Pandemics, Protests, Pilgrims, Pokanokets and Puritans

What do pandemics, protests, Pilgrims, Pokanoket and Puritans have to do with the Boston in England? That Boston is one of the many international stops planned along the 2020 Mayflower400 International Partner Trail. Historians spent years planning a series of special events and displays to commemorate the journey that brought Pilgrims to New England in 1620. The 2020 pandemic has cancelled most of those plans.

An earlier pandemic played a part in the story, bringing those Pilgrims and the Pokanoket people together to work out a treaty. That pandemic is known to the Native Americans as The Great Dying. The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic prevents tourists from visiting the English Boston to learn about that community’s part in the Pilgrim story, so I’ll take you there virtually. The story includes protests and is connected to, but separate from, the Puritan story.

From Boston, UK to Boston, USA

What do protests have to do with this, you ask?  Today we see folks so frustrated about COVID-19 induced restrictions they protest, demanding their rights to gather uninhibited and often unprotected. History will judge whether they are righteous rebels or foolish fanatics. A few centuries ago religiously motivated protesters (Protestants) fled England, demanding their right to decide for themselves how they would run their lives. They established Plymouth (Pilgrims, 1620) and Boston (Puritans, 1627).

The protests that launched the Pilgrims and Puritans grew from events set in motion a century earlier in German. In 1517 protesting reformer Martin Luther invited a few folks to discuss some current issues with him. That invitation ignited the Protestant Reformation. Though generally lumped together as one and the same, the Pilgrims and Puritans were two different protesting groups that evolved in the decades following Reformation. The Pilgrims were Separatists who thought the only way forward was to go back to the first century of church and start over. The Puritans believed they could persuade the church to conform to their nonconformist vision of how things should be.

While Luther was reforming Germany, John Foxe was growing up in Boston, England. He grow up to become a powerful English reformer and wrote the best-selling The Book of Martyrs, published in 1563. The book provided readers detailed descriptions of what happened to people who protested too much. It strengthened the resolve of countless others to continue fighting for change.

The Book That Launched a Movement

Foxe’s book influenced two of our well-known Separatists, William Brewster and William Bradford, along with their Pastor John Robinson. They were so inspired by his ideas they risked capture, arrest, torture, and execution to worship in underground services. Eventually they decided they’d prefer leaving England to risking their lives and the safety of their loved ones.

In 1607 they pooled their limited resources, sold their homes, packed up what they could carry and set out to Boston. The ship master they hired to take them to Holland told them to meet him there. By 1607 Boston was a major seaport, second only to London in importance. It was also a hotspot for nonconformist religious protesters, including Boston’s home town reformer, John Foxe. Once word got out there was land and freedom beyond England and Europe’s violent political/religious battles, people started emigrating in large numbers. Within a few years about ten percent of the Boston’s population migrated to Massachusetts.

Illegal Immigrants

There was one little problem with the Pilgrims’ plan to sail off to Holland. They needed King James’ permission to leave England. They assumed he would not be inclined to give permission to people who were leaving because they didn’t approve of his church polity or politics. Rather than seek his permission, they trusted on God’s forgiveness and traveled as undocumented, or as modern people might call them, illegal, immigrants. Our pilgrim’s pride is based on a small ragtag group of destitute illegal immigrants.

If you discount the challenges of travelling sixty miles on foot with women, children and

Site of betrayal in first attempt to leave.

everything left after you sold your homes and belongings, all went well until they reached Boston. As happens too often to  modern, destitute people who run for safety now and worry about paperwork later, they were betrayed. The ship master got them all safely on board and then signaled to the searchers lurking nearby. Searchers were basically bounty hunters. Claiming to be doing God and society a favor, and eager to collect the reward for their efforts, they searched through barns and garrets looking for people conducting secret worship services. Such services were banned in this Boston and everywhere else in England. The searchers robbed them of what little they had and hauled into town to the authorities.

Plan B

Guild House where pilgrim leaders were incarcerated.

The authorities detained our refugees in the Boston Guildhall. Whenever we declare the COVID-19 pandemic history, you can visit this magnificent building in person. Until then, here is a photo of Guildhouse.  This is where the Pilgrims were tried. Authorities detained those considered the ringleaders for a month, including Brewster and Bradford. The rest stayed with friends and sympathizers; then made the long trek back home. Now homeless and truly destitute, they depended on  the mercy of friends and family. Those who had been jailed returned home upon their release. They regrouped and made a successful departure in 1608. The cells were they were detained are still there and open to tourists when the entire global village isn’t fighting a modern pandemic.

What do pandemics, protests, Pilgrims, Pokanokets and Puritans have in common? The current pandemic prevents us from touring places that played a part in the history about how a group of protesters encountered a group of survivors from a 17th century pandemic. The journey includes Boston, England and led to founding Boston, USA.

Some details for this story come from


Thank you for joining me on this 400th Anniversary Pilgrim Journey. I hope it inspires as we wait for the spread of COVID-19 to lessen. Why not share this journey 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 doing great things in our global village. If you have a suggestion for a future HowWiseThen blog, let me know.
I have a variety of ‘thank you’ resources waiting for you at my website.


  1. Thank you for taking us on this virtual journey. Historians like you are aware, more than most, how often history repeats itself.

  2. The parallels between what the Pilgrims suffered and what so many still must face today are both reassuring and terrifying. Reassuring in that they overcame obstacles – we can as well. Terrifying in that we never seem to learn our history lessons.

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