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  The Story of the Pilgrims II:
The Leyden Years


The Pilgrims first stayed in Amsterdam, Holland, having emigrated from England during 1607 and 1608, and having joined another Separatist congregation. However, this congregation was continually embroiled in scandal and controversy, and in 1609 the Pilgrims received permission from the city of Leyden to settle there. The group then began eleven years of life in Leyden, learning trades and working extremely hard.

Over time, many problems arose from living in Holland. Because the Pilgrims were not Leyden citizens, they were limited to working only in handicrafts. Many of the Pilgrims had been farmers and herders in England and the transition was very difficult for them. The restrictions on their lives also made it hard for them to attract new members to their church.

Life in Leyden was also very harsh due in part to the continual hard labor. This made people age quickly and die young, further reducing the numbers of the congregation. Separatists still in England said that they would rather undergo persecution at home than emigrate to Holland to starve.

As the children of immigrants always behave, Separatist kids wanted to be part of Dutch culture and not be seen as odd. This caused great consternation among the Pilgrim adults, who saw their main goal in emigration (the ability to develop and maintain a separate culture) slipping away. Those children who did stay within the community died early from the harsh labor.

All the emphasis on work also meant that the Pilgrims had little time or energy left over to "advance the Gospel:" participating in the great debates of the time over theology and church structure.

The Pilgrims began to feel pressured. As outlaws, they could not return to England, and living in Holland was not turning out the way they wanted. In addition, the Netherlands' 12-year truce signed with Spain in 1609 was about to run out. If Spain renewed the war and re-took the Netherlands, it would bring with it the terrifying Spanish Inquisition, whose task it was to search out and destroy all forms of dissent against the Roman Catholic church. The States General of the Netherands passed a law in 1619 which oulawed Separatist gatherings. While it was not enforced, it was seen as a harbinger of things to come.

Eventually the congregation began to consider emigrating to an English colony in the Americas. This was very controversial and anguished debates ensued. The danger of an ocean crossing was a formidable obstacle. As the group was so physically worn, many doubted they would even have the strength to survive it. Once they arrived, they would have no food or adequate shelter. They would be susceptible to disease and attacks by displaced Native Americans. Many pointed out the poor state of their finances and questioned how they could possibly raise the money to finance such an expedition. Everyone was familiar with the story of Roanoke and other disasters for invading colonists. Some pointed out the tremendous difficulties they faced simply in coming to Holland, "a civilized country"—how much harder would it be to make it in America?

Those in favor of the proposition urged the congregants to rely on God to help them. The mythical "savages" looked better than the well-known and feared Spanish. And after all, one could suffer famine and pestilence in Holland just as well as in America. As for financing, they would form a joint stock company, enrolling investors who would underwrite them upfront and then be repaid, with interest, from the trading profits (namely, fish and fur) of the colony.

The group finally agreed to settle in the existing English colony of Virginia, but to sue to James II for religious freedom. Joining an established colony would give them the stability and security they needed in an English culture, while a royal decree giving them religious freedom would allow them to worship as they wished.

Sympathizers among the nobility were quickly dispatched to James, who rejected the request out of hand. This caused another wave of controversy in the congregation. Those in favor of emigration eventually won out, noting that James couldn't publicly give them religious freedom but might not actually take any steps to hinder them once they were a thousand miles away. And besides, as Bradford put it, even if they had a "seal as broad as the house floor" saying they had religious freedom, it didn't necessarily guarantee it, "for there would be means enow [enough] found to recall or reverse it" if James wanted to. Again, they urged their comrades to put their trust in God.

The whole process was unsettling, and some left the group in face of the odds. Others left over time as negotiations proved difficult. But the remainder kept working toward their dream, recruiting other Separatists still in England to join them in their new venture.

The Pilgrims' relations with their English joint stock company, the Merchant Adventurers, were complicated and often negative. Thomas Weston, their main contact among the investors, was an unprincipled wheeler-and-dealer who constantly broke his word or twisted events to line his pocket. Negotiations were touch and go, as some investors signed on and then subsequently backed out. Some of the Leyden congregation sold everything they owned to contribute to the common stock, but then found through delays and financial frittering that they were no closer to emigrating. Eventually the Pilgrims agreed to take on a company of "Strangers" to please the Adventurers and increase the number of colonists involved in the venture.

The Pilgrims finally embarked from Delftshaven on the Speedwell around 22 July 1620. Because the operation was so risky, the majority of the Separatist congregation was tearfully left behind with pastor John Robinson. Bradford describes the scene at the dock of the anguished congregation split in two. The idea was that this first group would go and set up the colony, and then the rest of the congregation would follow later with Robinson. As it turned out, Robinson died in Holland, much to the bereavement of his congregation.

Part III: The Crossing to America >
< Part I: From Scrooby to Holland

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