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Persecution of the Pilgrims and Puritans

When James I. became King of England, he tried to enforce obedience to one Church, with all its forms and ceremonies and beliefs. Other kings had done this before him. Said he, "I will have one doctrine, one discipline, one religion in substance and ceremony."

This was very unwise in the King, for men should be allowed to worship God in their own way, and not in any king's way. But James cared little for the wishes of his people. "I will govern according to the common weal, and not according to the common will," was his haughty speech.

There were many people in England who were opposed to parts of the religious service and to many of the ecclesiastical ceremonies of the Church of England. They wished to purify the Church of its old customs, and so they were called "Puritans" by way of derision. The Puritans frankly refused to conform to the Church.

"I shall make them conform, else I shall harry them out of this land, or even worse," said King James, in anger.

Some of the Puritans, believing they had a right to think for themselves in the matter of religion, broke away from the Established Church, and quietly formed separate congregations of their own. One of these congregations met in the old Manor House of Scrooby, where lived a certain William Brewster, who was a staunch Puritan, Non-Conformist and Separatist. His followers were called "Non-Conformists" because they refused to conform to the Established Church, and "Separatists" because they separated from it.

Every Sunday, numbers of people could be seen going to his house to listen to the sermon of their teacher and pastor. One of the most active of his congregation was William Bradford, whose home was near the old manor house. Bradford was only seventeen years old at the time he joined the congregation at Scrooby.

When King James heard of this meeting he was very wroth indeed. "They must conform to my Church and my service, or it shall be the worse for them!" he declared.

Therefore, some of the Puritans were taken and put in prison, others had their houses watched day and night, while still others were threatened with a loss of their means of livelihood. All of them lived in terror of the King and his agents. No wonder the Puritans resolved to leave the country, if possible.

Though the King said he would harry them out of the land, they now found it hard to get away. The King's officers were told to arrest any who attempted to go. Accordingly, they had to make their plans with great secrecy.

A large company of the Puritans hired a ship solely for themselves, and agreed with the owner to be ready on a certain day to board her with all their goods and chattels. After long waiting, much exposure, and many delays, the ship finally arrived one night, and the Puritans went on board, hoping to get to Holland.

Hardly were they gathered together before the Captain betrayed them into the hands of the King's officers. They were put into open boats, and were rifled of all their possessions. Even their shirts were torn open in the search for money. Their books and papers were taken away. Then the entire company was sent back to town, and put into prison,—some for a month and others for even a longer time.

But the Puritans refused to give up their congregation, and they would neither conform to the King's Church nor bow to his will. After they were all out of prison, they secretly made an arrangement with a Dutch Captain to take them on board his vessel at a point agreed upon, far from any town.

The women and children were sent to this place in a small boat, which, arriving ahead of time, put into a small creek to wait. Unluckily the time came for low tide and they stuck in the mud. There was no way to reach them, nor could they get away until the tide rose and floated the boat. In the meanwhile, the ship arrived, ready for her passengers.

The men of the Puritan party had come and were walking impatiently along the shore. One of the ship's boats was sent to get them; for it was thought that the women and children could be taken up later. But just as these men were safely on board, an armed body of the King's pursuers was seen coming across the fields. The Dutch Captain, in great haste, weighed anchor, hoisted his sails, and made away.

The Puritans were in great despair over leaving their families to the mercy of the officers, but the Captain refused to go back, since he feared the wrath of his own Government at his thus defying the will of the King of England. Therefore, the men were landed in Holland.

But it was not long before the English King grew tired of the controversy. "Let them go; the country is well rid of them," said he, and gave orders to make no more arrests. Therefore, in a short while, the women and children and the rest of the Puritan Church joined the men in Holland, and began their new life in a strange land. It was now that they called themselves "Pilgrims."

For the next eleven or twelve years the Pilgrims lived in Holland. But it was hard to keep English customs in a foreign land. Their religion was too solemn and sober for the pleasure-loving Dutch. The young people were fast learning the Dutch language and customs. The elders saw more dangers to their religion from the Sunday pastimes of the people, than they found in England from the wrath of the King. Besides, they were poor, and there was also a rumor of war coming on.

Therefore, the Pilgrims decided upon another change. The King of England granted them land in the New World, and let them know he would not molest them in their worship. Doubtless he was glad to put the ocean between him and the troublesome congregation.

Two vessels were engaged to take them across—the Speedwell, lying at Delfthaven, in Holland, and the Mayflower, taking on supplies at Southampton, in England. The two vessels started out together, but the Speedwell  sprung a leak, and had to put back into harbor. The Pilgrims, about one hundred and twenty in all, went aboard the Mayflower, and set sail for the shores of America, glad to turn their backs on the persecutions and hardships of the Old World, and knowing that they would find in their new home freedom to worship God in their own way.