Pious Pilgrims Found Their Dutch Hosts Too Tolerant

LEIDEN, Netherlands - Pilgrims once trod Leiden's cobblestones, back when they were the latest ragtag refugees in town.

Now this city is reviving memories of a pious people who eventually found Dutch tolerance too much to bear.

The Leiden American Pilgrim Museum will open to the public today, born of one man's lifelong passion to illuminate the Pilgrims' largely forgotten 11 years in exile in Holland.

For American historian Jeremy Bangs, it's a chance to remind the world anew of the hope and heartache the future colonists endured long before they even boarded the Mayflower.

"Anyone who really wants to understand American society needs to know about the Pilgrims," said Bangs, a leading Pilgrim scholar and the former chief curator at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Mass.

The 100 Pilgrims who settled in Leiden after a brief stay in Amsterdam left an indelible mark on this medieval town, which welcomed them in 1609 with a declaration that it "refuses no honest people free entry."

Capt. Myles Standish served in the Dutch army. In Leiden, William Brewster published books forbidden in England.

Their pastor, John Robinson, participated in theological disputes that would later split the Netherlands; he is buried in a nearby church.

But the Pilgrims grew disenchanted with their lives here. Though they had fled religious persecution in their native England, they tired of the tolerance that had lured them to the Netherlands. For example, many anguished over their hosts' ambivalence about observing the Sabbath.

The Pilgrims also left for reasons that still trouble expatriates today: They fretted over the loss of their traditions as their children grew up more Dutch than English.

Slaving away as immigrants in low-paying menial jobs, they found themselves haunted anew by their original dream of a place of their own in which to worship and prosper.

Though only a few dozen opted to leave on the Mayflower in 1620, more followed over the next few years. Some never left - such as the wives and children whose husbands and fathers went before them to the New World, only to perish in that first bitter winter.

But the ancient ties still bind. Today the people of Leiden - including several hundred now thoroughly Dutch descendants of Pilgrims - will gather in church in remembrance of their neighbors who changed the world.

The museum, funded with help from the Mayflower Society, the Pilgrim Society and the New England Historic Genealogical Society, is in a typical Pilgrim-style 16th-century one-room house.

The place is packed with Pilgrim-era tools, pottery and furniture, including a cabinet containing tobacco pipes, coins, buttons and toys.

"We'll take these items out and have conversations," said Bangs, 51, who has authored 10 books about the Pilgrims. "People will learn in this intimate way."

The Pilgrims brought with them to Plymouth Colony many Dutch ways, such as the civil registration of marriages. John Quincy Adams would later hail their Mayflower Compact as the foundation for the U.S. Constitution.

Bangs originally came to Leiden, the birthplace of Rembrandt 25 miles southwest of Amsterdam, to study Dutch art and architecture. He ended up running the city's Pilgrim archives, and when it closed a few years ago, he decided to stay.

His own home betrays his passion. Original engravings of Pilgrim life clutter a coffee table; a Pilgrim-era ladderback chair occupies a corner of his kitchen.

"We really don't know much about what Pilgrim family life was like," he said. "That's the goal of this house museum - to give some sense of how they lived."