They Came For Freedom|
The Forgotten, Epic Adventure of the Pilgrims
Thomas Nelson, 2017, HC, 320 pp, $24.99
When I picked up this book I was prepared to read another swashbuckling tale of the Mayflower crossing. It is so much better than that. Milbrandt prefaces his book with the big questions, "Why are we here? Why do I live in this state or town, why do I belong to this church?" Much of American culture can be honed down to the Pilgrims, their failures as well as their triumphs. In our culture today Milbrandt points out that we are at a political and moral crossroads. Our country is struggling with issues of inclusion via immigration and refugees. Americans today are often at odds with each other over religions and where we stand even though freedom of religion is a foundation this nation was built upon. The Pilgrims fled to the new country because of persecution, but unlike the stories we were told as children, only about 30 of the 102 passengers on the Mayflower were actually separatists, other passengers went along, some as puritans, some as adventurers.
Milbrandt begins the book with the story in 1586, with Henry Barrow visiting Reverend John Greenwood at "The Clink" a medieval jail. Greenwood was imprisoned because he wouldn't practice under the Church of England's laws. The English Reformation ensued as a reaction to the pope when he refused to grant an annulment to Henry the Viii. To me this was fascinating. I hadn't realized how strict the Church of England was. I knew of course the basic story, but never knew the lengths the church would go, if one missed church repeatedly, one could be put to death. Greenwood and Barrow give an interesting foreshadowing and deep understanding to why our Pilgrims felt the need to flee.
And flee they did... to Holland. Holland was a sanctuary for them. Freedom of religion flourished and they were welcome there. Unfortunately political factions again came into play, a twelve year truce was about to expire and the Pilgrims were afraid their sanctuary would too be dissolved. They placed their hearts and money on the new world.
Though Milbrandt describes the crossing in detail, it is not sensationalized. I enjoyed his writing as frank and thoughtful. He gives us insight into the trials the Pilgrims had to face. Though they were far from the first people to discover the new world, they were not the first to encounter the Native Americans, or to make a settlement, they had other major firsts that would influence the drafting of our democracy. They were determined to keep church and state separate. Milbrandt writes "...two hundred years after signing the Mayflower Compact, John Quincy Adams would say of it, 'It was the first example in modern times of a social compact or system of government instituted by voluntary agreement conformably to the laws of nature, by men of equal rights and about to establish their community in a new country.'" The Pilgrims had established a rule of law. They also had a system of land records in direct defiance to the old European monarchy, and they dissolved the old tenant that land be given to the oldest son and could descend to all children in a family; completely revolutionary for the times.
This book does not, however, put a shining halo around these adventures. Milbrandt tells the whole story. At length the Pilgrims made mistakes, but they were not the Native American killers some would paint them as. They did have treaties with some Native Americans which they abided by. The Pilgrims were inundated with new comers, some who used them and their sparse stores of food. They had their own religious intolerances. Milbrandt writes "Despite their many shortcoming and failures, the Pilgrims stood as a model to our nation's founding fathers". Perhaps this is why we tend to promote their story in mythological terms. We spend thanksgiving every year with school children dressing up in quaint costumes. Reading this book will expose those myths and the truth. It is a true education written in an accessible and balanced manner. I absolutely enjoyed every minute of it and believe you will too.