A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Andre A. Gazal
Though the year 2020 will be infamous for the initial outbreak of the COVID-19 virus which continues its rampage throughout the world, it also marked the four hundredth anniversary of the Pilgrims’ eventful voyage upon the Mayflower which brought them to the shores of what is now Cape Cod, Massachusetts. These refugees from England and the European Continent seeking a home in which to live their communal faith according to their understanding of Scripture established the Plymouth colony.
Though until relatively recently subject to national romantic sentiments which portrayed them as pioneers of religious liberty who sowed the seeds of American democracy, the Pilgrims are now, as many perceived heroes of early American history, are being “cancelled” by an aggressive woke culture as foreign invaders who subjugated relatively peaceful native Americans by imposing their religion upon them and stealing their land. According to this revisionist narrative, the Pilgrims are no longer early heralds of democracy and brave apostles of religious liberty, but vicious imperialists and perpetrators of genocide.
Derek Wilson endeavors to navigate between the two extreme portrayals of the Pilgrims as daring democratic pioneers and exploiters of indigenous peoples in his popularly written study, The Mayflower Pilgrims: Sifting Fact from Fable. Wilson’s central argument is that the Pilgrims’ courageous journey across the Atlantic and their subsequent settlement of the Plymouth colony represented the outworking of the Reformation in England with all its complex, convoluted, and often contradictory impulses.
For this reason, the book is arguably more about the English Reformation with the Pilgrims’ trans-Atlantic journey and colonial settlement functioning as a postscript. This approach to the Pilgrims’ voyage can prove quite valuable especially to Americans many, if not most of whom would not be familiar with this larger context in which this treacherous voyage and the reasons for it developed.
Wilson begins his fast-moving narrative with a brief account of the Lollards and early sixteenth-century humanists like Sir Thomas More. Throughout this first chapter, Wilson maintains that their urging for ecclesiastical reform in England specifically as well as Christendom generally (albeit from totally different vantage-points) helped initiate the trajectory that ultimately would lead to the ideology that served as the basis for the Pilgrims’ overall vision—something the author clearly acknowledges would have made a staunch Catholic traditionalist like More aghast.
From there Wilson, using Edmund Dudley’s trope of the “tree of the commonwealth,” traces the development of the English monarchy’s role in deciding and regulating the nation’s religion from Henry VIII’s withdrawal of England from papal obedience to the death of his young evangelical son, Edward VI in 1553 in chapter 3.
Chapter 4 examines the pivotal role of the Bible in shaping Reformed piety in general, and that of the English Bible forming English Protestant ethos specifically. This is followed by the formative influence of continental Reformed theology and polity on the English evangelical exiles during the reign of Mary Tudor (r.1553-58), with the effect that it established the basis for later Puritan theology along with its agenda for further reform along the lines of those that characterized continental Reformed churches.
The narrative of the development of the English Reformed practice continues as the author examines the increased centrality of preaching in piety and public worship. In this regard, he traces the development of this phenomenon from the itinerant Lollard preachers to the institution of the controversial “prophesyings,” preaching workshops inspired in part by similar practices in Zurich, during the reign of Elizabeth I. It should be noted here that the queen vehemently opposed these “prophesyings.”
Chapter 6, “Mission and Money,” is arguably one of the most fascinating sections of this work. Here, Wilson lucidly narrates the account of how England’s early forays into the New World were driven simultaneously by missions, empire, and profit. In fact, he observes, that it was during this period that John Dee (1527-1609) first referred to the “British Empire.” While interesting and undoubtedly true, Wilson seems to overemphasize the pursuit of profit while dismissing the missionary motive as a mere pretense for the former.
Even though the desire for territorial expansion and wealth factored prominently in these endeavors, Wilson unduly underestimates the likelihood that in this period desire for missions, empire, and profit were inextricably intertwined. Mission in this period, and frankly for the next three to four centuries, and expansion of Christendom by way of enhancing political, corporate, and financial interests were treated as synonymous. Early moderns by and large did not neatly segregate these factors as many living after the Enlightenment have and still do.
Chapter 7 directly establishes the ecclesiastical context from which the Separatist Pilgrims emerge. Specifically in this chapter, Wilson traces the development of this group within Puritanism, beginning with Robert Browne (1540-1633). This narrative continues into chapter 8 where the author examines Puritanism’s clash with the government of Elizabeth I.
In describing this encounter between the establishment and this movement for further reform, Wilson rightly interprets it as a conflict of two principles, that of Royal Supremacy (the idea that the monarch was the “Supreme Governor” over the national church), and that of a Scripturally informed conscience. Separatism will act further on this latter principle well beyond the parameters acknowledged by the Puritans who sought to operate within the established church.
Chapter 9 picks up with the reign of James I (James VI of Scotland) (r.1603-25) whose aggressive enforcement of ecclesiastical conformity propelled a group of Separatists and their pastor, John Robinson to disembark from the town of Scrooby to the Netherlands, a narrative upon which Wilson further expounds in chapter 10.
Chapter 11 surveys the events in England and throughout Europe that drove the colonial policies resulting in the settlement of Virginia. In this chapter, not only does Wilson examine these policies, but also the purposes behind them among which is the expansion of Christendom. In a way that might contradict his argument in chapter 6, the author seems to grant here the intertwining of both profit and mission behind the enterprise.
Chapter 12 concludes the work with a discussion of the Pilgrims themselves, not so much with respect to the actual Mayflower voyage (which receives little to no mention) as the vision behind the eventual settlement in Plymouth—the establishment of a godly commonwealth governed according to the laws of God revealed in his Word. In short, it represents England’s long and convoluted Reformation, or at least one version of it, establishing itself on American shores.
The Mayflower Pilgrims is a lucidly written, fast-moving work as it quickly guides the reader through the vast panorama of events leading from the earliest Reformation in England to the settlement of Plymouth. The principal strength of this work lies in the direct connection between the English Reformation and the Plymouth settlement, demonstrating quite clearly that Plymouth Plantation was the ultimate, trans-Atlantic result of England’s “Long Reformation.” The earlier chapters of the work dealing with the Tudor period, seem to constitute the weakest section of the book as they seem simply to reiterate popular stereotypes of the Reformation having been driven almost purely by political designs with Henry VIII being something of an impulsive, lustful ogre manipulated by Thomas Cromwell.
A substantial corrective to some of these earlier chapters can be found in G.W. Bernard’s magisterial monograph, The King’s Reformation. With all of this said, The Mayflower Pilgrims represents the best of popular history as it acquaints a general audience with the longstanding developments and issues (theological, political, and economic) stemming from the Reformation in England which ultimately drove the Pilgrims’ historic voyage. Moreover, the concerns associated with the English Reformation shaped the vision that motivated the journey and its resulting settlement.
The English Reformation, thus, serves as the necessary narrative in which to situate and interpret the Pilgrims and their work, for better, or for ill. Plymouth Plantation, therefore, stands as the nexus between the English Reformation and the beginnings of early America. Wilson’s work of conveying this fact helps significantly in filling a historical lacuna in twenty-first-century American consciousness relentlessly increased by anachronistic wokeness. In addressing this, Wilson has rendered an invaluable public service.
Andre A. Gazal
Montana Bible College
Buy the books
THE MAYFLOWER PILGRIMS: SIFTING FACT FROM FICTION, by Derek Wilson