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Browsing: Adams Family Correspondence, Volume 4

This note contained in document ADMS-04-04-02-0024
3. This passage shows JQA involved in at least a double confusion; and since JA and AA also, like many other Americans—historians and tourists alike—have been similarly confused, JQA's allusion to “the brownist Church” at Leyden requires clarification. By the term “brownist” JQA unquestionably meant the English Separatists, later commonly known as the Pilgrim Fathers; see the preceding note. But to call John Robinson's company Brownists was not accurate, for although the eccentric Robert Browne (1550?–1633?) is regarded as a precursor of New England Congregationalism, those Englishmen who followed Robinson first to Amsterdam in 1608 and in the following May to Leyden rejected much of Browne's teaching, and Robinson expressly rejected the term “Brownist” as applicable to his views. It was hardly to be expected, however, that 18th-century Americans, great as their reverence was for the Pilgrim Fathers, would be aware of such theological niceties.
A worse confusion, and one that still troubles modern American pilgrims to Leyden, concerns the place where Robinson's company worshiped. JQA implies that it was in a building then still standing. A year and a half later JA was to write: “I have been to that Church in Leyden where the Planters of Plymouth worshiped so many Years, and felt a kind of Veneration for the Bricks and Timbers” (to Samuel Adams, 15 June 1782, NN:Bancroft Coll.). During her only visit to the Netherlands, AA also, of course, paid her respects to the founders of Plymouth Colony: “ I would not omit to mention that I visited the Church at Leyden in which our forefathers worshipd when they fled from hierarchical tyranny and persecution. I felt a respect and veneration upon entering the Doors, like what the ancients paid to their Druids” (to Mary Smith Cranch, 12 Sept. 1786, MWA, printed repeatedly in CFA's editions of AA, Letters, 1840et seq.). But the fact is, and was, that Robinson's company of Separatists had neither their own church building nor the use of any other in Leyden. If they had, it would have been a matter of public record, and no such record has been found by successive generations of diligent investigators. One of the first and most competent of these, the British scholar George Sumner, writing in 1842, concluded “that their religious assemblies were held in some hired hall, or in the house of Robinson, their pastor,” which was in 1611 described as “large” { 41 } (George Sumner, “Memoirs of the Pilgrims at Leyden,” MHS, Colls., sd ser., 9 [1846]:51–52). Sumner also identified the source of the Adamses' and others' confusion as Rev. Thomas Prince's famous Annals, first published in Boston, 1736, which in a footnote related that “when I was at Leyden in 1714, the most ancient people from their parents, told me, that the city had such a value for them [the English Separatists], as to let them have one of their churches, in the Chancel whereof he [Robinson] lies buried, which the English still enjoy” (Thomas Prince, A Chronological History of New-England, in the Form of Annals ..., Boston, 1826, p. 238). This would make the cathedral church of St. Peter's (the great Pieterskerk, 1593) the Pilgrims' church, for here, as Sumner found from its records, Robinson was buried (although not in the chancel). What must have been pointed out by the Leydeners to Prince and later American visitors as the Pilgrim Church was the English (often and perhaps more correctly called the Scotch) Presbyterian or Reformed Church, which by coincidence had been founded at the same time that Robinson's congregation came to Leyden. With state approval and support, this church conducted public worship for almost two hundred years in a chapel allotted to it in a church on the grounds of the Cloister of the Veiled Nuns or Beguines (the Falyde Beguynhof). This church, as the Dutch scholar Plooij has pointed out, was “a part of the Dutch Reformed Church, organized as a separate congregation merely on account of the language used in its meetings.” It was “Presbyterian, nonepiscopal, and Non-conformist,” but was “a State Church” (D. Plooij, The Pilgrim Fathers from a Dutch Point of View, N.Y., 1932, p. 47). The building the city provided backed up on the garden plot of Robinson's house on the Kloksteeg and in modern times has been used as part of the University's library; eventually most of the Leyden Pilgrims who stayed behind, including Robinson's widow and children, joined this congregation (same, p. 48, 90–91, 103). Sumner, who located the records of this church in Leyden for the period 1609–1807, concluded that “it is this chapel which, from being shown to American travellers as the old church of the English, has, I believe, been sometimes supposed by them to have been the church of the Pilgrims” (MHS, Colls., 3d ser., 9 [1846]:49; see also p. 63–69).
Clearly this is what happened in the case of the Adamses, and it is confirmed by the extensive researches of the Dexters; a diagram in their monograph, though it is in part conjectural, shows the close physical relationships among the Pieterskerk, John Robinson's house (long since gone) where the Pilgrims conducted their private religious meetings without state support or interference, the large lot behind it on which small houses for some of Robinson's people were built, and the Beguine Cloister abutting that lot (Henry Martyn Dexter and Morton Dexter, The England and Holland of the Pilgrims, Boston and N.Y., 1905, p. 500 ff.).
JA eventually corrected himself (and Benjamin Waterhouse) on the distinction between the followers of Browne and those of Robinson, in a letter to Water-house of 8 Jan. 1807 (MHi: Adams–Waterhouse Coll.; Ford, ed., Statesman and Friend, p. 39–40), but he persisted in believing that the church he had attended in Leyden was the church of the Pilgrims.
The Scottish “parson of the brownist Church” whom JQA met was named William Mitchell, according to the records printed by Sumner (MHS, Colls., 3d ser., 9 [1846]:66).
Cite web page as: Founding Families: Digital Editions of the Papers of the Winthrops and the Adamses, ed.C. James Taylor. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2014.