Today is the major American holiday of Thanksgiving, so I thought I’d revisit a post I wrote last year, looking at something in our stock which commemorates the sailing of the Mayflower.

The Mayflower was the ship that transported the first group of Puritans from England to the New World. It sailed from Plymouth in the summer of 1620 with 102 passengers. They weren’t the first group of people aiming to settle in the New World, of course. But when they landed far from where they had intended to settle in Virginia, they had to form their own colony on Cape Cod.

The Mayflower carried not only people fleeing religious persecution, but also adventurers and traders. With the prospect of trying to survive a bitter and snowy Massachusetts winter, tempers started to fray, with some individuals wanting to go it alone. It quickly became clear that all the surviving settlers had to work together for the greater good.

A C19 visual recreation of the Mayflower in Plymouth harbour. Artist: William Halsall

This agreement, the Mayflower Compact, was signed on-board the vessel by all the male passengers before they were allowed ashore. It was what we would now call a social contract. Part of the text reads:

 [we] covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid … 

and can be seen as one of the founding documents of American democracy.

So, it is no surprise that the tercentenary celebrations in 1920 were marked in Plymouth, Massachusetts with considerable energy. There were some problems with raising funds (the First World War hadn’t long finished), creating a meaningful legacy, and trying to appeal to all sections of American society. These are all very contemporary concerns for any project, but they didn’t however, prevent a successful series of events.

What might be slightly more surprising, was a series of celebrations held in the UK, centred around the original Plymouth. These weren’t organised by the national or local government, but rather by a Mayflower Council, under the chairmanship of J. Rendel Harris , a renowned biblical scholar and Quaker, who was born in Plymouth.

J. Rendel Harris  The Mayflower Song Book (publ. 1920)

Mayflower song book
The front cover (with adhesive damage)

This wasn’t some commemorative tat, aimed at the casual visitor interested in the founding of the modern USA. Instead, it was a serious, religious publication

intended to be (i) an historical memorial of a great exodus of the people of God; (ii) such songs as the Pilgrims themselves might readily sing, if they were to return … ; (iii) such as we could ourselves sing with them … 

Mayflower song book - title page
The title page

The ‘Introductory Statement’ further reinforces the evangelical purpose of the book:

The men of the Mayflower stand out among English men of action. They thought deeply; they ventured in faith; they achieved what they sought, and far more. …  At the heart of the Pilgrim movement lay a passion for liberty, that led the Pilgrims, as it leads other men, further than they dreamed. It is the soul of progress, and it was first realised in the sphere of the Christian faith … 

Open the book at any page and you see a hymn on the LH page with a supporting text on the RH, either commenting directly on the history of the Mayflower and its passengers, or looking at other aspects of active Christian faith. The hymn ‘Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah’ is paired with a quote from George Herbert’s The Church Militant:

Religion stands on tiptoe in our land, Readie to pass to th’ American strand.

Another well-known hymn, ‘Our God, our help in ages past’ is partnered with a passage giving the outline story of the Pilgrims.

Beyond the sea, the United Provinces were a land of freedom for the victims of persecution; and thither the exiles of England came to worship God in their own way, not the way of the Church. … 

Such an unabashed, one-sided promotion of the Mayflower settlers’ actions and religious tenets wouldn’t be considered appropriate nowadays, I think. It also perpetuates the view that the only important Pilgrims were male. See the illustration below for mention of the ‘public-school boy’ who appears to be the only target audience for The Argonauts of Faith.

Mayflower song book - list of publications for sale
List of publications for sale

Harris is connected to Birmingham, and the history of the city. A member of the Society of Friends, he was for many years the Director of Studies at Woodbrooke College in Selly Oak, a Quaker college founded by George Cadbury . He was a scion of the Cadbury family, also Quakers, whose name is still synonymous with chocolate in Birmingham. George Cadbury founded the college (now a Quaker study centre) in 1903. It still occupies the same site, previously one of Cadbury’s own homes.

Plans are already under-weigh in the UK (led by Plymouth City Council this time) for the 2020 quatercentenary celebrations of the Mayflower’s sailing. I suspect something very different will appear this time.