Pandemics and Protests

Can you believe we’ve been in pandemic mode for two full years and still aren’t completely clear of COVID-19? Ya, me either. It’s been like one unrelenting April Fool’s trick. “It’s over. No, it’s not. It’s safe to go out now. Maybe not.”

Pandemics and protests are part of human history. Both are part of the Pilgrim story. A 17th Century pandemic brought the Pilgrims and the Pokanoket people together to work out a treaty. That pandemic is known to the Native Americans as The Great Dying. Both the Indigenous people and the newly arrived English settlers had suffered tremendously from a pandemic and other causes of sickness and death. They knew they needed to get along to survive.

Massasoit Ousa Mequin, the great leader of all the indigenous tribes in the New England area, called on the new English settlers in March 2021 to work out the terms of a treaty with their Governor John Carver and other Plimoth leaders.

From Boston, UK to Boston, USA

Today we see folks so frustrated about COVID-19 restrictions they protest and file law suits, demanding the right to gather uninhibited and unprotected. History will judge whether they are righteous rebels or foolish fanatics. A few centuries ago religiously motivated protesters (Protestants) fled England, demanding the right to decide for themselves how they would worship. The Pilgrims established Plymouth, MA in 1620. The Puritans established Boston, MA in 1627.

They were inspired by events set in motion a century earlier in Germany. In 1517 Martin Luther invited a few folks to discuss some current religious 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 within the non-conformist movement that evolved in the decades that followed. The Pilgrims were Separatists who thought the only way forward was to go back to the first century church and start over. The Puritans believed they could persuade the church to conform to their nonconformist vision of how things should be.

A Book That Launched a Movement

While Luther was reforming Germany, John Foxe was growing up in Boston, England. He became a powerful English reformer. In 1563 he published his popular  The Book of Martyrs. The book provided readers detailed descriptions of what happened to people who protested too much. Rather than discourage others, it strengthened their resolve to continue fighting for change. Foxe’s book influenced three well-known Separatists, William Brewster, William Bradford, and their Pastor John Robinson. Foxe’s ideas so inspired them, they risked capture, arrest, torture, and execution to worship their own way in underground services. Eventually they decided to leave England, rather than further risk their lives and those of their families.

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

Illegal Immigrants

There was one problem with the Pilgrims’ plan to leave England. They needed King James’ permission, which they assumed he would not give since they 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 we discount the challenges of traveling sixty miles on foot with women, children and everything not already sold, all went well until they reached Boston.

Site of betrayal in first attempt to leave.

As too often happens to desperate people fleeing for safety, they were betrayed. The ship master got them all on board, then signaled to searchers lurking nearby. Searchers were basically bounty hunters. Claiming to be doing God and society a favor, and eager to collect their reward money, they searched barns and garrets looking for people conducting secret worship services. Such services were banned in Boston and everywhere else in England. The searchers robbed them and hauled into Boston to the authorities.

If at First You Don’t Succeed

Guild House where pilgrim leaders were incarcerated.

The authorities detained the refugees in the Boston Guildhouse. Here the Pilgrims were tried and those considered the leaders imprisoned, including Brewster and Bradford. Authorities detained them for a month, while the rest stayed with friends and sympathizers or made the long trek back home.

When the imprisoned leaders were released, they too returned home. Together they regrouped and made a second, successful departure to Holland in 1608. They returned to England in 1620 long enough to set sail on the Mayflower. The Guildhouse cells are still there and open to tourists.

You might enjoy reading more about this little-known background of the people we call Pilgrims at these sites: A Tale of Two Bostons  and The English Boston.

Why not share this journey with a friend? You can sign up for your own free subscription at HowWiseThen.

Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale of Two Cultures covers the Pilgrim’s escape from England and much more of the interaction between them and the Pokanoket people. Available wherever books are sold in paperback, eBook, and audio. (Supporting local Indie Bookshops)
Autographed copies available from


  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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