On 15 August 1620, a group of migrants set sail from Southampton. One of the ships leaked so badly that 300 miles past Land’s End they had to return for repairs, and after abandoning as unseaworthy one of the ships they had spent their life savings on, they finally left Plymouth on 22 September for a tortuous six-week voyage across the Atlantic.

This year marks the four-hundredth anniversary of the sailing of those known to later history as the Pilgrim Fathers. Yet despite the huge impact this event had on the national identity and story of the United States, in Britain there are no national celebrations.

At the end of last year I asked both the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) what they were doing to celebrate it. The Foreign Office were able to list a host of major events they were organising across the USA. However, DCMS indicated that they had no plans for any celebration, but were aware the Treasury had made a number of grants to local projects in towns such as Southampton and Plymouth associated with the Mayflower. There is, it must be said an excellent coalition of local groups, known as Mayflower 400 promoting the anniversary, but no official commemoration.

Whilst there may well be an underlying issue with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport – despite its name – not seeing itself as having any responsibility for promoting a sense of UK national identity and values, there is also a wider issue. In the UK, we have largely forgotten the significance of freedom of religion in the development of our own national story.

A lot of what’s written on the history of freedom in Britain tends to relegate the sailing of the Mayflower to little more than a footnote.1 After all, the pilgrims had already fled England to live in the Netherlands 12 years earlier. But that is to miss the wider picture. They fled because at the time in England it was a capital offence to meet for worship anywhere other than in the established church, laws which continued to exist until 1689.

Historians have debated the multiple reasons why the pilgrims left the Netherlands. However, what is undeniable is the importance of freedom of religion to that decision. They sailed when the imminent ending of the 12 years Truce (1609-22) between Spain and the Netherlands meant there was the real prospect of both war and the total destruction of all religious freedom should Spain have decided to invade. That freedom was also under threat from an emerging internal Protestant conflict in the Netherlands between Calvinists and Arminians which had led to a purge of those deemed to be holding the ‘wrong’ theological beliefs from both university and civic offices.2 So, whilst of course the pilgrims wanted a better life than the poor area of Leiden many of them lived in, freedom of religion was a central part of their motivation.

The pilgrim fathers are important precisely because their story played a seminal role in embedding freedom of religion in the values of what a century and half later was to become the United States of America. It is helpful to see these twin threats to freedom of religion they faced in 1620 in the context of how freedom of religion developed in Britain, not least because it was largely from Britain and the other English-speaking countries which branched out from her that it spread around the world.

From the time of the Reformation there were three broad phases in the development of freedom of religion.

The first, a period of ‘enforced conformity’, dates from England’s split with Rome in 1532 to 1689. This was a period where a variety of beliefs were tolerated provided – and it was a very important proviso – those holding them remained within the ‘broad church’ of the established church. However, anyone meeting to listen to Christian teaching or worship outside the Church of England faced fines, imprisonment or even execution. As is common in contexts of persecution, the actual extent of persecution depended on local magistrates. That is why some of the ‘separatists’ who had fled to the Netherlands eventually decided it would be better to risk returning to England, rather than the dangerous voyage across the Atlantic to an unknown land that was still subject to English law. One such example was Thomas Helwys, now revered as one of the first English Baptists. While in the Netherlands he came to the conclusion that it was a Christian’s duty not to flee persecution. So, together with some of his followers he returned to England and established a church, as result of which he was thrown into Newgate prison where a few years before the Pilgrim Fathers sailed, he died.

The second phase dates from the passing of the Toleration Act in 1689 which followed the overthrow of the Stuart monarchy and the accession of William and Mary. Although referred to ‘toleration’, in reality it was more like ‘toleration on sufferance’.3 The Toleration Act allowed Protestants (and after 1791 Catholics) to meet for worship and led to an explosion of dissenting chapels opening.4 However, various Test Acts excluded non-Anglicans from various professions such as being school teachers or lawyers, holding public or academic office or even attending Oxford and Cambridge universities. In other words, the same sort of restrictions as the Pilgrim fathers were beginning to see enforced in the Netherlands.

The third phase, full freedom of religion or belief, was established in Britain by the gradual repeal of the Test Acts, beginning in 1719 with the Schism Act, which had excluded non Anglican from becoming school teachers.5 6 It culminated in the repeal of the University Test Acts in 1871, which removed restrictions on academic posts at Oxford, Cambridge and Durham universities, followed by the 1888 Oaths Act which allowed Atheists to sit in parliament.7 8

However, what the seed planted by the Pilgrim Fathers did was to allow full freedom of religion or belief to develop in the countries which emerged from Britain, long before the UK itself fully attained it. In North America, this included specific enactments guaranteeing aspects of freedom of religion such as the 1649 Maryland Act, the 1663 Rhode Island Royal Charter, the 1774 Quebec Act, and the 1786 Virginia Religious Freedom Act.9 10 11 12

Even more importantly, after the USA’s Declaration of Independence it led to the explicit statement in the 1787 constitution that:

 No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.13

As well as the 1791 First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech; or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble.

These were principles that other countries of the English-speaking peoples also adopted as they emerged as sovereign countries. It can be seen, for example, in the almost identical statement in Australia’s Commonwealth constitution:

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.14

Today that it is perhaps something Britain has lost sight of.

Yet, freedom of religion has in many respects been the gift that the English-speaking peoples have given to the world. In the majority of European countries it wasn’t fully established until the twentieth century. In fact, some important aspects, such as the freedom from being required to affirm particular beliefs in order to hold public office never even made it into the European Convention of Human Rights.15 But Britain and our cousins across the English-speaking world were developing it from the sixteenth century and the sailing of the Mayflower was a key landmark, not just in the USA’s development of its national identity and values, but in ours too.

Surely there should be a national celebration of this momentous event!

Dr Martin Parsons is an independent consultant on freedom of religion or belief  and the author of two books, including the recently published Good for Society: Christian Values and Conservative Politics.

Picture of ‘The Return of the Mayflower’ (1886) by L. Birge Harrison. Public domain. 


  1. John Coffey Persecution and Toleration in Protestant England, 1558-1689 (Harlow:Pearson,2000):113-14.
  2. Derek Wilson The Mayflower Pilgrims: Sifting Fact from Fable (London:SPCK,2019):199.
  3. Toleration Act 1689 (1 Will & Mary c.18).
  4. Catholic Relief Act 1791  (30 Geo. III c.32).
  5. G.M. Townend ‘Religious radicalism and conservativism in the Whig party under George 1: the repeal of the Occasional Conformity and Schism Acts’ Parliamentary History 7:1 (1988):24-44.
  6. Schism Act 1714 (13 Ann c.7).
  7. Universities Tests Act 1871 (34 & 35 Vict. c.26).
  8. The Oaths Act 1888 (51 & 52 Vict. c.46).
  9. The Marland Toleration Act 1649 (Assembly of Maryland Colony).
  10. Charter of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations 15 July 1663 <https://avalon.law.yale.edu/17th_century/ri04.asp> [accessed 7 August 2020].
  11. Quebec Act (formerly British North America [Quebec] Act) 1774 (14 Geo.III c.83).
  12. An Act for establishing Religious Freedom (Virginia General Assembly) 1786.
  13. Constitution of the United States of America (1787) Article VI.
  14. Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 (1900 c.12 UK Parliament) s.116/Commonwealth of Australia Constitution s.116.
  15. European Convention on Human Rights (1950) Article 18 is directly based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) Article 18 which also omits it.

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