American Pilgrims and Pilgrimage Sites

As I alluded to in my first post in this series on the Mayflower separatists, it is a bit strange to term them “the pilgrims.” They considered themselves “strangers and pilgrims,” who as the saints of old looked forward to what came beyond their time on earth.

I felt this disconnect most keenly when rooting around in the Canterbury Cathedral Archives for information on Robert Cushman, whom the folks there happily refer to as a “Pilgrim Father.” Very nice of them not to mention that many far more legitimate Pilgrims have come to Canterbury.

Labels aside (no point abstaining from traditional designations as far as I am concerned), Pilgrim buffs and historians have plenty of opportunities to make pilgrimages themselves on this side of the pond. Old Plymouth’s link to the Mayflower passengers is very shallow, as the separatists had no particular connection to the city. Other points on the southern England Pilgrim route (London, Southampton, and Dartmouth) are also not really central to the Pilgrim story. It’s another story further north, in what Nick Bunker dubbed the “Pilgrim Quadrilateral,” the region including Scrooby, Gainsborough, Austerfield, and Babworth that was a hub of Puritan-turned-separatist activity.

Outside of New England, though, the central Pilgrims pilgrimage site might well be Leiden. Amid mounting persecution in the early seventeenth century, English dissidents took refuge in the Low Countries. One congregation, led by John Robinson, went to Leiden, where future New Plymouth leaders such as William Bradford and William Brewster spent a decade. By the end of the 1610s, a portion of the congregation chose to emigrate. Economic conditions were difficult, tensions with Spain were mounting, and the separatists feared that their children would cease being both English and devout if they stayed in the their new home. Still, links between New Plymouth and Leiden persisted for some time, as other families emigrated in the 1620s. Leiden is a pivotal chapter in the Pilgrim story.

John Robinson, Burial Marker, Pieterskerk, Leiden
John Robinson, Burial Marker, Pieterskerk, Leiden

So, we made our pilgrimage to Leiden earlier this month. In Leiden, one can see the Pieterskerk, where John Robinson was buried (evidence for his solid reputation among at least the then-predominant Counter-Remonstrant Dutch Reformed). Inside the church one can find some verbiage connecting the Pilgrims to the growth of democracy and such. Nearby is William Brewstersteeg, where the congregation’s ruling elder lived and where he made himself a wanted man in England by printing separatist and puritan literature.

William Brewstersteeg
William Brewstersteeg

The most essential Pilgrim site in Leiden, however, is not a historic site but rather the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum. The museum is the creation of Jeremy Bangs, a University of Leiden-trained Ph.D. with an unparalleled knowledge of the Pilgrim story. Bangs’s publications on the subject are essential, especially his Strangers and Pilgrims and his documentary biography of Edward Winslow. The former is particularly valuable for its challenge to notions long accepted in many quarters, ranging from Dorothy Bradford’s alleged suicide to the supposed irrelevance of the Mayflower Compact.

Situated in Leiden’s oldest standing house, Bangs’s museum contains two rooms. One consists of objects and books related to the Pilgrims. The other holds objects pertaining to other aspects of the city’s long history.

The museum is atypical. There is no cafe. There is no gift shop. There are no exhibits per se. The objects do not have signs next to them. One can hold (some of) the objects. One can sit in (some of the) very old chairs.

Instead of reading signage, visitors talk with Bangs. Those who ask no questions will have short and probably confusing visits. Those who engage in conversation will have a very rare experience: the chance to learn about an episode of history by conversing with a leading author in the field. Brilliant!

Last in this three-part series will be a post on the “Pilgrim Trail” at the intersection of Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, and Yorkshire.

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