rest chronicles the separatist movements in England and on the continent that preceded them. It shows the Pilgrims as part of a larger movement seeking an idealized form of Christianity. It also shows the folly of this vision, including the compromises the planners of the voyage made, and the reality that they ended up replicating the very wrongs, including intolerance, from which they fled. The wonder is that it all survived.
Wilson tries to cover all these movements in parallel, interwoven accounts. He admits that “[t]his may make for a rather ‘jerky’ narrative,” which I felt to be the case. It felt like an incessant flow of names, places, dates, and events that jumped back and forth chronologically, and it was difficult to trace how it was connected. The book ends with the voyage and we don’t learn anything new about the Plymouth settlers after they arrive.
If you are looking for a work that traces the historical antecedents of the Plymouth settlers, this offers plenty of material. However, the title and even the cover image may be deceiving. We learn relatively little about the pilgrims, and nothing of their efforts and challenges in the New World.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.