Amsterdam Refugees

When the Scrooby Pilgrims’ 1607 first attempt to immigrate to the Lowlands failed, they returned to Scrooby and organized for another attempt. Their 1608 efforts resulted in successfully becoming the Amsterdam refugees. It was a mixed blessing. No longer must they worry about searchers and enforces rounding them up and handing them over to authorities. Instead they had to worry about where they would live and how they could support themselves in a bustling city, where most of them did not speak the local language, and lacked the necessary credentials to secure the best jobs.

Fortunately for these future Plymouth Pilgrims, they were not the first English religious rebels to leave England. By the early 1600s King James had made it very clear he would tolerate no challenge to his authority as either the monarch of Britain or the head of the Established Church. He was a religious man, with well-developed, if somewhat rigid, ideas about theology and scripture. Perhaps inspired by Martin Luther’s work to translate the Bible into the language of the German people, King James commissioned the translation of the Bible into a version that suited his thinking. The 1611 King James bible is nearly a replica of the 1560 English language Geneva Bible. However, the Geneva translation included notes that railed against the Pope and didn’t shed a positive light on monarchy either.  King James had the resources to publish a version that suited his personal theology better.

Like It or Leave

By the time the Scrooby Pilgrims emigrated, King James had removed over three hundred protesting clergy from their pulpits in England. Some of the displaced clergy fled to become Amsterdam refugees. By the time the Scrooby group arrived they were fairly well established.

These future Pilgrims arrived in a growing and prospering city approaching 200,000 people. Amsterdam  had a reputation for religious tolerance. As long as new arrivals caused no trouble and found ways to support themselves, the Dutch authorities had little interest in their religious preferences. It was a Golden Age for Amsterdam. During this time period the popular canals were just being built. In 1602 Amsterdam became home to the world’s first stock exchange when the Dutch East India Company opened an office to trade their own shares. Though our Pilgrims had moved on to Leiden by 1618, that year the city established the first global regular newspaper, “Courants.”

The Scrooby Amsterdam refugees represented a much larger Separatist movement in England. This group believed the only way forward faith-wise was to return to the simpler church structures of the first century. The various small towns in North England around Scrooby had given rise to a number of Separatists who either lost their pulpits or presumed they soon would. One of them, John Smyth, emigrated with a group of followers from Gainsborough in 1607, the year our group from Scrooby tried to leave, but were betrayed in Boston, England. Scrooby Separatists had worshiped with the Gainsborough congregation and thus knew some who successfully migrated to Amsterdam.

Make New Friends

Another group of London based Separatists had already settled in Amsterdam back in 1595. They formed a church future Plymouth Governor William Bradford referred to as the Ancient Brethren. At first our new arrivals, under the leadership of William Brewster, John Robinson, and Richard Clyfton, were relieved and grateful to find kindred spirits already established in Amsterdam. Their relief was short lived. Both John Smyth’s relocated Gainsborough group, and the Ancient Brethren were caught up in a series of internal conflicts as well as contentious relationships between the two groups.

It must have felt to the newly arrived Scrooby Pilgrim immigrants they’d been betrayed a second time in only a couple of years. The late Mary B. Sherwood wrote in Pilgrim: A biography of William Brewster,

It would have seemed natural for the people from Scrooby to join once more with their neighbors from Gainsborough, the church of which they were formerly a part. They did not do so, primarily because of the bewildering behavior of the minister, John Smyth. Smyth, whose search for the truth had led him to separate from the Church of England, was still finding the truth illusive. He continued to pore over the scriptures and theological writings, reaching one temporary conclusion after another, sometimes rejecting a ‘truth’ he had recently proclaimed.

Indecisive Leadership Wrecks Havoc

One of the more challenging conclusions Smyth reached was that an English translation of scripture was not acceptable, because it was translated by humans, and therefore not reliable as being the true word of God. He insisted they study only Hebrew and Greek scriptures – apparently not caring those too were written and preserved by mere mortals. For new immigrants struggling to adapt to speaking Dutch, this was one more challenge they could do without. Smyth also concluded infant baptisms were inadequate since infants did not decide whether they wanted to be baptized or not. The Scrooby Pilgrims had most certainly all been baptized as infants in the Established Church of England. After Smyth re-baptized himself and all of his followers, he later decided he had been wrong in his conclusions about baptism.

William Bradford in his recollections of the Scrooby Pilgrims brief time in Amsterdam later wrote, Smyth was “a man of able gifts, and a good preacher, eminent in his time, but whose inconstancy, unstable judgment, and being suddenly carried away, soon overthrew him.” (Alexander Young: Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers of the Colony of Plymouth).

The conflicts and the unstable local leadership, combined with the typical immigrant challenges of adapting to a strange new culture, led the Scrooby group to conclude they’d come to the right country, but the wrong city. They lived there only one year before moving onto our next stop on this Pilgrim journey – Leiden. Come back next week to learn more about life in Leiden.


Thank you for taking time to read more about the 17th Century Pilgrim Journey. I hope it inspires as we wait out the consequences of COVID-19 and commemorate the Mayflower’s 400 anniversary with virtual celebrations. Why not share it with a friend? Got this from a friend? You can sign up for your own free subscription at HowWiseThen. I am always looking for leads about good people making great contribution to our global village. If you have a suggestion for a future HowWiseThen blog, let me hear from you. I have a variety of free downloads waiting for you on my website.

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