Do It For the Kids

The Pilgrim Option, or On the Blue State Exodus

Last week, on the American Reformer podcast, Ben Dunson and Josh Abbotoy discussed the so-called “Big Sort;” so too did Jon Harris and Joel Webbon on Conversations That Matter. I commend both episodes to you. The gist is that a Twitter spat recently emerged over whether Christians should exit hostile blue states for the more favorable conditions of red states. It is a sort of tactical retreat or strategic withdrawal being argued by proponents of the maneuver. The physical and spiritual well-being of Christian families and children is the motivation most cited in the face of policies and culture increasingly (explicitly) hostile to the same.

Critics insist that all this is an abdication of the Great Commission and New Testament pilgrim people ethic, true dereliction of duty. Instead, we pilgrims in the wilderness must not abandon our posts for these reasons. Christians are supposed to be missionaries, after all, even unto death. Consolidation of Christian people and interests along political demographic lines would grossly violate this imperative and prioritize the temporal over the spiritual.

The podcasts mentioned already present much fruitful discussion on the debate, but it was Josh Abbotoy’s offhand reference to the Pilgrims leaving Amsterdam that piqued my interest and solidified my own position on the matter. For this I returned, as I often do, to William Bradford’s (1590-1657) Of Plymouth Plantation. Therein is found a rationale for exactly what is being argued by pro-Sort Christians in the narrative of a most New Testament-conscious, pilgrim people. This cuts against the critics of the blue state exodus. Were Bradford and Brewster, and Winslow here today they might say, “Leave. Do it for the kids!”

Early in his history of Plymouth, Bradford quotes William Perkins (1558-1602) from his Exposition of Christ’s Sermon Upon the Mount (1608) observing that in England, a Christian nation, true religion and those who practiced it openly had become “a byword, a mockingstock [sic], and a matter of reproach.” “On the other hand,” added Bradford, “sin hath been countenanced; ignorance, profaneness and atheism increased.” The affliction of those Puritans under the reign of Queen Mary and then the Stuarts was “not small.”

But it was not just that the protestations of the Puritans were dismissed and silenced, but more so that “base and beggarly ceremonies” had been forced upon them by “tyrannous power of the prelates.” The “professors,” as Bradford calls them, were not permitted to form their own sub-communities or congregations without much molestation in their homeland. Eventually, the unavoidable conclusion was that “they could not long continue in any peaceable condition, but were hunted and persecuted on every side, so as their former afflictions were but as flea-bitings [sic] in comparison… that there was no hope of their continuance there.” Hence, the Scrooby congregation elected to emigrate—to self-deport, if you like—to the Low Countries, to Amsterdam (and later Leiden) “where they heard was freedom of religion for all men.” They entered a neutral world, or so they thought. This too would prove intolerable, as a more hostile, negative world—at least for Puritan separatists or Brownists—had.

After twelve years, the Pilgrim company resolved to remove themselves again, “Not out of any newfangledness [sic] or other such like giddy humor by which men are oftentimes transported to their great hurt and danger, but for sundry weighty and solid reasons,” which “the grave mistress of Experience” had taught them.

The material conditions of an overpopulated Netherlands made it unlikely that the English numbers would grow there. “Yea, some preferred and chose the prisons in England rather than this liberty in Holland with these afflictions.” That it was more desirable to the Pilgrims to brave the Atlantic crossing to live in the American wilderness than to live in Amsterdam or Leiden should tell us something. But the economic burdens were bearable compared to the socio-religious obstacles in play. The Dutch people spoke a “strange and uncouth language, and beheld different manners and customs… with their strange fashions and attires… as it seemed [the Pilgrims] were come into a new world.” Country Englishmen were uncomfortable, to say the least, but, again, this was tolerable as the immigrants scratched out a rather insular existence for themselves. To compound their travails, rumors of famine, pestilence, and Spanish conquest were in the air.

What was intolerable—“of all sorrows most heavy to be borne”—was that some of the children of Bradford’s group had been influenced by the “great licentiousness of the youth in that country, and the manifold temptations of the place” been “drawn away by evil examples into extravagant and dangerous courses, getting the reins off their necks and departing from their parents… to the great grief of their parents and dishonour of God. So that they saw their posterity would be in danger to degenerate and be corrupted.”

On this point, Samuel Eliot Morison, in his notes on the Journal, corroborates Bradford’s worries, “the fear of the Pilgrims lest their children lose their language and nationality.” For by 1660, those English Puritans who did not forsake the Dutch “melting pot” “became completely amalgamated with the local population.”

To be clear, the Pilgrims were also enthusiastic about “propagating and advancing the gospel of the kingdom of Christ” in America, or at least the hope of “laying some good foundation” for later propagation. The Great Commission was not to be left behind in Holland, but the impetus for their departure was motivated by more than evangelistic zeal. They sought a better country for a more fruitful life, body and soul, but most importantly, to protect their children from corruption.

And the rest, as they say, is history. On November 21, 1620, a group of separatist English expats, formerly of Leiden, had anchored in Provincetown Harbor and the ecclesial agreement which had spurred them on from their homeland to continental Europe culminated in a political compact in the new world. There they swore “in the Presence of God” to form a “civil Body Politick” for the “Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith.” The Pilgrim exodus was both evangelical and political, and not born from a martyrdom complex but from zeal to build anew and, most of all, to acquire space to exercise their preferred way of life. The security and longevity of their children were paramount. The Netherlands had proven an insufficient lodging because a religiously neutral world always breeds licentious indifference, an enticement to apathetic adolescence. We might justly say, the Pilgrims fled the negative world and rejected the neutral world for the hope of building a positive world under more favorable conditions; and, per Bradford, they did it for the kids. And, again, the “pilgrim and exile” character of the Pilgrims themselves did not preclude—indeed, required—political attention. The Pilgrim Code of Law (1636) proves as much, as does the Mayflower Compact itself. The impetus for the plantation at Plymouth wasn’t evangelism of unreached people groups, to say the least. Though the proclamation of the Gospel would, of course, not be neglected, the Pilgrim emigration was effectively flight from a blue state to red territory. Would-be modern pilgrims needn’t feel ashamed of their decidedly natural and sensible impulses to safeguard their families and way of life by seeking out greener pastures.

None of this is for the faint of heart, to be sure. Material conditions enslave many would be blue state expatriates. Solace can be taken, however, from Bradford’s account of the Pilgrim arrival at Cape Cod—some of the most beautiful prose in the American canon. Let embattled blue staters consider what legacy might be gained by bold, decisive action at this desperate juncture:

“For summer being done, all things stand upon them with a weather-beaten face, and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hue. If they looked behind them, there was the mighty ocean which they had passed and was now as a main bar and gulf to separate them from all the civil parts of the world… What could now sustain them but the Spirit of God and His grace? May not and ought not the children of these fathers rightly say: “Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord, and He heard their voice and looked on their adversity,” etc., “Let them therefore praise the Lord, because He is good: and His mercies endure forever.” “Yea, let them which have been redeemed of the Lord, shew how He hath delivered them from the hand of the oppressor. When they wandered in the desert wilderness out of the way, and found no city to dwell in, both hungry and thirsty, their soul was overwhelmed in them. Let them confess before the Lord His lovingkindness and His wonderful works before the sons of men.””

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Timon Cline

Timon Cline is the Editor in Chief at American Reformer. He is an attorney and a fellow at the Craig Center at Westminster Theological Seminary and the Director of Scholarly Initiatives at the Hale Institute of New Saint Andrews College. His writing has appeared in the American Spectator, Mere Orthodoxy, American Greatness, Areo Magazine, and the American Mind, among others. He writes regularly at Modern Reformation and Conciliar Post.