Who were the Saints?
George Willison (Saints and Strangers - Being the Lives of the Pilgrim Fathers & Their Families, with Their Friends & Foes: & and Account of Their Posthumous Wanderings in Limbo, Their Final Resurrection & Rise to Glory, & the Strange Pilgrimages of Plymouth Rock [London: William Heinemann, Ltd., 1945]) set the categories for discussion of the divisions of the Plymouth Colony for the next several generations. His writing was vivid, but his purpose, to debunk the Pilgrims, or, in the words of a reviewer, “to rescue [the Pilgrims] from their friends who have praised them too highly” led him into far too many extreme positions and absurd conclusions. Genealogists, in particular, have to use this work with care, because Willison overlooked many recent discoveries in the research which had not yet made their way into the general works in the field; the numerous works that have appeared in the seventy-five years that have passed since its first publication have laid bare scores of additional errors. All of Willison’s pictures are black and white -- Saints or Strangers. In his repeated stress on the “guile of the Saints” he gives an unjustifiably bad picture of them. By dwelling at great length on the sexual irregularities among them he overemphasises that side of their lives. These misinterpretations and most of the factual errors in the book arise from the unscholarly criteria which Willison chose to follow. In his bibliography he places the three asterisks of highest approval only against secondary works which he describes as “altogether interesting and relevant”; that the books should be historically sound and based on modern scholarship he does not consider important.
But Willison’s dichotomy between Saints and Strangers seems to have lasted, as numerous editorials published last month for the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s departure show -- it even gave a name to a recent National Geographic film. The “standard” or “schoolbook” depiction of the Mayflower passengers (mostly merchant adventurers with a few religious zealots) owes quite a bit to Willison’s technique of implied slander. I will address what I call “the numbers game” in a couple of days, but pause here to make some basic comments: Willison divides the 104 passengers on the Mayflower into 41 Saints, 40 Strangers, 5 hired hands, and 18 servants. Some, indeed many, of these identifications have been revisited and rejected. Willison’s bias against the Saints may very well have led him to underestimate that category.
It is also important to realise that there is not a single litmus test to determine whether one is a Saint or a Stranger, although it is easy to determine that the Brewsters are firmly in the camp of the Saints, and the Billingtons are definitely Strangers. While membership in the Leiden congregation is a good indication of religious affiliation, absence from that list does not necessarily mean that a passenger was not a Saint. But even among the “Saints,” there is something of a spectrum, as there is in any congregation. Trying to make too clean a split between Separatists and Puritans. Saints and Strangers, overlooks the fact that the religious issues changed over time, and people moved between groups. It is also vital to pay attention to English origins and family connections -- work that has been done by Robert Charles Anderson and Sue Allan in recent years -- which can identify passengers who, even if they are not “hot Protestants” (in Michael Winship’s term) were definitely more than simply “fellow travellers.” There was a certain homogeneity in the Plymouth Colony, which contributed to its failure: it is significant that the Colony was woefully unable to attract clergymen of their own stripe to minister to them -- Robinson stayed in Holland, and died without ever coming to the New World. Almost all of the clergy who came to the colony were from Massachusetts, many were Harvard trained, and of a far more “establishment” mindset than the Pilgrims.