Pilgrims, Holland, America and Religious Freedom

I penned a piece yesterday on the very sad state of the Netherlands. It has really led the way in many respects with all the radical secular left agenda items, including being the first nation in the world to legalise homosexual marriage (2001) and euthanasia (2002).

Once a stronghold of Christianity – especially of the Reformed variety – it is now famous for its cannabis cafes and red-light districts. Hedonism and progressivism rule, at least in the large cities – the rural Dutch are more conservative and less thrilled about all this.

Much of this springs from it being a land known for its tolerance. But there is tolerance and there is tolerance. As I said in my piece yesterday:

The bizarre thing is, the origins of Dutch tolerance really began in the 16th century, and was of a religious nature, with a Protestant monarch showing toleration to the country’s Catholic minority. But as the Christian faith declines there, the only tolerance we find remaining is for all the radical leftist social policies, such as toleration for prostitution, drugs, homosexuality, euthanasia and so on.

Today someone on the social media asked me about the Puritans in Holland. I told her that they were actually various English dissenting Christians (Separatists, Pilgrims, Puritans) who found sanctuary for a period there before they left for the New World. I also mentioned that I used to go to a church in Amsterdam that was a Pilgrim church.

All this I thought was worth turning into a short article to offer some more historical background – religious, as well as a bit of my own personal history. Plenty of Americans – and some non-Americans – may know a bit about the Mayflower and Plymouth Rock, but few may know the religious connection, so let me here tie the three nations together.

Some Christians in England, mostly of the Calvinist variety, thought the state church was not fully biblical and they found themselves dissenting from it. Some sought to stay and fight within, but some (the Separatists) chose to leave. This very complex and detailed story cannot be done proper justice here, so let me just provide the briefest of historical timelines:

1509 Henry VII dies. Henry VIII becomes king.
1534 Henry VIII makes himself head of the Church of England.
1536-1541 Henry VIII disbands the monasteries.
1547-1553 The pro-Protestant Edward VI rules as king.
1549 The first Book of Common Prayer is introduced.
1553 Edward VI dies. Mary becomes queen.
1555-1558 Queen Mary persecutes Protestants. Nearly 300 people are burned to death for heresy.
1558 Queen Mary dies. Elizabeth I becomes queen.
1559-1603 Elizabeth I on the throne.
1559 The Act of Uniformity passed, making it illegal not to attend official Church of England services.
1587 Mary Queen of Scots is beheaded.
1603 Queen Elizabeth dies. James I becomes king.
1608 A number of English dissenters flee to Holland.
1620 Pilgrims in Holland sail for the New World on the Mayflower.

Thus some of those who thought the state church was not sufficiently true to Scripture, and were being persecuted for not bowing to it, decided to flee. A group left England in 1607-1608, arriving in Holland. They first stayed in Amsterdam for around a year.

As mentioned, there is a famous old Pilgrim church to be found there. The Begijnhof is one of the oldest courtyards in Amsterdam, and it now contains a Catholic church as well as the English Reformed Church. When we lived in Amsterdam some decades ago we used to attend this English-speaking church.

It is amazing to sit in a place which has so much rich history, and plays a role in the tale of religious liberty in America. Most of the Pilgrims did not stay long in Amsterdam however, but shifted to Leiden, some 40 kilometres southwest, where they stayed another 11 years or so.

One of the key players in all this was the English Puritan William Bradford (1590–1657). He was among those who moved to Amsterdam and then to Leiden to escape persecution from King James I. He, along with 130 others, sailed on the Mayflower from September to November, eventually reaching Plymouth Rock.

He was a signatory to the Mayflower Compact, the first governing document of Plymouth Colony, and he went on to intermittently serve as Governor of the Plymouth Colony from 1621 and 1657. He wrote about all this in his now famous journal, Of Plymouth Plantation.

On another personal note, we also lived in Boston for two years, so we went to see Plymouth Rock while we were there. All of New England is so very rich in history, and I recall one church history class I took in Seminary in which we travelled around the area visiting famous Christian locations, such as the Old North Church in Boston that helped to launch the American Revolution.

Another American tradition that most folks at least have heard about, but may not know the Christian connection to, is Thanksgiving. While today it might mean a day off work and a nice turkey dinner, its history goes back to this very period.

Not only did the Pilgrims have to endure a harsh sea journey, but once in what is now Massachusetts they had to endure their first American winter. Almost half of the group did not make it through the winter, but with plenty of prayer, as well as some help from the local Indian population, the rest made it through, planted crops, and a year later, gave thanks to God for a bountiful harvest.

As Bradford wrote about this at the time: “The Lord sent them such seasonable showers, [that] through His blessing [there was] a fruitful and liberal harvest. . . . For which mercy . . . they set apart a day of thanksgiving.” That was the first Thanksgiving, something Americans still celebrate today: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2010/11/26/happy-thanksgiving-restoring-the-christian-connection/

And make no mistake as to the intentions of the original Pilgrims. Overwhelmingly they were on a religious mission. As Bradford put it, their trip was motivated by “a great hope . . . for advancing the kingdom of Christ.” They were fleeing religious persecution in the Old World, and also seeking to be salt and light and ‘set up a city on the hill’ in the New World.

As I wrap this up, let me take things just a bit further, by quoting from an earlier article of mine. In it I looked at Paul Johnson’s magisterial 1100-page 1997 volume, A History of the American People. I said this in part:


Because Johnson is both a conservative and a Catholic, he is not afraid to do what so many fail to do: highlight the extremely important role religion has played not just in America’s founding, but in its long growth and development. All I can do here is feature some of his opening remarks about all this, and then focus on the war on religion as discussed toward the end of his book.

Religious sentiments were evident from early on in this land. The Elizabethan sea-farers were mainly strong Calvinists. Sir Francis Drake for example “held regular services on board his ships, preached sermons to his men, and tried to convert his Spanish prisoners. Next to the Bible itself, his favourite book was Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.”

Most of the early settlers were steeped in the Christian faith: “they read the Bible for themselves, assiduously, daily. Virtually every humble cabin in Massachusetts colony had its own Bible. Adults read it alone, silently. It was also read aloud among families, as well as in church, during Sunday morning service, which lasted from eight till twelve.”

Their search for a new spiritual home was also a search for liberty: To the pilgrims, “liberty and religion were inseparable, and they came to America to pursue both. . . . They associated liberty with godliness because without liberty of conscience godliness was unattainable.”

The political theory of someone like John Winthrop was clear: “Man had liberty not to do what he liked – that was for the beasts – but to distinguish between good and evil by studying God’s commands, and then to do ‘that only which is good’.”

Godly education was also a part of this. Thus we had people like the Rev. John Harvard who came to the colonies in 1635 to found a college to train ministers. He left £780 and 400 books for that purpose, and Harvard university was birthed the following year.

Finally, for those wanting a bit more of an introduction to the Puritans, see this article: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2013/01/25/the-puritans/

I return to where I began. Holland was the country that gave us such notable Christians as Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471), Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), Corrie ten Boom (1892-1983) and Brother Andrew (1928-). And at one point it sheltered persecuted Christian Pilgrims, leading in part to the formation of America with its rich Christian history.

Today however it is known far more for its open prostitution, liberal views on drugs, homosexuality and all the rest. Its Christian roots have in many ways all but disappeared. However, as I wrote elsewhere, God is not yet finished with Holland, and there is some hope for it yet: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2011/06/23/wilders-holland-and-hope/

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15 Replies to “Pilgrims, Holland, America and Religious Freedom”

  1. Excellent article, Bill. You have told the story of the Separtists (Puritan and Pilgrim) very clearly and factually, as well as their influence on subsequent society throughout the development of the United States.


  2. The change in The Netherlands in less than 100 years has been dramatic. In 1920 53.8% of the Dutch were Protestant and 35.8% Catholic. In 2015 15.5% were Protestant and 23.7% Catholic. Atheism has more than doubled since 1975 to over 50% of the population.

    I visited the Pieterskerk in Leiden recently. It is known today as the church of the Pilgrim Fathers, where the pastor John Robinson ( pastor of the “Pilgrim Fathers”) was buried.

    Sadly it was deconsecrated in 1975.

  3. Once a stronghold of Christianity – especially of the Reformed variety – it is now famous for its cannabis cafes and red-light districts. Hedonism and progressivism rule, at least in the large cities – the rural Dutch are more conservative and less thrilled about all this.

    I don’t know if rural Dutch folk are less thrilled or just don’t care, but a map of the last election shows they like to vote for the VVD, a party that’s soft on drugs.

    I’m not sure I would agree Geert Wilders is our hope for Holland.

    He’s soft on drugs too (he wants recreational drugs regulated and limited only to Dutch people), and he’s weak on the Nashville Statement persecution.

    If he got elected he would “de-Islamize the Netherlands” and that’s good, but he is an atheist who could not be counted on to re-Christianize the country either. Without a return to its Christian roots and ethos the Netherlands will not solve their problems with drugs, prostitution, homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, etc.

  4. Thanks Michael. I linked to that particular article of mine mainly because of the second half which deals with my various times in Europe, and my spiritual reflections on what God is doing there. So that bit is what offers us hope.

    As to Wilders, as I have often said about him and his party, they are quite good on some things like Islam and immigration, but not so good on many of the social and moral issues like drugs, homosexuality, etc. And as I also have written, he is somewhat sympathetic to Christianity. So yes, Holland needs to be re-Christianised (re-evangelised), and Wilders needs to be saved. Let’s pray for both to happen.

  5. Mr M, I have a question if I may ask it without coming across as some sort of heretic. Would I be correct in thinking that Christianity’s “failing” is that when it has Christianised a country it self-destructs by generating those (often from Christian families) who are given every opportunity to destroy Christianity with the freedom to criticise Christianity given to them by Christianity? It seems to me that this may be due to the fact that when Christianity has Christianised a country, the Christians then become intellectually lazy from the point of being able to explain – “This is Christianity” or are unable to defend the faith with reason and logic not to mention a love of who we know. I think in my generation we have some of the best apologists and Christian thinkers and I put men like you in that category sir) but what has generated such men it seems to me, is the necessity due to the onslaught of secular atheism which took hold since “we” Christians had become intellectually lazy, not due to the fact we had no good arguments, but because simply were caught sleeping due to the work was complete and this seems to repeat itself over and over again and I’m wondering if that is one of Christianity’s flaws that exists for a reason I can not see or understand.

  6. Thanks Sarah. Yes I am mostly with you, although the issue can be rather complex. While countries can in a sense be Christianised, most would agree that only individuals can become Christians, not nations. But a country can seek to order itself socially and legally around biblical beliefs and values, and maybe even biblical law, as we find in various places, including Calvin’s Geneva or Knox’s Scotland. Of course critics can argue how successful they were in such endeavours. And then the whole Theonomy versus non- or anti-Theonomy debate can arise here.

    As to America, there is no question that many folks came there originally to establish a Christian Commonwealth, a light set on the hill, etc. Yes there was a mix among the Founding Fathers, with biblical Christians as well as deists and others. But we can speak about nations that had decidedly Christian beginnings, but slowly lost it along the way. In part this is because each new generation needs to be evangelised afresh. And the Reformers and others spoke about ‘ecclesia reformata semper reformanda,’ Latin for ‘a reformed church always reforming’.

    So a nation with a great Christian beginning will not necessarily stay that way, with corruption from within and without always likely. And then there is the issue of Christendom – whole cultures more or less seeing themselves as Christian. For much of history to speak of the West was to speak of Christianity – so intertwined were they. But again, you can have many within such cultures who are not at all actual born-again Christians.

    Thus today we can argue that although much of the West sprang out of the Judeo-Christian worldview, most of the West today is non-Christian, post-Christian, and even anti-Christian. In this sense we find parallels in Scripture. Think of the book of Judges for example where we find cycles of decline, oppression, calling out to God, and deliverance, followed by more cycles of this.

    It is similar to how successful things like the free market can contain the seeds within of its own destruction. People get wealthy through hard work and personal responsibility, then they become apathetic and lazy, and then they impoverish themselves, and the original hard work needs to be entered into once again.

    The same with democracy. As was said 150 years ago about democracies, each tends to go through the following sequence:
    • From bondage to spiritual faith.
    • From faith to great courage.
    • From courage to liberty.
    • From liberty to abundance.
    • From abundance to complacency.
    • From complacency to selfishness.
    • From selfishness to apathy.
    • From apathy to dependency.
    • And from dependency back again into bondage.

    So places like America are now living off the borrowed spiritual capital from its own past. That cannot last long. The way forward is large-scale repentance and revival and reformation (probably in that order!). That at least is how we might look at the West. Elsewhere we find Christianity really taking off – for example in many parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America. But that is a different discussion.

    Sorry for a lengthy reply, but you asked some good questions which required somewhat detailed answers. (Maybe I will turn this into an article at some point!)

  7. During the 1590s, Puritans hunkered down under the oppressions of the Archbishop John Whitgift, hoping that the heir apparent, James VI of Scotland, would grant them what they wanted. But when James acceded as James I of England they soon realised that he was even worse than Elizabeth had been. He threatened, “I will make them conform, or harry them out of the land, or worse” So he harried them out of England, and hurried them to America.
    In contrast to their countrymen at Jamestown—a settlement which began in 1607, and who were more in the vein of fortune seekers, this Puritan company had undergone the severe trials of a hazardous journey, and were to face even greater ones on arrival, all for the freedom to worship God according to their conscience, as these famous lines of Felicia Hemans put it:
    What sought they thus afar?
    Bright jewels of the mine?
    The wealth of seas, the spoils of war?
    They sought a faith’s pure shrine!

    Aye, call it holy ground,
    The soil where they first trod:
    They have left unstained what there they found –
    Freedom to worship God!

    I also include the text of the Mayflower Compact:
    “In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God of Great Britain, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, etc. Having undertaken, for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the First Colony in the Northern Parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod, the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini 1620”

  8. A powerful account of goodness to encourage us, God’s people, now ‘pilgrim’s in a foreign land’.
    Thank you Bill.

  9. >>>Mr M,
    Thank you so much for your response Mr M, you should not be apologising to me for a long response to my question, as that would be like my Pastor apologising for a long sermon, both are a privilege and not to be confused with a burden to me, of course, I mean no disrespect to you, sir I am just informing you that the knowledge that is being transmitted to me is very important to my development and I’m sure to others too.

    I did have to read what you said a few times to make sure I understood what you were telling me. I think on the one hand you thought it was too long and on the other, knew you had to limit what you wanted to say due to your time and you didn’t want to put a wall of text up that would be off-putting to me, due to my age perhaps. I am an avid reader so lots of text isn’t off-putting to me, but sometimes I do have to re-read a passage a few times to understand what it is saying, often I have to ask my dad what its actually saying.

    I am reading The Gulag Archipelago the abridged edition. Which is much, much easier than my hardest book which I have been reading for two years now and I would be ashamed to tell you what page I have got to, it’s by Michael Horton and its called ‘The Christian Faith, A Systematic- Theology For Pilgrims On The Way’. I thought I’m a pilgrim on the way. I can read the words but I have to continually look up meanings of words and then figure out how to apply them to what I have read. I won this book for working consistently hard in class. I could have had any book of my choice, to be honest, but this book had hardcovers and it looked and sounded really good in the description. In fairness, my teacher did advise me to consider another book but the hardcovers sold it to me. I should have got- Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig as I really wanted that book at the time and I had to spend all my babysitting money to get it and then had to use my dinner money to buy tops and skirts, and if I’m caught doing that I would be grounded for a month. I can’t tell you how long a month is when you are grounded. I have gone off subject as my teacher often tells me, but she doesn’t understand I have a lot of things I want to say and they don’t always relate to each other.

    Yes, I had mistaken my Home (or country), as Christian, when of course, it was the occupants who made my home what it was, likewise a Christian school is what the collective individuals make it and not what the establishment dictates, therefore, plainly kids do not become magically Christian simply by walking through the gates.

    This part of your post said so much to me-
    • From bondage to spiritual faith.
    • From faith to great courage.
    • From courage to liberty.
    • From liberty to abundance.
    • From abundance to complacency.
    • From complacency to selfishness.
    • From selfishness to apathy.
    • From apathy to dependency.
    • And from dependency back again into bondage.

    As the above is what I mistook for intellectual laziness, which, of course, was more- we had stopped thanking God and started thanking ourselves, which I should have known, as when I lost my mum in the accident I had to depend on Jesus like never before and he provided me with what I needed (hope for the future). I did honestly thank him, but I am wondering if I have stopped thanking him even in silent prayers (tears) and started thanking myself for managing without mum and even taking her place by feeding and cleaning for my dad and brother. I need to re-read the book of Judges again and pray about what you have told me, Mr M, as I have perhaps been living off the fat of Christianity no differently than the atheistic kids at my school perhaps.

    What I like most about your list above is that it has grace in each of the steps, as at the end of the list we do not have to fall off a cliff but we are freed from bondage if that is what we want.

    Thank you so much, Mr M, that has put everything into perspective that I can now work through.

    Finally, (or should that be in closing) it would be great if you let yourself go and made this a subject for one of your articles, as I think it’s important to many my age, as we are told often Christianity has been tried and failed (yet it’s never failed me), oddly those saying that tend to think communism hasn’t really been tried properly so they do not carry much credibility, Ahh, I am being led to accepting Christianity as a political system so I need to be careful not to let them confuse me into thinking of Christianity as a political system. Perhaps, it’s the morality a political system should adopt maybe, no, Mr M, you are going to have to take this on as a project for one of your in-depth articles. I feel like the teacher who gives me trigonometry homework now.
    Thank you and God bless,
    Sarah xx.

  10. Thank you for this great article. I have one remark to it and that is I think that people need to know that my country is not called Holland but The Netherlands. (or in dutch Nederland)
    Holland is only two western provinces Noord Holland and Zuid Holland.

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