Book Review: ‘They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty’ by John G. Turner

Review is by Daniel N. Gullotta, who is a PhD candidate in American religious history at Stanford University.


Pilgrims have become a staple of American life and culture. We hear them referenced in political speeches by both Republicans and Democrats and see them depicted in artwork in museums across the country. Wildly historically inaccurate (and often risqué) Pilgrim costumes usually crop up at Halloween parties. Television programs, from WGN’s Salem to Sky One’s Jamestown, feature Pilgrims, Puritans, and other sources of early American drama.

Of course, with Thanksgiving only a few weeks away, op-eds concerning the good, the bad, and the ugly side of the Pilgrims’ arrival in America will be shared all across social media. Already this year, they have been enlisted as part of the pushback against the New York Times’s much-debated 1619 Project, with the National Association of Scholars launching the 1620 Project to invoke “the year in which the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and the Mayflower Compact was signed.”

Historian John G. Turner enters into this much-contested territory with his latest book, They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty. Published in conjunction with the 400th anniversary of the founding of Plymouth Colony, the book centers on the concept of liberty: how the colonists pursued it and exercised it, even as they differed in their understanding of what it entailed.

Invention and Reinvention

Debates over the meaning of Christian liberty, as well as the boundaries of liberty of conscience, are a common feature of early American history, and in Turner’s narrative, groups such as Catholics, Quakers, the Wampanoag community, and other Native Americans bring these disputes into sharp (and often violent) focus.

At the same time, Turner demonstrates how the quest for liberty took on many new forms during this period, like the liberty to garner wealth and change one’s lot in life, the liberty to dispossess Indians of their land, and the liberty to experiment with different models of societal governance and church organization. He is quick to emphasize the ironies in these competing ideas of liberty, illustrating how Plymouth’s band of religious separatists went from being the persecuted to the persecutors. Put another way, many of his book’s central figures seem to embody the adage “Liberty for me but not for thee.”

But even as these same figures took advantage of the opportunities for invention and reinvention afforded by their newfound liberty, they were plagued by a sense of insecurity. They Knew They Were Pilgrims contains many scenes of uncertainty and anxiety toward the future. In addition to stressing over the preservation of their liberty, the Pilgrims were fearful of the indigenous population, nervous about the political climate in England, suspicious of Satanic influence behind their hardships, and worried for the state of their own souls and the health of Christ’s earthly church.

Alongside this angst, Turner’s narrative showcases a high amount of drama, ranging from land disputes to debates over proper baptismal practices to instances of sexual assault. Brawls occasionally broke out when certain individuals refused to remove their hats in deference to colonial authority figures.

Readers may be familiar with some of Turner’s central characters and storylines, like Roger Williams and his religiously tolerant Rhode Island colony, Thomas Morton and his infamous maypole, and Anne Hutchinson, whose battles with church authorities got her banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in what came to be known as the Antinomian Controversy. But the book also gives extended attention to other notable and lesser-known figures, including the rebellious dissenter Samuel Gorton; the long-aggrieved Joanna Cotton, the wife of a serially adulterous minister; and Awashonks, a female Native American tribal chief who aided the English during King Philip’s War. Such an interesting array of historical figures makes for engrossing reading, as do the many tensions, clashes, and tragedies in which they were embroiled.

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Source: Christianity Today