Foundations: No.81 Autumn 2021

Book Reviews

The Journey to the Mayflower: God’s Outlaws and the Invention of Freedom

Stephen Tomkins, Hodder & Stoughton, 2020, 384pp, £7.42 hb (Amazon)

In September 1620 a band of intrepid pilgrims boarded the Mayflower and set off for a new life in the New World. The colony they founded helped to shape what became the United States of America. They were Separatists, that is men and women who had left the Church of England to gather themselves into congregations that were governed by their understanding of the biblical model of church life. That was a radical step during the late 1500s and early 1600s. The Monarch was the Supreme Governor of the Church of England; to leave the Anglican Church was not to exercise a legitimate religious right – it was an act of sedition against the State. 

While the Puritans agitated for a further reformation of the Church of England from within, as permitted by the authorities, Separatists advocated Reformation Without Tarrying for Anie, as Robert Browne put it in one of the key works of Separatism. The hostile attentions of government and the bishops drove the Separatist churches underground, initially in London and then elsewhere in England. If caught, their leaders were left to fester in prison, or even faced execution. Henry Barrow and John Greenwood were hanged in April 1593 for writing seditious books; John Penry was similarly charged and executed one month later. 

Separatists were often labelled “Brownists” after their leader, Robert Browne. He fled persecution in England, founding a Separatist Church in Holland, but the work was riven by factions and infighting. Not finding Separatism to his liking after all, Browne returned to the Church of England. The Separatists hated being labelled with the name of a turncoat. 

They longed to be free to gather their congregations, composed of true believers and their children, outside of the Church of England. Some regarded the Established Church as hopelessly corrupt and false, others as a true Church that was badly in need of further reform. Separatist thinkers noted that coercing people into belonging to a certain church was alien to the spirit of true Christianity. The New Testament model of church life was not that of the bishop-dominated Church of England, but congregational, where church members had a say in the government of the church and the appointment of its leaders. 

Some, like John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, took Separatism to the next logical step and became Baptists. After all, if the church was to be composed of true believers covenanted together, infants could neither believe nor willingly covenant to belong to a congregation. Smyth and Helwys came under the influence of Arminianism while in Holland; they were “General Baptists”, believing that Christ died for all people in general. Separatist Hanseard Knollys and others advocated believer’s baptism, but within a Calvinistic framework; they were “Particular Baptists”, teaching that Jesus laid down his life for the elect in particular. 

John Robinson (1576-1625) led a Separatist congregation in Leiden, Holland, where it was possible to “do church” free from the persecution they would have faced in England. Robinson was a strong advocate of religious liberty and freedom of conscience. The Separatist imagination was fired by the story of the children of Israel leaving oppression in Egypt in search of freedom to serve the Lord in the Promised Land. For Robinson and members of his flock the Promised Land was the New World. And so it was “All aboard the Mayflower” in September 1620. 

The governing document of their Plymouth Colony was the “Mayflower Compact”, in which 41 of the 101 passengers elected to covenant together to form a “Body Politick” to govern the colony in line with “just and equal laws”. The original Separatists often faced brutal harassment and persecution – they were regarded as a threat to the good order of church and state. But their key ideas would exert a powerful influence on the development of modern society – ideas such as the separation of church and state, freedom of religion and the democratic right to self-determination. Congregationalists and Baptists are now sizeable groups in the global Christian family.

Stephen Tomkins’ account of The Journey to the Mayflower tells the compelling story of a despised sect who changed the world. Well worth a read. 

Guy Davies
Pastor, Providence Baptist Church, Westbury, Wiltshire


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