They Knew They Were Pilgrims

Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty

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John G. Turner
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , April
     464 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Many myths surround popular narratives around the 17th-century Pilgrims. They have often been cast as the “symbols of republicanism, democracy, and religious toleration” (363), whose significance appears most readily in American visualizations of the origins of religious liberty: Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock to escape religious persecution in Europe, the signing of the Mayflower Compact asserting their commitment to religious freedom, and the religious pluralism of their first Thanksgiving celebration with Native Americans. John Turner’s They Knew They Were Pilgrims corrects the record on many of these fronts and uses the history of the Pilgrims “as a fresh lens for examining the contested meaning of liberty in early New England” (3). Through Turner’s deftly crafted narrative employing an impressive array of archival sources, the book complicates the ways Americans associate Pilgrims with religious liberty by underscoring conflicts and contradictions around how Pilgrims themselves understood and deployed the term “liberty.” Turner’s conclusion boldly proclaims that the Mayflower Compact “had no influence on the political theory of the American founding,” that there were “no references to the [Plymouth] rock as the Pilgrim landing spot until 150 years after the Mayflower,” and that there was not “a proper Thanksgiving” and even if there was, Plymouth Colony Leaders “beheaded Indians and took their land, fined Baptists, and whipped Quakers” (365).

They Knew They Were Pilgrims is a transatlantic intervention to what has mostly been an American story. Unlike romantic depictions of Pilgrims as having established their own settlement unencumbered by the events of Europe, Turner underscores Pilgrims’ continued attention to religious, political, and social developments overseas. Earlier histories have also made Plymouth peripheral to the projects of the more well-known New England Puritans of Boston and Cambridge, but Turner demonstrates how Plymouth’s presence shaped the region’s 17th-century religious and political landscape. On these fronts, this book joins  a host of recently published works that have endeavored to update histories of these New England settlers, most notably Michael P. Winship’s Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America, (Yale University Press, 2019) and David D. Hall’s The Puritans: A Transatlantic History, (Princeton University Press, 2020).

What sets They Knew They Were Pilgrims apart, however, is the author’s attention to the Pilgrims’ rhetoric around liberty. Here, the book explores the slipperiness of religious liberty through detailed vignettes of famous New England events from various characters’ viewpoints to demonstrate who could claim liberty and to what ends it could be successfully deployed. Equally fascinating were the mythmaking processes around the Pilgrims that said more about different generations’ investment in their own notions of liberty than about the 17th-century group themselves. The history of Pilgrims and various histories about them illustrate how liberty rhetoric mattered and why it might continue to matter for scholars writing about them. Turner’s exploration of “the contested meaning of liberty of New England” ends just as inconclusively on the topic of liberty as it began. The dizzying array of Puritan “liberty” claims like liberty of conscience, liberty of the gospel, Christian liberty, soul liberty, and political liberties elides any sense of stability around the term itself. It was, as Turner argued, a contest around a term among Englishmen that remained unsettled.

Equally important to Turner’s narrative about liberty is the history of settler-colonial violence. Turner observes that “as in the rest of the transatlantic English world, liberty and bondage developed in tandem.” (6). “Liberty” both justified the Pilgrims’ escape from violence against dissenting groups in Europe and also gave rise to their own violence against dissenting Protestants and Native Americans within their colony in New England. However, despite vivid accounts of Pilgrim rhetoric about liberty and subsequent acts of violence, Turner stops short of exploring the relationship between the two. In Turner’s telling, Pilgrims pursued a multifaceted ideal of liberty but were seemingly thwarted by competing economic, political, and religious interests. The violence of the Pilgrims appeared as if it was the result of the “contradictory ways” different groups understood liberty. Additionally, it appears that this violence was perhaps circumstantial, untimely, or the unintended consequences of European notions of liberty rather than a facet of it (3). Such approaches might be a result of the sources, as Turner sticks closely to English diaries, correspondences, and town records.

However, the texture of Turner’s history invites closer scrutiny on the relationship between liberty and violence beyond the notion that “conflicts about the nature and extent of those liberties remained unresolved” (6). They Knew They Were Pilgrims hints at, perhaps intentionally or unintentionally, the ways liberty rhetoric also operated as a vehicle for settler-colonial imperatives. In his conclusion, Turner quotes Pequot minister William Apess: “The pilgrims landed at Plymouth . . . and without asking liberty from anyone, they possessed themselves a portion of the country, and built themselves houses, and then made a treaty, and commanded them [the Wampanoags] to accede to it” (364). However, Apess continues, “And yet the Indians (though many were dissatisfied), without the shedding of blood or imprisoning anyone, bore it. And yet for their kindness and resignation toward the whites, they were called savages and made by God on purpose for them to destroy” (Apess, Eulogy of King Philip, 1836). For Native Americans like Apess, the English exercise of and rhetoric around liberty was not merely cotemporaneous with violence but perhaps preceded it and ushered in the death and enslavement of their people.

Nevertheless, the book excels in its history of the Pilgrims and the world they inhabited. Through its close examination of the many conflicts reflected in diaries, letters, and other sources, They Knew They Were Pilgrims makes a convincing case for the continued importance of Pilgrims to the region’s history. While Turner could have more critically explored liberty as coconstitutive with the violence experienced by non-Pilgrims, his account nevertheless succeeds in complicating popular narratives of the Pilgrims as the progenitors of a singular American ideal, an ideal that remains contested to this day.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Baysa is a PhD candidate at Princeton University.

Date of Review: 
June 21, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John G. Turner is professor of religious studies at George Mason University and the award-winning author of Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet.


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