The best books on the background of the Pilgrim fathers

Why am I passionate about this?

I developed my passion for the Reformation while studying History and Theology at Cambridge. Now, several years and a dozen books on 16th -17th-century history later, my obsession has not waned for what was the most formative period in the development, not only of our religious and political life, but also of our culture. I like to think that, through my books, journal articles, and lectures (and the occasional historical novel) I have made a useful contribution to our understanding of that culture.


I wrote...

The Mayflower Pilgrims: Sifting Fact from Fable

By Derek Wilson,

Book cover of The Mayflower Pilgrims: Sifting Fact from Fable

What is my book about?

The voyage of the Mayflower in 1620 has come to typify those qualities that many believe represent the best of America and the values it holds up to the rest of the world. And yet, if they lived today, the courageous men, women and children who made that journey would not recognize themselves in the romantic retelling of their story in popular books and movies of the last century or so. So what were the motivating forces behind this momentous voyage? Derek Wilson strips away the over-painting from the icon to discover the complex range of religious, political, and commercial concerns that led this group of hopeful but fallible human beings to seek a new life on the other side of the world.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners: Leiden and the foundations of Plymouth Plantation

Derek Wilson Why did I love this book?

This is good, straight historical 'coffee' without the sugar of romance or the milk of hero worship. It tells the unvarnished story of the various groups who migrated to the Netherlands in the first years of the 17th century, their relations with each other, and with their Dutch hosts. It is based on excellent historical research and locates the settlers firmly within the troubled political and religious context of their time. Through Bangs' analysis and his meticulous use of contemporary documents the reader will gain a clearer impression of these restless separatists 'warts an' all'. It must be the starting point for anyone who wants to see them for real and not as the founding fathers of popular legend.

By Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"In this incredible work Jeremy Bangs rips away nearly four centuries of encrusted knowledge about the Pilgrims. Not content to rely on received knowledge about this separatist community, Bangs has spent a lifetime searching them out in archives--Dutch, English and American. The result is an extraordinary reassessment of these people. Never mincing works (Bangs is refreshingly direct), his scholarship is the starting line for any historian interested in the Pilgrim story or early American history writ large..." William M. Fowler, Professor of History, Northeastern University.


Book cover of The Puritans in the Diocese of Peterborough

Derek Wilson Why did I love this book?

This excellent local history survey enables us to step back to the period immediately before the migration to the Netherlands to see the kind of life the future Pilgrims were leading in their home shires. The East Midlands had long been a home of religious radicalism. Some of the men and women destined to take the historical transatlantic journey grew up listening to Puritan preachers berate the clergy of the established church for not being sufficiently reformed. Under the microscope of Sheils' research, we can see the emergence of ever more extreme separatism and the emergence of groups of impatient, intolerant 'saints' meeting clandestinely and contemplating leaving their homeland in search of the perfect church.

Book cover of Francis Johnson and the English Separatist Influence: The Bishop of Brownism's Life, Writings, and Controversies

Derek Wilson Why did I love this book?

This is the biography of one of the most disruptive figures in the separatist movement. It brings to life the turbulence of the life of the Netherlands settlers more vividly than generalisations about conditions in Amsterdam, and Leiden can do. Johnson was the most extreme and dogmatic of the English separatists. He led a congregation in London in the 1590s, was exiled, made an abortive attempt to set up his own colony in Nova Scotia, then joined the separatist community in Amsterdam. There he fell out with the established leadership and created a split in the English community. The vivid (perhaps 'lurid' would be a better word) story of a maverick so domineering that he could excommunicate his own father and brother reveal the destructive depths to which religious certainty could descend.

By Scott Culpepper,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Francis Johnson and the English Separatist Influence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Francis Johnson and the English Separatist Influence is the first thorough treatment of Francis Johnson as the central focus of an academic work. Johnson (1562-1618) was the pastor of the English Separatist Ancient Church in London and Amsterdam from 1592-1618. Once referred to as the "Bishop of Brownism" by one of his contemporaries, Johnson's theological and practical influence on Christian traditions as diverse as the Baptists, Congregationalists, and English Independents demonstrated the wide breadth of English Separatism's formative influence.

Francis Johnson's quest to create a perfectly ordered, scriptural, Christian congregation led him to fiery debates with the most influential leaders…


Book cover of Reformation Unbound: Protestant Visions of Reform in England, 1525–1590

Derek Wilson Why did I love this book?

This incisive account of the development of Protestant extremism reveals that the beliefs of the Pilgrims were not novel. Dr Gunther traces their development back to the early years of the Reformation. When the religion of images and priests was replaced by the religion of words and preachers the implications for the English church could only be extensive and devastating. When the Bible was translated into the vernacular and increasing numbers of Christians read it for themselves it is clear (though only in hindsight) that the centre could not hold. People were driven by conscience to oppose, not only their bishops, but also their sovereign. This book is valuable for weaving the separatist vision into the weft and warp of Tudor society.

By Karl Gunther,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Reformation Unbound as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Fundamentally revising our understanding of the nature and intellectual contours of early English Protestantism, Karl Gunther argues that sixteenth-century English evangelicals were calling for reforms and envisioning godly life in ways that were far more radical than have hitherto been appreciated. Typically such ideas have been seen as later historical developments, associated especially with radical Puritanism, but Gunther's work draws attention to their development in the earliest decades of the English Reformation. Along the way, the book offers new interpretations of central episodes in this period of England's history, such as the 'Troubles at Frankfurt' under Mary and the Elizabethan…


Book cover of A Land As God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America

Derek Wilson Why did I love this book?

This book describes the colonising element which was the background to the final movement of the Pilgrims from Leiden to America. That move would not have taken place without (a) the pioneering attempts of Elizabethan adventurers to settle the North American seaboard, (b) the mercenary (and unscrupulous) determination of businessmen to exploit the land and people of the region, and (c) The desire of English monarchs to enhance their prestige and wealth. Horn tells in graphic detail the story of early troubled attempts to make a settlement at the mouth of the James River. By the time that the Pilgrims were seriously contemplating moving on from Leiden, the leaders of the Virginia Company were becoming desperate to recruit potential colonists. The result was a muddled, stop-go venture driven by mixed motives. As one of the Pilgrims exclaimed, 'If ever we make a plantation it will be because God works a miracle'.

By James Horn,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Land As God Made It as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Although it was the first permanent English settlement in North America, Jamestown is too often overlooked in the writing of American history. Founded thirteen years before the Mayflower sailed, Jamestown's courageous settlers have been overshadowed ever since by the pilgrims of Plymouth. But as historian James Horn demonstrates in this vivid and meticulously researched account, Jamestown-not Plymouth-was the true crucible of American history. Jamestown introduced slavery into English-speaking North America; it became the first of England's colonies to adopt a representative government; and it was the site of the first white-Indian clashes over territorial expansion. As we approach the four-hundredth…


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Book cover of Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink

Ethan Chorin Author Of Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Story-lover Middle East expert Curious Iconoclast Optimist

Ethan's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Benghazi: A New History is a look back at the enigmatic 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, its long-tail causes, and devastating (and largely unexamined) consequences for US domestic politics and foreign policy. It contains information not found elsewhere, and is backed up by 40 pages of citations and interviews with more than 250 key protagonists, experts, and witnesses.

So far, the book is the main -- and only -- antidote to a slew of early partisan “Benghazi” polemics, and the first to put the attack in its longer term historical, political, and social context. If you want to understand some of the events that have shaped present-day America, from political polarization and the election of Donald Trump, to January 6, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russian expansionism, and the current Israel-Hamas war, I argue, you need to understand some of the twists and turns of America's most infamous "non-scandal, scandal.”

I was in Benghazi well before, during, and after the attack as a US diplomat and co-director of a medical NGO. I have written three books, and have been a contributor to The NYT, Foreign Affairs, Forbes, Salon, The Financial Times, Newsweek, and others.

By Ethan Chorin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On September 11, 2012, Al Qaeda proxies attacked and set fire to the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, killing a US Ambassador and three other Americans.  The attack launched one of the longest and most consequential 'scandals' in US history, only to disappear from public view once its political value was spent. 

Written in a highly engaging narrative style by one of a few Western experts on Libya, and decidely non-partisan, Benghazi!: A New History is the first to provide the full context for an event that divided, incited, and baffled most of America for more than three years, while silently reshaping…


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Interested in the pilgrims, the Reformation, and the Netherlands?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the pilgrims, the Reformation, and the Netherlands.

The Pilgrims Explore 14 books about the pilgrims
The Reformation Explore 24 books about the Reformation
The Netherlands Explore 78 books about the Netherlands