The best books on the background of the Pilgrim fathers

Derek Wilson Author Of The Mayflower Pilgrims: Sifting Fact from Fable
By Derek Wilson

Who am I?

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.

The books I picked & why

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

By Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs,

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

Why 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.


The Puritans in the Diocese of Peterborough

By W.J. Sheils,

Book cover of The Puritans in the Diocese of Peterborough

Why 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.


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

By Scott Culpepper,

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

Why 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.


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

By Karl Gunther,

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

Why 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.


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

By James Horn,

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

Why 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'.


5 book lists we think you will like!

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

5,810 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 13 books about the pilgrims
The Reformation Explore 16 books about the Reformation
The Netherlands Explore 53 books about the Netherlands

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Mayflower and Her Passengers, One Small Candle, and Of Plimoth Plantation if you like this list.