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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Book Fifteen

The fifteenth novel we have read is Saints and Sinners: Being the Lives of the Pilgrim Fathers and Their Families, with Their Friends and Foes; and an Account of Their Posthumous Wanderings in Limbo, Their Final Resurrection and Rise to Glory, and the Strange Pilgrimages of Plymouth Rock, written by George Findlay Willison in 1945 to a reception of wide praise from critics and historians. During his research for another work, he discovered that much of what he thought he knew about the Pilgrims was in fact not true, so this book was borne of the desire to know them as they truly were. The title of the book comes from the names by which the Pilgrims referred to themselves: the Saints being those who had left England early to seek religious freedom in Leyden in the Netherlands; the Strangers being those hired by English merchants and fortune seekers to establish a fishing colony in the new world.

The majority of the account is taken directly from the first-hand writings of William Bradford and Edward Winslow, along with a host of personal letters of others. Mr. Willison organises the events and offers a much broader perspective than the participants ever could have had, but much of the story is given in their own words, as they lived and recorded it. Mr. Willison begins at Plymouth Rock with an overview of the history, and ends with the interesting history of the legendary Rock itself. In between, we get to know the Forefathers in ways that time and myth has otherwise clouded over.

There were many surprises for us. Back in the seventeenth century, colleges used to be conservative bastions of the status quo. During the reigns of Elizabeth and Charles I, any one who missed orthodox service for more than a month, who persuaded others to do the same, or who participated in any meetings of other religions faced imprisonement, banishment, and execution. The Pilgrims escaped this oppression and enjoyed religious freedom in Holland for twelve years, but, oddly enough, upon establishing their Old Colony at Plymouth, they enacted the same kind of regulations. The decision to leave Leyden came not in seeking religious freedom, but first, fearful of being absorbed by the Dutch, in maintaining their English identity, and second, burdened by extreme poverty, in finding a place where they could live comfortably. After several negotiations with different colonial companies, both English and Dutch, a group of about seventy London merchants, seeking quick and easy profits, offered free passage to the group if they would help establish a town in the new world. The experience was frought with difficulty through its entirety, and the Pilgrims probably suffered more hardship than had they remained in Leyden.

The fanciful rendering of the landing by Henry Sargent is far from reality. First landfall occured at the cape, and women were not brought ashore until the site at Plymouth was secured. The Indians were evidently present but remained hidden, and from the start the Pilgrims were wary of those whose lands they were invading. Though the Saints went through the motions of friendship, they remained distrustful and soon became belligerent to the people who generally tried to help them, or at the least leave them alone. One trader later commented, "I have found the Massachusetts Indians more full of humanitie than the Christians." Certainly the Indians seemed to give greater support and assistance to the colonials than did the merchants in London who were financing the venture, and to whom the Pilgrims regularly petitioned unsuccessfully for aid.

The Pilgrims and Puritans have often been confused, but they were distinct groups. Though the Saints were far less strict than the Puritans, they still regularly sinned against the basic concepts of their faith. More than ten years passed before Roger Williams, a "teacher" at Plymouth, declared that no one in England or New England could validly dispose by patent, charter, or sale, lands that belonged to the Indians, for which he was banished. Many townsfolk spent time in the stocks for fornication. Even the Reverend John Cotton, Jr. had a fondness for women parishioners and committed "Notorious" adulteries among his flock. Indian leaders often had their heads displayed on pikes above the town as a friendly welcome. Despite their personal pasts, and contrary to popular opinion, the Saints were nearly as intolerant of others (of race or religion) as the Puritans, Queen Elizabeth, and King Charles I.

The editor of the book calls the Pilgrims an inept group of immigrants. Of the 359 Mr. Willison accounts as Pilgrims, only 104 were Saints, the remainder being Strangers, hired hands, and servants. They were not the first colonials to settle the new world--the Dutch already had established New Amsterdam--nor were they the most successful--the Puritans in Boston and Salem eventually gained a charter which included New Plimoth and made them the dominant group in America for a long time to come. The Old Colony lasted only seventy-three years and was survived by two members of the original Mayflower group. The Pilgrims can be credited with establishing the town meeting. Also, the Mayflower Compact perhaps was the first document of self-government ever enacted, promising equal laws for all, though it was meant essentially to insure the rule of the minority elders among the Saints. Thankfully, some of the names they gave to their children--Remember, Love, Wrestling, Mehitable, Fear, Patience--are no longer popular.

Mr. Willison includes biographical sketches of the members of the Pilgrim Company, as well as the officers of their church, a summary chart that categorizes the group in various ways, extensive notes, bibliographical references, and an index. He does a good job of ordering the historical events and ellucidating them with the actual words of the participants, in all their varied spellings and odd phrasings. Any one interested in this early colonial history should enjoy this book for all its information and revelations. Any one pleased with the tidy, hopeful myths that accompany the Pilgrims today would probably rather leave this book on the shelf.

We give it four (out of five) pipefuls.

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