*** DEBUG END ***

The Journey to the ‘Mayflower’: God’s outlaws and the invention of freedom, by Stephen Tomkins

04 September 2020

Sarah Mortimer reflects on a bid for freedom

IN 1572, John Field insisted that Parliament reform a Church whose ministers were “unsavoury salt, blind guides, sleepy watchmen”, and whose rituals were similarly empty of godliness. “They toss the Psalms in most places like tennis balls,” he complained. Though Field had been ordained in the Church of England, his zeal for what he believed was true, Reformed worship led to a tense relationship with his ecclesiastical superiors.

At times imprisoned and often silenced, Field never let go of his vision of purity. But he also never left the Church of England. What he wanted was a properly Reformed community, not his own exclusive splinter group. Later generations would find this tension unbearable, setting up Separatist churches. Some emigrated — among them the “pilgrim fathers” who set sail on the Mayflower in 1620.

Tomkins’s vivid, fast-paced prose tells the story of the men and women who struggled against what they saw as the popish pollution still infecting the English Church. What they wanted was purity, but when this seemed impossible they began instead to demand freedom: the freedom to worship God correctly.

At the heart of Tomkins’s book (Features, 17 January) is the thought that the arguments these puritans developed against the imposition of idolatry and superstition upon themselves would soon become broader arguments for the possibility of dissent, for liberty and religious choice. Modern Congregationalist and Baptist Churches arose from the movement. What began as a tiny seed among house-groups in London grew to the “very plenteous harvest” predicted by John Robinson, one of the early Separatists.

The story is told with verve and panache, and Tomkins has an excellent eye for the telling quote that captures the spirit of the protagonists. One early Separatists, for example, told the Scottish Reformer John Knox that he and his English friends “utterly refuse to hear . . . all those that do maintain this mingle-mangle ministry”. And Tomkins deftly reveals the new difficulties that this community found even in more tolerant Holland: here, one migrant lamented, they were met by “the grim and grisly face of poverty”. Even the godly have to deal with the stark realities of everyday life.

Despite the title, Tomkins’s claims about freedom and about the theology of the movement are lightly sketched. But it would have been helpful to hear more about what freedom meant to the Separatists and how their sense of God’s sovereignty and election shaped their understanding of human liberty.

Some Separatists denied predestination, and yet many others (like John Robinson) put it as the centre of their faith, justifying toleration on the grounds that only God’s grace could save sinful people. Freedom was not invented by the Separatists. But their lively debates about its meaning helped to shape how we understand it today.


Dr Sarah Mortimer is Associate Professor of Early Modern History in the University of Oxford.


The Journey to the Mayflower: God’s outlaws and the invention of freedom
Stephen Tomkins
Hodder & Stoughton £20
Church Times Bookshop £18


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


Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


ViSIt our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)