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Beginning at the Beginning
I sat in the passenger lounge at Newark Liberty International Airport one Friday evening, sipping a beer and scribbling notes to myself as I waited to board a flight to London. I jotted down the surnames of my English ancestors, boldly retracing the letters over and over again.
Towne . . . Woolsey . . . Jenney . . .
In the days before the Norman Conquest in 1066, the people who lived in the land we know today as England came by their names pretty casually. Each person would, of course, be given a first name at birth, but last names evolved over time based on various criteria: a person's particular skill or trade (Miller or Cooper, for example), where they hailed from (my mother's maiden name, Norris, was a very common English name meaning "northerner"), or some physical characteristic (my maternal grandmother was a Benne, which The Oxford Dictionary of English Surnames says was a nickname meaning "the plump, lumpish one").
The name Towne (and all of its many variations, including Town and Townes) was derived from the Old English word tun, which meant "homestead" or "village." A twelfth-century Englishman named William who lived in the village might have been referred to as William de tun. By the thirteenth century, surnames not only became more common, but also hereditary, with names passed on from one generation to the next. By that time, William de tun would have become William Town, or, in my family's case, Towne.
Woolsey was originally spelled variously as Wulcy or Wulsi. It was derived from the nickname "wolf's eye," which was common in Suffolk.
It is not exactly clear where Jenney came from. It was either from an old Cornish name, Genn, from which names like Jennifer, Gene, and Jean are also derived, or it may have been from an old French name, Jene, which the Normans brought with them.
When my flight was called, I finished my beer and headed for the boarding gate. As I was taking my seat on the jet a flight attendant greeted me, took my drink order, and handed me a dinner menu and a small gift bag. After I stowed my luggage and got myself situated, I opened the bag. Inside I found a pair of black socks, a sleeping mask, lip balm, toothpaste, a toothbrush, and some breath mints, everything to make a transatlantic flight more comfortable.
It was all very nice and luxurious, but it made me feel self-conscious, because all I could think about were the hardships my seventeenth-century ancestors endured when they made their own journeys across the Atlantic. Conditions on the merchant ships they sailed on were difficult, the food was horrible, and there was the very real possibility that during the two months they were at sea, one could fall ill and maybe even die. Here I was, with black booties and breath mints on board a luxury jet that would take only seven hours to get to England. I tucked the bag in the seat pocket in front of me, unopened.
These ancestors of mine were members of history's holiest generation, the Puritans. They were among the tens of thousands of English men and women born between 1590 and 1610 who passionately took a stand for their faith, sought to transform England into a community of godly people, and when that failed they made the decision to start from scratch and form their own holy community on the American continent.
What would my ancestors think of their holy community today? One that explicitly separated church from state, that banned prayer in the classroom and displays of the Ten Commandments outside courthouses, and debated dropping "under God" from its national pledge and currency.
The Puritans, who punished members of their own community for missing a single worship service, would no doubt be dismayed to know that by the early twenty-first century, church attendance in America had eroded to roughly fifty percent of the population. Even more alarming, attendance in their English homeland had fallen below five percent.
I had packed lightly for my trip, making do with a small suitcase and a shoulder bag. In addition to clothing and a shaving kit, I packed a soft four-by-eight-inch notebook with zippered pouches just large enough to carry my journal, maps, and train schedules. At the last minute, I threw in a pocket-sized Bible.
A Bible might have been the first thing a Puritan family would pack, if they could afford one. The art of printing hadn't yet progressed to the point where books could be affordably mass-produced. In fact, in the early seventeenth century, Bibles sometimes cost more than houses. But they were still an essential part of a Puritan household. Literacy rates were extremely high among the Puritans because reading the Bible was as important as eating and breathing. Children were taught to read expressly so that they could read the Bible. Today, of course, while the Bible is the best-selling book in the world, it is unclear how many are actually read.
My plan was to visit two countries. In England, I was very anxious to see the seaside resort of Great Yarmouth, where the Townes and Woolseys had lived during the early 1600s. In the Netherlands I would spend time in the university town of Leiden, where the Jenneys lived with the rest of the famed English Separatist congregation until they sailed to Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1623. And in Rotterdam I would visit the area where George and Frances Woolsey had moved with their children sometime before 1620.
These ancestors were products of the Protestant Reformation, which began quietly on the evening of October 31, 1517, in Wittenberg, Germany, when the young Augustinian monk Martin Luther tacked a laundry list of theses, ninety-five in all, to the front door of the village church for public display. In them Luther took issue with various Church practices, including the number of sacraments the Church sanctioned (Luther pared the list from seven to the only two mentioned in the Bible: baptism and communion); the growing number of saints, which Luther felt needlessly diverted attention from Jesus; and the pope's controversial practice of selling indulgences to finance the construction of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
Luther had intended only to stir debate among his fellow theologians in town. But when someone reproduced the list and distributed it throughout Germany, it set off a chain reaction of protests that eventually splintered the Church and positioned the passionate Luther as the Protestant movement's first spokesman.
The Protestants preached sola fide--by faith alone--an idea taken from the Apostle Paul's letter to Christian converts in Rome that said each person could achieve salvation simply by having faith in the teachings of Jesus Christ, as opposed to performing the many rituals the Church required. They also believed that the Bible, not the Church, was the sole source of God's Word--sola scriptura. Because the newly invented printing presses allowed the mass production of Bibles, people were able to read the scriptures for themselves, bypassing the Church's interpretation.
At about the same time, England experienced its own reformation, but under very different circumstances. It wasn't about an idea. Instead, it was the result of a power struggle between a king and a pope.
In 1528, Henry VIII asked Pope Clement VII for permission to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, who had failed to produce a male heir, so that he could marry his mistress Anne Boleyn. When permission was denied, the explosive king retaliated by seizing control of all Church assets on English soil and having Parliament proclaim him the head of the new Church of England.
After Henry VIII died in 1547, England experienced an identity crisis that lasted roughly a decade. Henry's sole male heir, ten-year-old Edward VI (by his third wife, Jane Seymour), was greatly influenced by a group of Protestant theologians who steered the Church of England away from Catholic traditions. Their most ambitious project was to make the Bible accessible to all of the people by having an English translation placed in pews. But when Edward died six years later, in 1553, he was succeeded by his half-sister Mary, the daughter of the very Catholic Catherine of Aragon.
Mary Tudor immediately reversed all of the Protestant reforms, returning England to the customs dictated by the Church of Rome. In 1555, Pope Julius III declared that all English heretics were to be burned at the stake, and Mary complied. For the next three years almost three hundred Protestants, including Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, were executed, earning the queen the nickname "Bloody Mary."
Hundreds of Protestants fled England for the Continent, most notably to Geneva, Switzerland, where a community had been formed by John Calvin (1509-1564), the French theologian widely regarded as the most influential member of the Protestant movement after Luther. It was in Geneva that the English Protestants were exposed to Calvin's ideas about predestination and the relationship between church and state.
Queen Mary's reign was a short one, lasting only five years until her death at the age of forty-two in 1558. Because Mary was childless when she died, she was succeeded by her half-sister Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.
Elizabeth I had been raised an Anglican, and she reinstated Church of England traditions. But she also realized how splintered her country had become theologically in the eleven years since her father died. Most of her subjects embraced the Anglican Church's Catholic/Protestant hybrid model. There were also a growing number who sought to "purify" the Church of England by eliminating all Catholic rituals, saints, and relics--thought to be false idols--and all sacraments not specifically mentioned in the Bible. In 1563 the queen sought to appease the growing number of Puritans by giving her blessing to the creation of a list of thirty-nine broad statements of faith that formed the foundation of the Church of England. The Thirty-nine Articles, which are still in use today, agreed with Luther by recognizing only two of the Roman Church's seven sacraments, and it condemned the use of "Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints," calling them "vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God."
By the time of the Virgin Queen's death in 1603, England had become a prosperous political powerhouse, but it remained divided theologically. The division between Anglicans and Puritans became more pronounced when Elizabeth's second cousin, Scotland's James VI, succeeded her and became England's first Stuart king, James I.
In Scotland, James, who was a devout Anglican, had had to deal with the Presbyterian form of Protestantism, which used a decentralized style of governance begun by a disciple of Calvin's named John Knox. When he came to England, James was very happy to embrace the Church of England's more-centralized Episcopalian form of governance, which made him the head of the Church. In 1605 he abolished the Presbyterian Assembly in Scotland and imposed the Anglican ways on his homeland. He also took on the handful of congregations made up of radical Puritans who had separated from the organized Church--the so-called Separatists--by requiring all English citizens to attend Anglican services on Sunday.
When James died in 1625, he was succeeded by his son Charles I, a young man who was susceptible to the ideas of his advisers, most notably Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud, a zealous Anglican theologian who sought to rid England of all religious dissenters. Laud's campaign caused the Great Migration of the 1630s that brought my ancestors to America.
After my jet from Newark to London reached cruising altitude and the flight attendants had finished serving dinner, I asked for a cup of coffee and got out my journal. Underneath the three ancestral names I had written I added a line:
Towne . . . Woolsey . . . Jenney . . .
By Faith Alone
I took the afternoon train from Liverpool station in London for the 120-mile trip to Norfolk, on England's east coast, where the Townes, Woolseys, and Jenneys lived in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. My goal was to see where it all began for my family. That would be easy when it came to the Townes and the Woolseys. According to records quoted in my cousin LeAnne's family tree, both families lived in the ancient fishing village of Great Yarmouth and worshipped in the same church, England's largest Anglican parish, St. Nicholas Church. The Jenneys weren't as easy to pin down. A document I found online in the Pilgrim Archives in Leiden, Holland, mentioned that John Jenney had come from Norwich, the town just north of Great Yarmouth. But that was all I knew. So I would wait to pick up the Jenney trail when I got to the Netherlands.
All three of my ancestral families were Puritans, a label that has become a caricature that obscures our view of the individuals who embraced it. The journalist H. L. Mencken's flippant characterization that a Puritan's greatest fear was "that someone, somewhere may be happy" distorts them like a reflection in a fun-house mirror.
There is no question the Puritans were strict disciplinarians. They had to be. They were agents of change. They sought drastic reforms from top to bottom in an ancient institution with deep-seated traditions and beliefs that extended back more than a millennium. They took on the two most powerful forces in England, the monarchy and the Church. The courage of their convictions came from the sincere belief that they were backed by the most powerful force of all: God. Were they religious fanatics? You bet, but they had to be. They had set the bar very high, and their goal of purifying the Church of England of all vestiges of the Church of Rome would not be achieved with a casual attitude.
"They quarreled with the Stuart monarchs about playing games on the Sabbath," wrote Edmund S. Morgan in his The Puritan Family, "and with Anglican churchmen about vestments and ceremonies. They wrote hundreds of books explaining the exact conduct demanded by God in every human situation. They had, in fact, complete blueprints for a smooth, honest, civil life in family, church, and state."
Not all Puritans were equal. The moderates who made up the majority of England's Puritan population were determined to reform the Church of England from within. They worshipped beside their Anglican neighbors even as they complained about the elaborate decorations and formal ceremonies. The more-radical minority separated from the Church altogether and formed smaller independent congregations. One of the first of the so-called Separatist communities was founded in Norwich in 1580 under the radical cleric Robert Browne, who was imprisoned thirty-two times on heresy charges before being exiled in 1582. For many years, the Separatists were called Brownists.
The Jenneys were Separatists. They were members of what was by far the most famous Separatist congregation to emerge from England.
From the Hardcover edition.