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Blog / The Pilgrims May Not Be Who You Think They Were: An Interview with Jay Milbrandt

The Pilgrims May Not Be Who You Think They Were: An Interview with Jay Milbrandt

Jay MilbrandtDo you see the Pilgrims as folksy people in funny hats? The true story of the Pilgrims’ great journey to America was one of courageous faith, daring escape, and tenuous survival. Theirs is the story of refugees who fled intense religious persecution.

Bible Gateway interviewed Jay Milbrandt (@JayMilbrandt) about his book, They Came for Freedom: The Forgotten, Epic Adventure of the Pilgrims (Thomas Nelson, 2017).

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As a lawyer and historian, how have you joined those two elements in writing this book?

Jay Milbrandt: A lawyer is a storyteller. It’s our job to understand and explain the facts. I see my role as an author as much like that of the judge in a jury trial. I’m dealing with a variety of perspectives and trying to make sure the jury/reader gets a fair and accurate case. I find I’m constantly applying legal concepts—like the rules of evidence—to history. I like finding topics that have been subject to misinterpretation; then I try to tell a fact-based story and let the reader come to their own conclusions.

How has the Pilgrim story become misunderstood?

Jay Milbrandt: We have a mental picture of the Pilgrims: funny hats, dining on cornucopias overflowing with food at the first Thanksgiving. Nothing in that image is true. There was no “First Thanksgiving,” as we want to believe it happened, and the Pilgrims were starving, rationing their food, and wearing tattered clothes. Over time, the retelling of the story combined several Pilgrim events to fit into our modern holiday. In fact, Thanksgiving as a holidy was created 200 years after the Pilgrims’ arrival, at the close of the Civil War to promote national unity. The notion of Thanksgiving and the Pilgrim identity has also been subject to intense secularization. The Pilgrims’ quest for freedom and their “thanksgiving” event were deeply religious. That motivation has been largely lost over the years as our modern Thanksgiving became a secular, national holiday.

Who were the Pilgrims, what did they believe, and what was their social standing?

Jay Milbrandt: They were “Separatists.” They were unhappy with the Church of England, which was the official state church. The government prescribed how people would worship, mandated church attendance, and dictated tithes. The Separatists were people who wanted to worship as they saw fit and, based on their reading of the Bible, viewed the state church as incompatible. The Separatists met secretly in their members’ homes and came from all walk of life, career, and status. The government abhorred the Separatists, whose movement threatened state control on religion. Violations of church requirements led to fines, imprisonment, and even death for repeat offenders. The Separatist churches were a regular target for law enforcement raids.

What was the difference between Separatists and Puritans?

Jay Milbrandt: Whereas the Separatists wanted to separate themselves from the Church of England, the Puritans wanted to purify and reform the church from within. The Puritans had more friends and supporters in England than the Separatists, and thus avoided the persecution that the Separatists faced. Later, the Puritans would begin feeling more pressure and many would follow in the footsteps of the Separatists who fled England.

Why and under what circumstances did the Pilgrims escape England to seek the New World?

Jay Milbrandt: The Separatist church members who would later become known as the Pilgrims, fled England in 1609 after their previous attempts to flee had been thwarted by English authorities. It was a daring and dangerous departure, and English authorities captured half of their group. Eventually, all made it safely to Holland, where they lived for more than ten years. Fearing that the Catholic Church would force Holland into a similar posture as the Church of England had taken against them, the Pilgrims departed Europe for the New World in 1620.

What Bible translation did the Pilgrims use and why?

Jay Milbrandt: They cherished their Geneva Bibles. Among the few possessions they could take on the Mayflower, many of the Pilgrims carried their Geneva Bibles. Written by scholars who had also fled England, the translation offered a more accessible Bible, which included study guides, summaries, and cross-references. Prior to the Geneva Bible, the only available Bible translation was state controlled and church services were held in Latin. The Geneva Bible brought theological study to the people, rather than monopolizing it among the English Bishops.

What role did the Bible play in the Pilgrims’ establishment of their colony in America?

Jay Milbrandt: Without a doubt, it was their guiding light and constant companion. With no manual for how to create a new colony, they often looked to their Geneva Bibles for insight. It was influential in their decision to self-govern under the Mayflower compact and experiment with social order, including how to handle private property and making marriage a civil matter. Above all, they did not want to create another scenario where the government prescribed how they would worship.

What was the Mayflower Compact and its influence?

Jay Milbrandt: In the eyes of the Pilgrims, the Church of England had used religion as a weapon for control. The Pilgrims knew a similar fate could fall upon their New World colony unless otherwise put in check. They needed a radically different system of civil authority. Before stepping off the Mayflower, the passengers gathered on its deck to draft and sign a document spelling out this new system of self-government: The Mayflower Compact. Nearly 200 years later, John Quincy Adams would say of it: “It was the first example in modern times of social compact or system of government instituted by voluntary agreement conformably to the laws of nature, by men of equal rights and about to establish their community in a new country.” The compact would serve as predecessor to the modern Constitution and a building block for the foundation of American democracy.

How did the Pilgrims seek freedom of worship and in turn thwart it?

Jay Milbrandt: They came to the New World to worship as they saw fit. This group had rallied around the idea of Separatism and held it a common goal. As more Europeans arrived in the New World, these newcomers brought different ideas, some of which were difficult to accept in the Pilgrims’ small, insular community. In some cases, the Pilgrims outright rejected these individuals. Eventually, as the North American colonies became more diverse, the youth left and new arrivals settled in more hospitable places.

Was there disunity within the Pilgrims’ community?

Jay Milbrandt: Relatively little. Aboard the Mayflower, division arose between the Separatists and Puritans over ideological matters. Once in North America, their quest to merely survive unified them.

Why do you write that “the Plymouth experiment was, ultimately, a failure”? And why do we, today, view the title ‘Pilgrim’ with reverence and honor?

Jay Milbrandt: The United States had 13 founding colonies, yet Plymouth Colony was not among them even though it preceded all but Jamestown in Virginia. As the Plymouth church began to disintegrate, so did the community. People moved away to attend other churches and Plymouth fell back into subsistence living. Eventually, the Plymouth church decided to relocate farther out into the countryside to further isolate themselves from the pressures of a rapidly growing colonies along the coast. Plymouth was essentially abandoned.

The Pilgrims should be regarded with reverence and honor. What they did was incredibly daring—they risked their lives for their faith by venturing across an ocean and into the unknown. In North America, they persevered against weather, starvation, and death. Through their resolve and fortitude, they survived. Their steadfastness inspired the Founding Fathers and characterized the American spirit. They also left a lasting legacy through the separation of church and state, and their novel form of self-government.

What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?

Jay Milbrandt: Isaiah 1:17: “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”

This passage was particularly meaningful to me as a law student and young lawyer when I was seeking guidance on direction for my life and career. As an author, I try to write on topics that pursue these ends. I believe the Pilgrim story is about justice and freedom from oppression.

What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?

Jay Milbrandt: I appreciate Bible Gateway. When I write, I’m often comparing translations or trying to find obscure topics. Bible Gateway has proved exceedingly useful. It was particularly helpful to find the Geneva Bible translation for this project—it’s no longer a common translation to find!


Bio: Jay Milbrandt is the author of The Daring Heart of David Livingstone and a professor at Bethel University in Minnesota. He formerly directed the Global Justice Program and served as Senior Fellow in Global Justice with the Nootbaar Institute at Pepperdine University School of Law. He has traveled throughout the world as a lawyer, managing global initiatives in Africa and Southeast Asia, and consulting with organizations engaged in human rights and legal development efforts.

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Filed under Books, History, Interviews