Faith of our Fathers
In autumn, the streets of Scrooby are quiet except for the rustle of leaves and buckeyes dropping from the trees. The size of this tiny village, nestled in the countryside of Nottinghamshire England, belies its role in history. Here in the early 17th century, the seeds of America’s religious freedom were planted.
Scrooby was the home of William Brewster, the Pilgrim Father who masterminded the Mayflower voyage in 1620. It was in this country village that the Separatists movement began – where a small band of families met secretly to worship God according to their own beliefs. Eventually, they mustered the courage to leave their beloved mother land and pursue religious freedom.
Yet Scrooby has no tatty souvenir shops or tourists walking the streets wearing Pilgrim hats. “There’s never been any great commercial activity in the village,” according to longtime resident Malcolm Dolby, who lives in the old timbered vicarage built in the 1500s. “We get a few visitors. Some are descendants of families that settled in Plymouth (Massachusetts), but most of them are people searching for their religious roots. The Congregational Church regards the pilgrims’ beliefs as the basis of their own beliefs,” he said.
Little has changed in this idyllic village where narrow streets meander past the church, the vicarage, Monks Mill and a cluster of cottages – all familiar sights to Brewster who grew up in nearby Scrooby Manor House. Although it’s now a private residence, the manor once served as a grand palace where the Archbishops of York stayed during their travels. Brewster’s father served as “Master of the Queen’s Poste” and oversaw the estate. His duty was to provide safe accommodations for royal messengers. Brewster assumed the postmaster’s duties when his father died in 1590.
Most visitors don’t realize that the road going past the manor was once the Great North Road from London to Scotland, according to J. Keith Cheetham, author of “On the Trail of the Pilgrim Fathers. “When Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, the villagers of Scrooby knew before (her successor) King James I because the messenger stopped there to change horses,” he said.
At the time, religious turmoil still plagued the country following King Henry VIII’s break from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534. This marked the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, which called for the demolishing of monasteries, replacing the Latin Mass with the Book of Common Prayer, and eliminating other Catholic rituals.
During a succession of monarchs, the country was forced to accept the church as its absolute authority. Most people, like the Puritans, chose to comply but wanted more reform within the church. The Separatists, however, felt reforms were a lost cause. They wanted to break away completely and focus only on the Bible, the cornerstone of their beliefs.
Several Protestant leaders and scholars, who felt the Reformation didn’t remove enough Catholic influences, were driven out of the country. These visionaries fled to Switzerland where they translated the original Hebrew and Greek texts into the easy-to-interpret Geneva Bible. Copies of the illegal Bible were brought to England where its popularity grew among common people. “Having a greater access to the Word of God changed the way people thought. They began to form their own opinions and challenged the views of the established church. That threatened the sovereign of the Church of England’s governor,” Dolby said.
Meanwhile, a few miles from Scrooby, Richard Clyfton, a rector of All Saints’ Church in Babworth, was preaching from the Geneva Bible. Brewster and others from surrounding villages learned of Clyfton’s Bible-based sermons and joined the Babworth congregation. William Bradford, who eventually became governor of Plymouth Colony, was among them.
Word of Clyfton’s deviance reached King James I, who took a hard stand on non-conformers. The rector was forced to flee and found sanctuary with Brewster at Scrooby Manor. It was here in 1606 that Brewster, Clyfton, Bradford and others met secretly and organized the Separatist church. The country was swarming with royal spies, and the group knew it was only a matter of time before they’d be detected and arrested.
In 1607, they planned an escape to Holland, a haven of religious freedom. Although English law prohibited anyone from leaving the country without royal permission, they were willing to forsake all to worship freely. After a failed attempt to escape, Brewster and fellow leaders were imprisoned briefly. But in 1608, the group and their families successfully reached Holland where they spent the next 12 years. While life was good in their host country, they felt their children were being denied their rightful English culture and language.
When King James made land available to settlers in America, the Pilgrims agreed to move to the New World. With Brewster’s connections, they were able to obtain the necessary license to settle. They returned to England and the Mayflower set sail in1620. Fortunately for us, Bradford was a great historian and left written records of those early years. And the rest, as they say is history – our history.
Today, numerous churches regard themselves as spiritual descendants of the Pilgrims, and an estimated 30 million Americans are probably biological descendents of the Pilgrim Fathers, according to Peggy Baker, director of Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts.