Thanksgiving Day: Pilgrims were a surprisingly worldly, tolerant lot
Pilgrims who braved the Mayflower were profoundly shaped by their 11 years in Leiden, Netherlands, where they arrived 400 years ago this year. Deeply devout, they were also some of the most tolerant among Puritan groups who headed to the new world.
Leiden, The Netherlands
The first Pilgrims of the first American Thanksgiving in 1621 were unusually devout – even by Puritan standards. They crossed the ocean on a conviction that "the Lord has more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy Word," as pastor John Robinson said before they sailed from the Netherlands.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Yet the Pilgrim band that braved the Mayflower and shared deer and turkey with native Americans were also some of the most cosmopolitan and tolerant among the Puritan groups willing to brave the wilds of a new world.
Before going to Plymouth, the Mayflower group lived 11 years in the Dutch city of Leiden. Those years of exile in Leiden, where the Pilgrims worked, worshipped, and debated – amid hefty clashes of civilizations and belief in Europe – profoundly influenced their sensibilities in ways that have not been widely recognized.
The Pilgrims – unlike British Puritans who wanted to turn Massachusetts into a theocracy – sharply advocated church-state separation. They heretically believed that women should be allowed to speak in church. They were far more tolerant of other faiths and open to the idea that their theology, like all human dogma, might contain errors.
Pilgrim experiences "in the cosmopolitan Netherlands are a reason they are less rigid or dogmatic in their views about what people must and must not do," argues Jeremy Bangs, curator of the American Pilgrim Museum in Leiden and author of "Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners: Leiden and the Foundations of Plymouth Plantation," a 900-page reappraisal published this year on the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims' arrival in Leiden.
"The pilgrims didn't have witchcraft hysteria, they didn't kill Quakers. These are big differences!" notes Mr. Bangs, a former curator of Plimoth Plantation whose work draws heavily from untapped Dutch and New England archives. "Pilgrim leaders were less prone to persecute…. The possibility that others may be right and they may be wrong is something influenced by their time living in an extraordinary community of other exiles in Holland."
Living among other castouts
In Leiden, the Pilgrims lived packed in a warren of houses near the university, amid Gypsies and Jews, refugee French and Poles, exiled Swiss, and other castouts from the turmoil of the Reformation. They were given sanctuary as one of some 19 groups. Eager to explain why they left England, the Pilgrims ran a free press around the corner from where the painter Rembrandt was living.
The first Pilgrim Thanksgiving likely derives from scripture in Leviticus and Deuteronomy 16 in the Geneva Bible used by Puritans. (The text requests that all within the borders of the community be invited – which Bangs says explains the presence of the native American Indians.)
But the Pilgrim Thanksgiving is also nearly identical to an Oct. 3 Dutch Protestant "thanksgiving." The day, the start of three days of sermons, games, militia exercises, and feasting, celebrated the end of the 1574 Spanish Catholic siege of Leiden, when half the city starved. (It is still commemorated.)
Few religious groups more historically maligned
Thanksgiving may offer an annual moment to reflect on Pilgrims and Puritans, who migrated to America on the grounds that the Church of England was beyond reform. On the eve of their departure from Leiden, Mr. Robinson, the pastor, says in a sermon remembered by pilgrim Edward Winslow that it is time to move past the Reformation. Lutherans will only go so far as Luther, and the Calvinists only so far as Calvin. In the present hour, Robinson says, it is possible to "embrace further light."