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Reviews

Making Haste from Babylon

Anthony McRoy

Nick Bunker
The Bodley Head, 489pp, ISBN: 9780224081382

RBabylon.jpgOur family have US friends living in Britain, and every year we celebrate Thanksgiving with them. The meal commemorates the story of the Pilgrim Fathers, who migrated to North America to establish a 'city, set on a hill', a model of Christian civilisation. Probably, the story has been done to death over there, but Bunker has found new material in UK archives, overlooked by British historians for whom the Pilgrim story is tangential to the record of the British Empire in North America. This is a dense volume, delving into socio-economic as well as political and religious factors behind the migration, but for those interested in the tale of the Pilgrims, it is a wise investment.

The title reflects the Puritan reason for migration - England had become a place of cruelty, murder and depravity, so the godly fled. Bunker emphasises one cause: the sign of a comet just before dawn on 28 November 1618. The Pilgrims were already planning, and had received permission from King James to settle in America. At first, Calvinist opinion saw the comet as a portent of doom upon the Roman Church, and a promise that Protestant Christianity would shine on the American heathen.

Another impetus was the domestic policy of James I, who insisted on religious and political conformity, but the main trouble was Archbishop Bancroft. Bunker de-bunks James's oft-quoted threat to the Puritans at the Hampton Court Conference in 1604 to 'harry them out of the land': far from being a warning, it was 'a heavy-handed effort in sarcasm from an irritated monarch who had endured two full days of circuitous pomposity'. It was a joke about the Puritans' verbosity - in fact, the main difficulty they faced was getting permission to leave England.

Bancroft was determined to purge Puritans who would not give wholesale subscription to the Prayer Book. This, paradoxically, encouraged separatist congregations outside the Established Church, in particular by Congregationalists such as John Smyth and John Robinson. Bancroft's motivation was not repressive: rather, he felt that Congregationalism would lead 'to either anarchy or dictatorship', and that if the Royal supremacy was removed from the Church, the rich and powerful would manipulate congregations to their own ends, and/or civil war would follow - a partly prophetic view in the light of developments under Charles I.

We must not exaggerate Jacobean Britain, as some authors have, as a kind of Anglican Saudi Arabia: 'Far from being a despotism, Jacobean England was intensely legalistic, and political debate often found its principal arena in the courts'. Separatists argued that religious harassment by Bancroft's High Commission was contrary to Magna Carta. However, they feared - in fact, wrongly - that they might face trial for sedition, so the Puritans who were to become the Pilgrims made preparation for covert emigration, firstly to the Netherlands.

Another spur to migration was economic - firstly because of the land and status situation in England, where people aspired to enter the gentry - a kind of proto-American Dream, often thwarted by circumstances, and secondly, after going to the Netherlands, by the fact that as foreigners, they could not climb the social ladder. Life there was harsh. One attraction of America was that Europe, especially Jacobean Britain, was eager for beaver fur, a fashion staple, but military developments in Russia had undermined the trade from there, whereas beavers were plentiful across the ocean. This was one way the colony was able to survive.

Furthermore, the Pilgrims were concerned at the loss of their English identity in Leiden, at its 'irreligion', and the social unrest and riots they experienced there - ironically, on the city's annual day of thanksgiving.

Another motive was to convey the Gospel to the New World. This brings us back to the 'message' of the comet, of bringing Christianity to the heathen in North America. The Pilgrims felt that God was calling them to America, to establish his Kingdom.

Politically, the Pilgrims, once in America, instituted the Mayflower Compact, because, being outside the Virginia colony, there was no binding source of law. The Compact pledged loyalty to the King, but a later codicil also emphasised that as freeborn Britons, nobody could force on the colony a law - or tax - to which they did not give free consent. One can see how this provided the foundation for 1776, but paradoxically, it was because of their British heritage of the rule of law and liberty, as enshrined by the Pilgrims, that the American Revolution occured when it did. There were no such revolts at that time in the far more repressive French and Spanish American colonies because their religious and political heritages were so different. In fact, the Compact's reference to the Pilgrim community as a 'civill bodie politick', with the right the right to make laws, was simply the phrase used in royal charter for English boroughs. Truly, New England was in many ways a reflection of 'Olde Englande'.

Relations between the Pilgrims and the indigenous people were ambiguous. They enjoyed the friendship of Squanto, actually named Tisquantum, who knew English and interpreted for them. The Pilgrims formed an alliance with a local chief, Massasoit. The Pilgrims' friendship with both men led them to intervene in intra-native conflict which threatened them. For the most part, the Pilgrims secured their position by diplomacy, but backed up with modern arms - a very British practice. They successfully defended themselves from attack by other natives, and stuck the head of the leader of this assault on a pike on top of their fort- pour encourager les autres.

Of course, in the first Thanksgiving in 1621, based on a tradition of pious thanksgiving to God going back to the reign of Elizabeth I, such as for the defeat of the Armada, natives joined the celebration. The Pilgrims thanked God for their arrival in the new Promised Land. The second Thanksgiving, in 1623, followed a severe draught, which threatened the crops - and thus famine. They responded by calling a day of Fasting, Prayer and Humiliation.

The cloudless, extremely hot morning gave way to rain by the evening, continuing for fourteen days, reviving the dying crops, which impressed the native people. We can well understand why the Pilgrims felt that God was with them in their project, and why atheism has always attracted derision in American society - if the Pilgrims symbolised the American Dream, then one cannot exclude God who gave the Dream, and sent the comet.

Anthony McRoy