How the Pilgrims Got their Name

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson

"Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor," by William Halsall (1882). The original oil painting may be seen in Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts. Larger image.

It wasn't until 1840 that the term "Pilgrim" came to refer to the early Mayflower settlers.

The Pilgrims (though they weren't called that at the time) originated with the members of a Separatist congregation from Scrooby, Nottinghamshire, England, whose pastors were Richard Clifton and John Robinson.1 This congregation suffered difficult persecution in England because they dissented from the state Church of England. William Bradford, one of the original Mayflower emigrants, wrote that

"[The church members] were hunted and persecuted on every side, so as their former afflictions were as flea-bitings in comparison of these which now came upon them. For some were taken and clapt up in prison, others had their houses besett and watcht night and day, and hardly escaped their hands; and the most were faine to flie and leave their howses and habitations, and the means of their livelihood... Yet, seeing themselves thus molested, and that there was no hope of their continuance there, but a joynt consent, they resolved to goe into the Low Countries, where they heard was freedom of religion for all men...."2

The congregation moved to Holland in 1607 where religious freedom was greater. Some who were in prison, didn't get there for another year.

They settled in Amsterdam for a year, but then moved to Leiden, Holland, where they lived for a dozen years. But life was difficult for these expatriates. As foreigners they were deprived of a chance at the best jobs, and struggled to maintain even a low standard of living. Times were tough. But what caused them to move were their teenagers. They had religious freedom, but

"Many of their children by the great licentiousness of youth in that countrie, and the manifold temptations of the place, were drawne away by evill examples into extravagante and dangerous courses."3

They were losing their young people and struggling at the bottom of the economic scale. If they returned to England they faced severe persecution and imprisonment. So in 1620 many from the congregation decided to emigrate to America, to the New World. Three groups came on the Mayflower:

  1. Saints — members of the Separatist Leiden congregation,
  2. Strangers — members of the Church of England who were emigrating for economic reasons, and
  3. Crew Members — seamen aboard the Mayflower, some of whom were contracted to work in the Plymouth Colony for a year or longer.

The "strangers" weren't non-Christians. They were probably members of the Church of England and would count themselves as Christians. But they didn't share the Separatists' refusal to be a part of what they considered to be the corrupt state church.

We ought to make a couple of distinctions here. Strictly speaking, Separatists were pious Christians who had given up on the Church of England and formed their own congregations. Puritans, on the other hand, were members of the Church of England who wanted to purify the Church from its worldliness and corruption. Instead of separating (in the early days), they formed religious societies within Anglican congregations. A number of these groups, like the Mayflower group, fled to Holland. They were the beginnings of the Congregationalist and Baptist churches that put down early roots in America.

Though the Plymouth Colony was the first Separatist colony in New England, the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony was established by royal charter in 1629. But apparently the Massachusetts Puritans had something in common with the Plymouth Separatists even before they sailed for America — the autonomy of the local congregation and a restriction of membership to "those predestined to be God's elect."4 As time went on the churches in Plymouth and the Massachusetts Bay Colony came to resemble each other.

But the Plymouth colonists still weren't called Pilgrims, not for many years, not until 1840. At that point someone resurrected William Bradford's original phrase describing the Saints that had left Leiden to travel aboard the Mayflower to the New World. They left Leiden, he said, "that goodly & pleasante citie which had been their resting place for near 12 years; but they knew they were pilgrimes, & looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to ye heavens, their dearest cuntrie, and quieted their spirits."5

Since the 1840s the Mayflower settlers have been referred to as the Pilgrims, echoing the verse from the Bible that Bradford had in mind:

"These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city" (Hebrews 11:13-16, KJV).

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  1. General background information comes from: Eugene Aubrey Stratton, Plymouth Colony: Its History and People 1620-1691 (Salt Lake City: Ancestry Publishing, 1986), 481 pages, paperback. George F. Willison, Saints and Strangers (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1945), 513 pages, hardcover. Albert Matthews' exhaustive history of the use of the term "Pilgrim Fathers" is found in the Colonial Society of Massachusetts Publications XVII (1915) 300-392.
  2. William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation (1620-1647), chapter 1.
  3. Ibid., chapter 4.
  4. Stratton, p. 41.
  5. Bradford, chapter 7.

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