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Before the Mayflower: death, prison, poverty

17 January 2020

Stephen Tomkins charts the decades that the pilgrims spent opposing the Established Church before setting sail


A painting depicting the execution of two Brownists in the 16th century

A painting depicting the execution of two Brownists in the 16th century

THE pilgrims who sailed on the Mayflower in 1620 were part of the first great movement of separation from the Church of England. They went farther than most in their pur­suit of that separation — al­though one group had tried to settle in Newfoundland 23 years previously — but, throughout its 50-year history, the whole move­ment had been willing to face prison, poverty, exile, and death in its opposition to the Church of England. Its members became the mothers and fathers of two Non­conformist denominations — Congre­­gational and Baptist — and pioneers of the idea of religious freedom.

So, while the Mayflower rep­resents a foundational moment in American history, it is also the cul­mination of a significant, though hardly so well-remembered, episode of English history.

These Dissenters were known to their contemporaries as the Separ­atists, or, more commonly, the Brown­­­ists, after their most notorious leader, Robert Browne. They traced the origins of their underground church back to Queen Mary’s at­­tempt to burn Protestantism out of England, when a broad Protestant church gathered in London, up to 200-strong, meeting in inns, cellars, and lofts. One of their ministers, John Rough, was burned, alongside the church member Margaret Mear­ing, whom he had mistakenly ex­­pelled on suspicion of being a spy.

When Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558, this underground church was delighted to dissolve it­­self, as the English Reformation re­­sumed, and worshippers returned to their parish churches. What changed that was the dispute over surviving Roman Catholic traditions — most notably priestly vestments — and Archbishop Matthew Parker’s at­­tempt, in 1566, to impose con­formity in these matters on London ministers.

Hardened by Mary’s fires, women doorstepped the Bishop of London, Edmund Grindal, and insulted him in the street. Parishioners of St Mary Magdalen’s, Milk Street, stole the elements, both hosts and wine, to stop their minister presiding over the eucharist in the vestments. Four­teen of the 110 London ministers who did not submit were perman­ently deprived.

The more radical of these ministers and their followers “be­­thought us what were best to do; and we remembered that there was a congregation of us in this city in Queen Mary’s days. . .”

The revived underground church met in private houses, ships, caves, and woods. The Spanish ambassador said that there were 5000 members; the bishop said 200. The true figure was probably about 1000, at the height of the movement — that is, perhaps, getting on for one per cent of Londoners. At first, they used the second Edwardian Prayer Book, like the Marian underground church, but they ended up abandoning all lit­­­­urgy as “babbling in the Lord’s sight”. “In their prayer,” a witness said in the 1580s, “one speaketh and the rest do groan or sob or sigh, as if they would wring out tears.” The servant of a regular attender said that they met at 5 a.m. and con­tinued in worship all day; it may only have felt that way.

SO FAR, the underground wor­shippers were what the historian B. R. White described as “hasty pur­itans”. Puritanism as a whole was a large movement for reform within the Church, which had serious rep­res­entation in Parliament. Puritans petitioned, prayed, preached, and published for change, but most would never dream of breaking with the Church. Even the underground did not think that they were quitting the Church of England: they were, as they saw it, following their duly ordained ministers in avoiding the unbiblical ceremonies being used in their parish buildings, just until the next phase of Reformation came. But radical thought has a tendency to follow radical action.

Services were constantly raided, and leading members were im­­prisoned. Far from facing a fiery death, they were often released after a spell in prison — at least in the early years. Grindal and the Privy Council agreed on a tactic of gentle­ness and persuasion: perse­cution was the work of the Roman Anti­christ, and, having been delivered from it, no one wanted to turn per­secutor himself, against fellow Protestants, in defence of popish para­phernalia.

As far as the underground wor­shippers themselves were con­cerned, however, they were again being persecuted for resisting popish rites, just as they had been under Mary. The longer they worshipped separ­ately, the harder it became to ima­­gine their returning to their parish churches, even if their min­isters should be invited back. They en­­joyed the freedom to elect their own pastors, to expel “the un­­worthy”, to ignore episcopal hier­archy, to pray in their own words, and to take turns in preaching.

When their leaders and others died in the insanitary conditions of London prisons, the roll of honour resumed; the saints were again being martyred by the beast (this time by the second beast of Revelation, which looked like a lamb, but con­tinued the work of the dragon). The Separatists rejected the Church of England as a false Church, and de­­clared that they had left it to be “knit with the body of Christ”.


THE Separatists gained their first important writer and thinker when Robert Browne started gathering fol­lowers in East Anglia. Where earlier Separatist pastors had been forced out of parish ministry, but held on
to their episcopal ordina­tions and preach­ing licences, Browne refused all such accredita­tions, even when they were his for the taking. In de­­ciding who should be allowed to min­­­ister, he reckoned, bishops sought to usurp the au­­thority of Christ. He also had rather better con­nections than previous Separ­atists — being closely enough related to Lord Burghley, the Queen’s chief minister — to get him out of numerous brushes with the law.

superstockColoured steel engraving, 1905, from The Mayflower Approaches Land 1620, an oil painting by Marshall Johnson

In two great innovations, Browne was out of step with his time but helped to make the future. His ex­­perience of leading a gathered con­gregation convinced him that the church was — to use a word that he would have hated — a democracy. The Elizabethan Church, like the state, was a monarchy, ruled by the Queen through the hierarchy of lord bishops. The burgeoning Presbyter­ian movement would move power to the clergy, making ministers free to rule their own churches, consulting each other through regional synods.

But Browne taught that the Church was the people of God and therefore not ruled by either pastors or bishops: what the people of God decided together as a body had greater authority than what any in­­dividual member, in any position, might decide. “The voice of the whole people . . . is . . . the voice of God.” In coming up with this con­gre­gational model of Church, Browne articulated a principle of government which became founda­tional not only to Baptist and Con­gregational Churches, but to West­ern states.

Browne’s other great idea was that reli­gion should be free and the Church should be a voluntary com­mun­ity, not a Church State or Chris­tian nation: “The Lord’s people is of the willing sort.” The State had no right to tell the Church how it should worship God, and the Church had no right to make laws for unbelievers. Those who wished to join the Church and abide by its rules should be free do so; those who did not should be free to go their own way. Neither the State nor the Church should ever use coercion in religion, he said, because only those who came willingly were worth having. “The Lord’s Kingdom is not by force.”

Browne was hardly unique among English Protestants in disapproving of religious violence, but he was ex­­tremely unusual in finding a way to avoid it, developing a theology that made it unnecessary as well as un­­­pleasant.

Take, for comparison, the Eliza­bethan martyrologist John Foxe, whose innate hatred of vio­lence was deepened by chroni­cling the killings under Queen Mary. His primary argu­ment against the Church of Rome was that it could not be the Church described in the Bible be­­cause it had been the scene of “such killing and slaying, such cruelty and tyranny shewed, such burning and spilling of Christian blood”.

And yet Foxe understood the Church to be a realm united in one faith, and so, when theological argu­ments failed to achieve that unity, as of course they did, the Church State had no other recourse than to vio­lence. When Anabaptists were found in London in 1575, Foxe pleaded to the Queen for their lives, and yet even he could suggest no greater mercy than that they be expelled from the realm to become someone else’s problem. If Christianity was obligatory, but it was anti-Christian to persecute, something had to give. Browne’s idea of restoring the Church to the voluntary community of the New Testament offered a way out.


NATURALLY, any theology that would so radically redistribute power was intolerable to the Crown. Browne and his followers were repeatedly imprisoned, and, while they were in exile in the Netherlands in 1583, his teachings were outlawed by royal proclamation. Those who distributed his books were executed, but Browne himself was less of a hero: he eventually signed a sub­mission to Archbishop Whitgift and became the Rector of Thorpe Achurch, in Northamptonshire. Un­­­predictably, to say the least, he also seems to have continued to lead illegal churches, while publicly writ­ing against the next generation of leaders of the movement that was still being called “Brownism”.

Those leaders were Henry Barrow and John Greenwood, who both spent almost all of their separatist careers in prison, but still managed to write a prodigious succession of books condemning the Church of England for being indiscriminate in its membership, and the enemy of free­­dom. Barrow argued that a Prot­estant State Church was a con­tra­diction in terms. Protes­tantism en­­throned the right of Bible readers to follow their own understanding, and, on that basis, to judge the Church.

The Church of England, Barrow said, had separated from Rome on that principle, but, when English Bible readers asserted the same right to judge the Church of England, the bishops denied it, offering no argu­ment but violence. In April 1593, in the space of 12 hours, Archbishop Whitgift got the Seditious Sectaries Act through Parliament, making Brown­ism a felony, and then had Barrow and Greenwood hanged at Tyburn.

Most of the survivors escaped to the Netherlands, via Newfoundland, in the case of four of them, in an abortive colonial-project that anti­cip­ated the Pilgrim Fathers. Their numbers were hugely swelled, soon after the succession of James I in England, by his new Archbishop of Canterbury, Richard Bancroft.

Following the Hampton Court Conference, Bancroft launched the fiercest attack on the Puritans yet, requiring every min­ister in the kingdom to declare his approval of everything in the Prayer Book and declaring the excommuni­ca­tion of every citizen who criticised it. Three hundred ministers were suspended, and 73 of them were permanently deprived. New Brown­ist churches sprang up, notably in Gainsborough, Lincoln­shire, and Scrooby, in Not­­ting­ham­shire. The Gains­borough group, led by John Robinson, who had quit the curacy of St Andrew’s, Norwich, in Bancroft’s purge, was to provide many of the Pilgrim Fathers.


IN DUTCH towns, the Brownists enjoyed all the toleration that they had been denied in England — al­­though the Dutch Reformed Church did not approve — and, from these vantage points, they bombarded their home country with propa­ganda. With such freedom, it is not immediately obvious why they felt the urge to go to America — which they did, powerfully, the May­­flower being their fourth venture in that direction. They talked about how tough life was for immigrants in Holland, and the dangers of the resumption of war with Spain, but they also knew that North America was at least as tough and dangerous.

The answer, I think, lies in their deep propensity to see their lives as following paths mapped out in the Bible, above all, in the story of the Exodus. For all Separatists, “England was as Egypt”, in Browne’s words: the land of their birth, but also of godlessness, violence, and oppres­sion. The Lord had led them out across the sea, but the Netherlands, for all its freedom, was a place of struggle, trial, and hardship. It was clearly not the Promised Land then, but the wilderness they had to pass through en route. Going back to Egypt would mean turning back on God; so they had to find a way forward.

In founding their New England settlement, they had no royal charter to dictate how it should be run, no new theory of government, and no experience of civic administration. Instead, they had the experience of forming churches through their mu­­tual agreement to be the people of God.

Through the Mayflower com­pact, which the 41 adult males signed on arrival, they applied the same prin­ciple to creating a “civil body politic”, agreeing, by mutual coven­ant, to be governed by consent. The American contribution to a new kind of government, following the English contribution to a new kind of Church government, had begun.


The Journey to the Mayflower: God’s outlaws and the invention of freedom by Stephen Tomkins is published by Hodder & Stoughton at £20 (CT Bookshop £18).

Listen to an interview with Stephen Tomkins on the Church Times Podcast.

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