A Short History of Thanksgiving Day: Part 2 – Life in Holland

Myself . 

By T. V. Antony Raj


A canal in amsterdam - Oil painting by Johannes Frederik Hulk sr. (1829–1911)
A canal in Amsterdam – Oil painting by Johannes Frederik Hulk sr. (1829–1911)


Shortly afterwards, in 1607, John Smyth and the members of the Gainsborough group moved on to Amsterdam. Brewster was fined £20 (about £3.66 thousand today) in absentia for his non-compliance with the Church of England, and he resigned from the position of postmaster.

Of the lay preachers among the Scrooby congregation, William Bradford was the most prominent next to William Brewster.  The members of the Scrooby congregation decided to follow John Smyth’s group to Amsterdam. On arrival in Amsterdam a congregation of English dissenters living and worshiping in Amsterdam for over 10 years greeted them. This group, the earliest to arrive in Amsterdam, was officially titled the “Brethren of the Separation of the First English Church at Amsterdam,” and were known, informally, as the “Ancient Brethren.” By 1607, the members of the Ancient Brethren having attained economic stability constructed of a new church.

Francis Johnson (1562–1618), was the leader of the Ancient Brethren at that time. He was an English Presbyterian minister educated in Cambridge like Richard Clyfton and John Smyth. He first came to Holland in 1590 to serve as pastor of an English-speaking church in Middelburg. Though Johnson was a strong believer in reform, he tenaciously opposed Separatism. He confiscated Separatist books and was about to burn them. However, his intellectual curiosity impelled him to read some of those books. On reading the books, he changed his beliefs. Johnson then left his non-Separating Middelburg congregation and returned in 1591 to London where he was elected the pastor of the separatist congregation later to be named the Ancient Church.

In 1593, Francis Johnson and about 50 of his London congregation were jailed for their religious views. Around this time, two other radical reforming Separatists, Henry Barrow and John Greenwood, the authors of the books that had originally converted Francis Johnson to Separatism, were hanged at Tyburn.

Johnson’s congregation except Francis Johnson himself was gradually freed from jail, and they started to migrate to Amsterdam where, leaderless, they struggled to stay as a community. In 1597, after a failed attempt to establish a colony in Canada, Johnson joined his congregation of exiled separatists who had migrated to the Netherlands to avoid persecution, and resumed his pastorate with Henry Ainsworth as their teacher.

Several years before the arrival of the Scrooby group in 1608, Francis Johnson, had excommunicated his own father and brother for criticizing his wife.

In 1608, the newly arrived Separatists did not officially join the Ancient Brethren. The three congregations: Gainsborough, Scrooby and Ancient Brethren, maintained their independence and for a very short while worshiped peacefully together in the new church building.

By late summer of 1608, the two Separatist congregations – Gainsborough, led by John Smyth, and Scrooby, led by Richard Clyfton – were well settled in Amsterdam.


John Smyth ((born ~ 1570, died August 28, 1612) (Source - Wikipedia)
John Smyth ((born ~ 1570, died August 28, 1612) (Source – Wikipedia)


John Smyth disrupted  the unity among the congregations by his disposition and constantly evolving religious views. Henry Ainsworth described Smyth as having published “three sundry books wherein he hath shewed himselfe of 3 several [different] religions.

William Bradford described John Smyth as:

an eminent man in his time, and a good preacher, and of other good parts; but his inconstancy, and unstabble judgment, and being so suddenly carried away with things, did soon overthrow him.


John Robinson ( No actual portrait of Robinson exists; this substitute appears online.)
John Robinson ( No actual portrait of Robinson exists; this substitute appears online.)


While Richard Clyfton was battling away with John Smyth, the rest of the Scrooby congregation was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the controversies and disruptions. They quietly reconstituted around John Robinson, their more tranquil teacher and minister.


Leiden, Holland
Leiden, Holland


Soon, Robinson and the more peaceful elements of the Scrooby group began to look for another place to live. It may have been William Brewster, who had visited The Netherlands in the 1580s, who suggested the Dutch city of Leiden.

In February of 1609, Robinson asked the Leiden City Council for permission to move to that city. He described his group as:

“… members of the Christian Reformed Religion, born in the Kingdom of Great Britain, to the number of one hundred persons or thereabouts, men and women.”

The answer came back:

The Court… declare that they refuse no honest persons ingress to come and have their residence in this city, provided that such persons behave themselves honestly, and submit to all the laws and ordinances here.

On May 1, 1609, John Robinson and most of the Scrooby congregation arrived in Leiden without Richard Clyfton who remained behind in Amsterdam and joined with the Ancient Brethren. William Bradford wrote:

Mr. Richard Clifton was a good and fatherly old man when he came first into Holland, having a great white beard; and pity it was that such a reverend old man should be forced to leave his country, and at those years to go into exile. But it was his lot, and he bore it patiently. Much good had he done in the country where he lived, and converted many to God by his faithful and painful ministry, both in preaching and catechising. Sound and orthodox he always was, and so continued to his end. He belonged to the church at Leyden; but being settled at Amsterdam and then aged, he was loath to remove any more; and so when they removed he was dismissed to them there, and there remained [in Amsterdam] until he died.”

Richard Clyfton, lived in Amsterdam until his death on May 20, 1616. He was buried in the Zuiderkerk or “South Church,” beside his wife Ann who had died three years earlier.

At that time, Leiden, a city in the Dutch province of South Holland, was a thriving industrial center with about 100,000 inhabitants. On arrival there, the congregation lived in small houses. Many members were well able to support themselves working at Leiden University or in the textile, printing and brewing trades, while others, hampered by their rural backgrounds and the language barrier, were less able to bring in enough income.

Of their life in Leiden, William Bradford wrote:

For these & other reasons they removed to Leyden, a fair & bewtifull citie, and of a sweete situation, but made more famous by ye universitie wherwith it is adorned, in which of late had been so many learned man. But wanting that traffike by sea which Amerstdam injoyes, it was not so beneficiall for their outward means of living & estats. But being now hear pitchet they fell to such trads & imployments as they best could; valewing peace & their spirituall comforte above any other riches whatsoever. And at length they came to raise a competente & comforteable living, but with hard and continuall labor.

By 1617, although the congregation was stable and relatively secure in the Netherlands, there were ongoing issues that needed to be resolved.

Bradford noted that the congregation was aging, compounding the difficulties some had in supporting themselves. Some, having spent their savings, gave up and returned to England.


Edward Winslow (October 18, 1595 – May 8, 1655)
Edward Winslow (October 18, 1595 – May 8, 1655)


Edward Winslow (October 18, 1595 – May 8, 1655) was a Separatist. In 1617 Winslow traveled to Leiden, Holland and worked with William Brewster as a printer. Winslow’s list of the issues faced by the congregation living in Leiden was similar to that of Bradford. In addition to the economic worries and missionary possibilities, Winslow stressed that it was important for the people to keep their English identity, culture and language. They also believed that the English Church in Leiden could do little to help the larger community there.

The Scrooby congregation found the Dutch morals much too lascivious. Their children were becoming more and more inclined towards the Dutch way of living, “drawn away by evil examples into extravagance and dangerous courses.” The elders of the congregation realized that they faced eventual extinction if they remained there.


← Previous – Part 1 – Separatists in England 

Next → Part 3 – Preparing to Sail to New England





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