Religious Refugees in the Age of the Pilgrims

By: John Coffey

November 17, 2021

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The Mayflower Pilgrims did not sail to the New World to escape persecution. By 1620, they had been living—for more than a decade—in the Dutch Republic, a relatively safe haven for Protestant sects. Yet the Pilgrims had once been religious refugees. In 1608, they were living in the English Midlands, separatists from the established church. They were part of a small network of breakaway congregations, numbering only a few thousand out of a population of four million. “Hunted and persecuted on every side,” they secretly hired a ship to take them to Holland. In the city of Leiden, they enjoyed freedom of worship.

Pilgrim tercentennary commemorative half-dollar coin (1921). Public domain image.
Pilgrim tercentennary commemorative half-dollar coin (1921). Public domain image.

How to handle religious dissenters and religious refugees was a pressing problem in a Europe divided by faith. Some states pursued a zero-tolerance policy toward dissenters, creating refugees in the process. Medieval Spain had been a multi-faith society comprised of Catholics, Jews, and Muslims, but early modern re-catholicization forced hundreds of thousands of Jews and Muslims into exile. Many settled in the Islamic world, including the Ottoman Empire, which was more accommodating to Jews and other minorities than most Christian states. Protestant England, for example, prosecuted many religious dissenters as a threat to church and state. Under Elizabeth I, English authorities executed some separatists for sedition, burned half a dozen anti-Trinitarians for heresy, and hanged between 120 and 130 Catholic priests for treason. 

How to handle religious dissenters and religious refugees was a pressing problem in a Europe divided by faith. Some states pursued a zero-tolerance policy toward dissenters, creating refugees in the process.

The Dutch Republic, by contrast, became famous (or notorious) for its pluralism. The public church was Calvinist, but the country played host to a proliferating array of minorities: Catholics, Jews, Lutherans, Mennonites, Arminians, and other Protestant sects. Dutch tolerance has been exaggerated—the authorities did not allow dissenting minorities to worship openly in public churches or synagogues—but magistrates did turn a blind eye to semi-clandestine worship in private homes. And the Dutch Reformed welcomed Calvinist immigrants such as Scottish Presbyterians and English Puritans. Some of these exiles were living in the Netherlands as merchants; others were religious exiles who had migrated to enjoy freedom of worship. 

Thus, the flight of the separatists in 1608 was part of a wider phenomenon in post-Reformation Europe. Indeed, the English word “refugee” originates in the seventeenth century: It derives from the French term Refuge, the name adopted by the Calvinists (or Huguenots) who fled France in the 1680s after Louis XIV revoked an edict of toleration. As many as 200,000 Huguenots went into exile, enriching (both economically and culturally) the countries that received them, especially England and the Dutch Republic. To the Huguenot philosopher Pierre Bayle, Holland was “the ark of the fugitives.”

Louis Ferdinand Elle the Younger, “Portrait of Pierre Bayle,” c. 1675, oil on canvas. Public domain image.
Louis Ferdinand Elle the Younger, “Portrait of Pierre Bayle,” c. 1675, oil on canvas. Public domain image.

Religious exiles were often extraordinarily creative and influential. As Yosef Kaplan explains: “religious refugees were one of the formative factors in European culture in the early modern period. A considerable proportion of the men of science, the most prominent thinkers, authors, and theologians in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were exiles.” Historian Nicholas Terpstra has argued that “Almost all the major figures of the Reformation were themselves shaped in some way by a period of forced migration or exile.” Luther translated the New Testament into German during 300 days when he hid as an outlaw in the Wartburg Castle; William Tyndale translated the Bible into English while exiled on the continent; Calvin’s Geneva oversaw a “reformation of the refugees”; the Geneva Bible (the translation Shakespeare read) was produced by the city’s English exiles; the first English Baptists emerged in Dutch exile at the same time as the Pilgrims. In the later seventeenth century, some of the seminal texts of the European Enlightenment were written by two religious refugees in the Netherlands: a Sephardic Jew (Spinoza) and a French Huguenot (Bayle). 

The period witnessed heated debates about whether to admit religious refugees. A notable case occurred in 1655, when Oliver Cromwell summoned a conference at Whitehall to discuss the readmission of the Jews, who had been expelled from England by King Edward I. Critics dredged up a host of anti-Semitic stereotypes and argued that Jews would undermine England’s Christian ethos. They were skeptical of the millenarian argument that the imminent conversion of the Jews was predicted in biblical prophecy. And they set strict limits around Christian hospitality: It applied to individuals not to whole communities; it concerned extraordinary and temporary cases; and it should be targeted at those who belonged to the “household of faith” (that is, fellow Protestants). Admitting co-religionists was one thing; opening the nation’s doors to religious others was a different matter.

Admitting co-religionists was one thing; opening the nation’s doors to religious others was a different matter.

But as historian Jeremy Fradkin has argued, it would be misleading to set up a stark dichotomy between a “narrowly confessional” early modern model of refugee relief and “a more capacious humanitarian model” that emerges in the late-eighteenth century. Some supporters of Jewish readmission (who included the New Englander Roger Williams) argued that it was England’s glory to be “a retreat of the afflicted in Europe.” And they advanced a universalist ethic of Christian hospitality, one that obligated Christians to extend shelter to the persecuted whatever their faith. These writers appealed to the Old Testament, where the Israelites were instructed to “love” the “stranger,” remembering that they themselves had been strangers in Egypt. They also cited New Testament teaching about hospitality to outsiders. And they pointed to Christ’s Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do to you. 

The English, of course, had a choice over whether Jews were readmitted to England or not. Because of strong opposition, there was no official readmission, though Jews did quietly resettle with the tacit approval of Cromwell and then King Charles II. The Dutch also enjoyed some control of their borders and could choose who to admit and who to turn away. Native Americans had no such choice. Europeans turned up in wave after wave, bringing lethal pandemics and lethal weapons. At the First Thanksgiving, there is little reason to think the Wampanoags were extending a warm welcome to new neighbors. Their leader Ousamequin was in a desperate situation: His people had been devastated by disease, and he was keen to play off the English against his tribal rivals. In Holland, the Pilgrims were just another minority; in New England, they were the first wave of a colonial tide that would overwhelm Native Americans. 

Given our own struggles with diversity and difference, we would be foolish to think that we have little to learn from the past. Early modern people faced dilemmas that continue to confront us.

The age of the Pilgrims can seem bleak, marked as it was by persecution, expulsion, and exile. But that was not the whole picture. Violence, by its very nature, attracts attention, and we can easily turn history into a tale of collisions, missing the less dramatic story of coexistence. In recent years, early modern historians have excavated the social history of tolerance, uncovering how people of different faiths lived side-by-side. As we have seen, religious refugees found refuge. And some European Christians made eloquent pleas for compassion toward strangers. 

Given our own struggles with diversity and difference, we would be foolish to think that we have little to learn from the past. Early modern people faced dilemmas that continue to confront us. What obligations do we have to the displaced and the persecuted? How do we respond to ideological others? And just how far does our hospitality extend?

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