Book Review: Making Haste From Babylon

Making Haste From Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims And Their World: A New History, by Nick Bunker

As someone whose complicated family history includes some of the separatists who arrived in Plymouth before the founding of Boston as well as a large amount of people involved in serious Protestant religious activity as well as subversive and revolutionary political activity throughout Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, along with their consequences in places as far apart as Germany, Northern Ireland and the British American colonies, this is a book that speaks more than about matters of national and cultural history but also about matters of great personal interest that helped to shape and form my own personal story and my own complicated approaches to matters of religion, politics, and business. As someone whose life history deals deeply with the same complicated set of events as that discussed in this history, this book takes on a personal relevance and deep and melancholy resonance to me that it may not take on for other readers.

Reading this book is likely to make many readers realize that there is a lot more to the history of the Pilgrims than is commonly understood. This book is organized in a mostly chronological fashion, starting in media res, with a look at the passage of the Pilgrims from England to the New World, and then going back to the origins of Separatist behavior and placing it into its political and economic wider context as part of the Calvinist project throughout Europe, and ending in about 1630 with the firm establishment of Puritan America on a ground of economic strength and political stability in ways that were deeply fateful for both themselves and others. Given that this book contains more than 420 pages of text, this wider context is far wider than that taken by most examinations of the period and one that richly rewards the reader with a fascinating and enlightening glimpse of Jacobean society and its complexities.

Let us make no mistake: this story is complicated. The mostly obscure people who take their places as key movers and shapers of the Pilgrim project are a fascinating mixture of people full of passions and lusts, ambition and greed, military and espionage interests, mercantile activities, political subtlety, as well as sincere religious devotion. This is true not only for the Pilgrims themselves, but for more mainstream Puritans and even more mainstream Anglicans. The success of Puritan New England depended greatly on factors far outside of the control of the colonists themselves, including their creditworthiness in London, political crises over the legitimacy of the Stuart monarchy and its political aims at enforcing uniformity in behavior and thought at home while showing tolerance for exiling those outside of the mainstream in ways that enhanced England’s nascent imperialistic aims in India, Ireland, and North America, as well as the general crisis of Calvinism in Europe dealing with Arminianism [1] as well as the threat to Calvinism presented by French and German religious wars as well as the Dutch conflict with its erstwhile imperial master Spain in the early decades of the 17th century. Related to this are the rather ordinary and mundane histories of the lust, corruption, and social and economic ambitions of fairly ordinary English clergy, farmers, merchants, and tradesmen, all of which had their part to play in the Pilgrim story. This is not even considering the shamanistic worldview and political and demographic crises of the native inhabitants of Puritan New England themselves, which had their own part to play in the destiny of the Pilgrim’s colony.

Among the most consistent and enlightening of the conclusions provided by this most excellent volume is the essential nature of cattle and beaver skins to the survival of the Plymouth colony. Cattle provided fertilizer, a motivation to spread (which led to territorial and demographic growth), as well as food sources for the early settlers. Beavers, hunted in massive amounts to clothe the wealthy and fashion-conscious English elites of the age, were essential in helping to make England’s New England colonies profitable and sustainable. These factors are largely ignored in many accounts of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies, and provide a great deal of balance to the great degree of importance of religion, which must be taken into account as well. This book manages to succeed through a mixture of excellent prose, immensely detailed and high-quality archival research and a close reading of often obscure primary documentation to come to a set of balanced and far-reaching conclusions that place the Pilgrims closely within their relevant social, political, economic, and religious contexts not only in England but in the European world as a whole.

Even though the author specifically disclaims any intention of drawing relevant conclusions from the history he has written, such conclusions are easy to find for those readers who are so inclined. Whether it is the immense difficulties of barriers to advancement, the rule of European society by ever more powerful elites who become wealthier and more powerful and arguably more corrupt while people suffer increasingly and struggle even to survive, much less improve their status, or the way in which the noble quest for individual freedom for religiously and economically marginal people with egalitarian religious and political beliefs led tragically and ironically to the expansion of exploitative imperialism and the theft of land as well as slavery and oppression on a global scale, or whether it is the fact that the divided state of both colonists and indigenous peoples led to immensely tragic results for both, this book offers a great deal of insightful but melancholy reflections for those who have such a reflective mindset. This book is a masterpiece of history, worthy of a wide and appreciative readership, but those of us whose lives have been deeply shaped by the same sort of forces that compelled the Pilgrims on their journey across the Atlantic cannot help but feel some sense of sadness and loss at how little our world has essentially changed despite all the passage of time between the age of the Pilgrims and our own age.

[1] See my discussions of this matter in such blog posts as:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, Christianity, E Pluribus Unim, History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Book Review: Making Haste From Babylon

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