The Pilgrim Fathers lived in Leiden in the early 17th century before founding their colony in America. No fewer than nine American presidents descend from them. A story about freedom of religion, tolerance and international education in our city.
Marriage law and Thanksgiving
The Leiden period was important for the Pilgrim Fathers. The group introduced the civil marriage to America, a construction directly based on the Dutch marriage law of that time. Thanksgiving, the harvest feast initiated by the pilgrims, was probably partly inspired by the 3 October celebrations in Leiden. And these are by far not the only examples. Between 1609 and 1630, more than 500 members of the pilgrim group lived in Leiden.
Painting: ‘The Embarcation of the Pilgrims’ (1857) by Robert Walter Weir.
Why the pilgrims fled to Leiden
But first the question: why did the pilgrims settle in Leiden? In the early 17th century, a group of English Puritan Protestants broke ties with the English state church because it did not interpret the Reformation correctly. To escape persecution, they fled to Amsterdam where they joined English refugees who were already living there. The former English group became involved in all kinds of scandals in Amsterdam and therefore the purity Protestants looked for another destination in 1609. This was Leiden, because the city was known to take in refugees and tolerate various religions.
Nine presidents descend from Leiden pilgrims
Genealogical research shows that Barack Obama is a direct descendant of the Leiden pilgrim family Blossom through his mother’s side. Thomas and Anne Blossom had six children including Elizabeth and Peter. Obama is a distant descendant of Elizabeth. And that is not the only remarkable thing. Former Presidents George Bush senior and junior are descended from the couple’s son Peter. So, Presidents Obama and Bush are distant cousins! Presidents John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Ulysses Grant, Calvin Coolidge, Zachary Taylor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt are also descendants of the Pilgrims of Leiden.
Lessons in freedom and tolerance
President George Bush Sr. referred to this when he visited Leiden on 17 July 1989 and gave a speech in the Pieterskerk. ‘I am glad to be back with my cousins, because we fondly remember Aunt Abigail back there those many years ago.’ That remark was rewarded with laughter. Then he remarked, somewhat more seriously: ‘And it was here in Leiden that the Pilgrims came to escape persecution – to live, work, and worship in peace. In the shadow of the Pieterskerk, they found the freedom to witness God openly and without fear. (…) And it was from this place the Pilgrims set their course for a New World. In their search for liberty, they took with them lessons learned here of freedom and tolerance.’
President Bush and Queen Beatrix in the Pieterskerk. Photo ANP
International education in a Christian tradition
And we still teach those lessons in freedom and tolerance in Leiden. Freedom of religion is deeply rooted in Dutch society and for four hundred years our city has offered education to people from all over the world in that belief. Our international school is proud of that tradition. Centuries ago the university of Leiden was favourably disposed towards these new English refugees. They were allowed to use one of the university’s chapels. Prominent members enrolled at the university. Pastor John Robinson, former lecturer in theology and dean at Cambridge, followed the theological debates. In those years, an explosive conflict raged between two other theologians. Robinson was one of the few who attended the speeches of both. Because he was interested in the opinions of others and he was always looking for different points of view. Like the Pilgrim Fathers, our school has a Protestant Christian foundation, we are open to all religions, faith and beliefs and we endorse the freedom in which people may practise their religion.