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The Pilgrims celebrated a harvest festival with their Native American neighbors in 1621—what we often call the first Thanksgiving. (The Foundation Press, Inc.)

Pilgrims' Progress

We retrace the travels of the ragtag group that founded Plymouth Colony and gave us Thanksgiving

Today, this rural part of eastern England in the county of Nottinghamshire is a world away from the commerce and bustle of London. But in William Brewster's day, it was rich in agriculture and maintained maritime links to northern Europe. Through the region ran the Great North Road from London to Scotland. The Brewster family was well respected here until William Brewster became embroiled in the biggest political controversy of their day, when Queen Elizabeth decided to have her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, executed in 1587. Mary, a Catholic whose first husband had been the King of France, was implicated in conspiracies against Elizabeth's continued Protestant rule.

Brewster's mentor, the secretary of state, became a scapegoat in the aftermath of Mary's beheading. Brewster himself survived the crisis, but he was driven from the glittering court in London, his dreams of worldly success dashed. His disillusionment with the politics of court and church may have led him in a radical direction—he fatefully joined the congregation of All Saints Church in Babworth, a few miles down the road from Scrooby.

There the small band of worshipers likely heard the minister, Richard Clyfton, extolling St. Paul's advice, from Second Corinthians, 6:17, to cast off the wicked ways of the world: "Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean." (This bit of scripture probably gave the Separatists their name.) Separatists wanted a better way, a more direct religious experience, with no intermediaries between them and God as revealed in the Bible. They disdained bishops and archbishops for their worldliness and corruption and wanted to replace them with a democratic structure led by lay and clerical elders and teachers of their own choosing. They opposed any vestige of Catholic ritual, from the sign of the cross to priests decked out in vestments. They even regarded the exchanging of wedding rings as a profane practice.

A young orphan, William Bradford, was also drawn into the Separatist orbit during the country's religious turmoil. Bradford, who in later life would become the second governor of Plymouth Colony, met William Brewster around 1602-3, when Brewster was about 37 and Bradford 12 or 13. The older man became the orphan's mentor, tutoring him in Latin, Greek and religion. Together they would travel the seven miles from Scrooby to Babworth to hear Richard Clyfton preach his seditious ideas—how everyone, not just priests, had a right to discuss and interpret the Bible; how parishioners should take an active part in services; how anyone could depart from the official Book of Common Prayer and speak directly to God.

In calmer times, these assaults on convention might have passed with little notice. But these were edgy days in England. James I (James VI as King of Scotland) had ascended to the throne in 1603. Two years later, decades of Catholic maneuvering and subversion had culminated in the Gunpowder Plot, when mercenary Guy Fawkes and a group of Catholic conspirators came very close to blowing up Parliament and with them the Protestant king.

Against this turmoil, the Separatists were eyed with suspicion and more. Anything smacking of subversion, whether Catholic or Protestant, provoked the ire of the state. "No bishop, no king!" thundered the newly crowned king, making it clear that any challenge to church hierarchy was also a challenge to the Crown and, by implication, the entire social order. "I shall make them conform," James proclaimed against the dissidents, "or I will hurry them out of the land or do worse."

He meant it. In 1604, the Church introduced 141 canons that enforced a sort of spiritual test aimed at flushing out nonconformists. Among other things, the canons declared that anyone rejecting the practices of the established church excommunicated themselves and that all clergymen had to accept and publicly acknowledge the royal supremacy and the authority of the Prayer Book. It also reaffirmed the use of church vestments and the sign of the cross in baptism. Ninety clergymen who refused to embrace the new canons were expelled from the Church of England. Among them was Richard Clyfton, of All Saints at Babworth.

Brewster and his fellow Separatists now knew how dangerous it had become to worship in public; from then on, they would hold only secret services in private houses, such as Brewster's residence, Scrooby Manor. His connections helped to prevent his immediate arrest. Brewster and other future Pilgrims would also meet quietly with a second congregation of Separatists on Sundays in Old Hall, a timbered black-and-white structure in Gainsborough. Here under hand-hewn rafters, they would listen to a Separatist preacher, John Smyth, who, like Richard Clyfton before him, argued that congregations should be allowed to pick and ordain their own clergy and worship should not be confined only to prescribed forms sanctioned by the Church of England.

"It was a very closed culture," says Sue Allan, author of Mayflower Maid, a novel about a local girl who follows the Pilgrims to America. Allan leads me upstairs to the tower roof, where the entire town lay spread at our feet. "Everyone had to go to the Church of England," she said. "It was noted if you didn't. So what they were doing here was completely illegal. They were holding their own services. They were discussing the Bible, a big no-no. But they had the courage to stand up and be counted."

By 1607, however, it had become clear that these clandestine congregations would have to leave the country if they wanted to survive. The Separatists began planning an escape to the Netherlands, a country that Brewster had known from his younger, more carefree days. For his beliefs, William Brewster was summoned to appear before his local ecclesiastical court at the end of that year for being "disobedient in matters of Religion." He was fined £20, the equivalent of $5,000 today. Brewster did not appear in court or pay the fine.

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