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400 Years Ago


On May 20, 1616, Richard Clifton, who had been one of the founders of a congregation of English Separatists that worshipped in the region of Scrooby, England, and then emigrated to the Netherlands, died in Amsterdam, where he had remained after the majority of the congregation had moved on to Leiden.  In the same year Hugh Goodyear had succeeded Robert Dury as minister to an English Reformed Church in Leiden.  Also in 1616 Henry Jacob, another English puritan who had sought refuge in the Netherlands, returned to England where he organized a congregation of fellow believers in Southwark, on the south side of the Thames River from Westminster.  And in 1616 William Brewster, the lay elder of the Separatist church that had originated in Scrooby, entered into a partnership with Thomas Brewer to found the Pilgrim Press, a small publishing firm dedicated to printing and disseminating tracts that urged the further reformation of England's national church.

These events were all episodes in a struggle to reform the national church of England that dated back to the early days of the Reformation, but had accelerated after the accession of Queen Elizabeth in 1558.  Though Elizabeth had restored Protestantism after the Catholic persecutions of Queen Mary, she had refused to make the changes demanded by the "hotter sort" of Protestants. Still, godly lay people were able to accomplish some reforms working from the bottom up.  Over time lay pressures influenced some clergy to institute changes in local parishes.  Robert Harrison pointed out that often the spiritual "children" were "forwarder than their father."  Explaining to a Norfolk pastor why his parishioners were moving beyond him, Harrison pointed to their "fruitful edifying [one another by] gracious speech and godly conference."

Throughout the course of the English reformation, many writers had built on the notion of the priesthood of all believers to emphasize the role of the individual in shaping his or her religious understanding.  If the meaning of scripture was revealed by grace provided by the Spirit, and the Spirit bestowed grace on all who were God's elect, then arguably the ordinary literate believer was as capable of discerning God's truths as the best-educated minister.  Though there were learned clergy who helped to shape the agenda of the movement, from the beginning the puritan emphasis was on the lay individual and the need for those believers to come to an appreciation of God's will. According to Alexander Topp, one did not have to be a clergyman to expound on scripture, since the "Holy Ghost is a divers gift unto the chosen," clergy or lay.

Reflecting their own experience, many of those who helped shape the puritan movement believed in an evolving understanding of truth, accepting that what they believed might be modified by further light and recognizing the value of discussion in discovering that light.  Lawrence Chaderton, the Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, wrote that believers were to be actively engaged with each other, that each "must be one another's member ... serving to the benefit of all ... by diligence and love."  Those who believed in this encouraged laymen to read the Word in public and to preach in private gatherings.  Throughout England, believers met to discuss their understanding in family groups and in conferences with fellow believers, some such gatherings consisting of members of a single parish, others bringing together saints from a broader region.  While most laymen valued the insight of those whose university training gave them special skills for interpreting scripture, there was a democratic element to puritan practices.  The goal of such lay activities was to reform the church, and for a time, in some areas -- such as the Stour Valley in East Anglia -- a godly culture was broadly established. 

Such success was transitory, and late in Elizabeth's reign and then in those of her successors, some puritans, frustrated by their inability to sufficiently advance reform through such efforts, determined to seek reformation without "tarrying for the magistrate."  In the early 1580s Robert Browne decided to join together in communion with fellow saints, "the worthiest, be they ever so few."  He was arrested for holding conventicles in private homes.  On his release Browne participated in forming a separate congregation, the members of which chose him as pastor and Robert Harrison as teacher.  Legally, all Englishmen were required to worship in the national church.  Such separatism was illegal.  Forced to leave England, Browne's congregation settled in the Netherlands.  Though Browne himself later returned to the national church, "Brownism" became one of the names used to refer to Sepatatists.

Congregationalism reflected the desires of both separatists and many other puritans to organize churches that consisted of and were controlled by lay believers.  In 1616 most of these were in the Netherlands.

The year 1616 would also be a momentous year on the other side of the Atlantic.  In 1616 Captain John Smith published a map to accompany a book, A Description of New England, detailing his explorations of the American coast from the Bay of Fundy to Cape Cod.  The name he gave to the region would stick.  But that name had no meaning at the time for the native people who lived there.  They had no concept of European notions of geographical borders and territorial labels.  A recent collection of the writings of indigenous people uses the term "Dawnland" to refer to what has become known as New England.  The earth as a whole was thought of as "Turtle Island," a term reflecting native creation beliefs.

The primary importance of 1616 for these people was not the publication of John Smith's map and book, but the outbreak of a major epidemic that would devastate many of the inhabitants.

There were numerous native peoples inhabiting Dawnland in the early seventeenth century.  Well over a dozen separate tribes speaking forms of the root Algonquian language occupied the region, with the boundaries between their homelands undefined and impossible to precisely recreate.  The population prior to substantial European contact may have been as high as two hundred thousand.

Contact between the native peoples and Englishmen had begun at least as early as the start of the sixteenth century, when ships from Bristol entered North American waters to fish and occasionally engage in trade with the local tribes.  Around 1500 an English ship brought three natives to London.  This form of human trafficking that involved transporting natives to Europe would continue.  Some of the victims were enslaved.  Some were exhibited as exotic creatures in the period's equivalent of carnival side shows.  Others were taught English in the expectation that they could serve as interpreters on future voyages.  Of particular relevance to our story was the seizure of twenty-seven natives in 1614 by Thomas Hunt, an associate of John Smith.  Seven of these were captured at Nauset, on what is today called Cape Cod; twenty came from Patuxet, which is modern Plymouth.  One of the latter was named Tisquantum (also known as Squanto).  Hunt tried to sell the natives as slaves in Malaga, Spain, where they were ransomed by Franciscan priests.  The fate of most of them is unknown, but Tisquantum somehow made his way to England, where he learned some English and was used as an interpreter on at least two exploratory trips back to New England.  He eventually was able to make his way back to Patuxet, where he found his entire family and village had been wiped out by what contemporaries referred to as "plague."

The epidemic had begun in 1616 if not a little earlier, the cause being the introduction of European pathogens to what was, as far as those germs were concerned, a biologically virgin environment. The disease was long thought to be smallpox, though some researchers have suggested other possibilities. Whatever the disease, the results were catastrophic.  In the winter of 1616-17 an expedition dispatched by Sir Ferdinando Gorges (perhaps one in which Tisquantum was interpreter) found a region devastated by war and disease, the remaining people so "sore afflicted with the plague, for that the country was in a manner left void of inhabitants."  Two years later another Englishman reported that in a recent voyage to New England he had "passed along the coast, where I found some ancient plantations, not long since populous, now utterly void; in other places, a remnant remains, but not free of sickness."

The epidemic spread along the well-worn routes of Indian trade networks and travel corridors.  In her recent study of Seasons of Misery: Catastrophe and Colonial Settlement in Early America (Penn, 2014), Kathleen Donegan finds that "European pathogens were the cause....  Surviving accounts speak just enough to record the symptoms of a quick and horrid death: headache and fevers, pustules and lesions; bruising, hemorrhaging, and nasal bleeding; the skin turning yellow, then green, and then cold with death....  The rapid spread of sickness and death made it impossible to treat each corpse with the solicitude dictated by tradition.  Bodily remains were heaped up in the villages and bones were left to dry in the sun.  Abandoning the dead was, of course, considered abhorrent in Indian cultures...." (pp 127-128).

The people of the particular region where the Pilgrims settled were the Mashpee Wampanoags, a designation that referred to the land and its people.  As the Mashpee Wampanoag Ramona Peters has written, "We name ourselves after the land we live with.  Because not only are we breathing in, we are also drinking from the water that is flavored by that very land.  Whatever is deposited in the soil is in that water that is in us.  So we are all one thing, and we name ourselves after the place that is our nurturing.  That sustains our life."  In Wampanoag country as a whole, consisting of sixty-nine villages in what is southeast Masschusetts whole villages -- including Patuxet -- were destroyed, and the overall rate of mortality is estimated by some as high as ninety percent.

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