Leiden’s legacy of open arms

This year when you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, think about tulips, windmills and wooden shoes.

Think about a town in Holland where, for a brief golden moment in the early 17th century, people of disparate faiths could worship as they saw fit -- French Huguenots, Roman Catholics, Jews, Quakers, Lutherans, Dutch Mennonites and a small group of religious dissenters from England, later known as the Pilgrims.

Think about Leiden, 25 miles southwest of Amsterdam. It gave the Pilgrims refuge from 1609 to 1620 before they crossed the Atlantic Ocean aboard the Mayflower, landed on Plymouth Rock, suffered through a brutal winter and then plucked the first Thanksgiving turkey to celebrate their survival.

Although the Pilgrim story is hard-wired into the American soul, its Leiden chapter has gone largely unnoticed, except among historians who say that many bedrock values attributed to the Pilgrims, such as free-market capitalism, civil marriage and the separation of church and state, stemmed from their time in Holland.


Even Thanksgiving is thought to have been inspired by a still-celebrated Leiden holiday commemorating the city’s release on Oct. 3, 1574, from a Spanish siege that killed a third of the population.

In Europe, the fourth Thursday in November is a day like any other. No one sings “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.” Turkeys are rare, cranberries exotic. But I love the holiday, so this year I celebrated it early in Leiden, a special pilgrimage place for Americans.

A Protestant debate

There wasn’t a whiff of fall in the air when I left the Leiden train station in late summer. Headed on foot toward the Hotel de Doelen in one of the distinguished 17th century mansions along the lime tree-bordered Rapenburg Canal, I quickly discovered that Leiden is compact and richly detailed, like a painting by native son Rembrandt, born here in 1606, three years before the Pilgrims arrived.

Near the mouth of the Rhine River, Leiden is a maze of lily-padded canals, graceful old bridges, quiet squares and alleyways leading past windmills, loftily steepled churches and step-gabled houses where cats sleep on the ledges of lace-curtained windows.

Several blocks south of the hotel I found the University of Leiden’s enchanting Botanical Garden (or Hortus Botanicus), which cultivated some of Europe’s first tulips and was already thriving when the Pilgrims arrived. Their pastor, John Robinson, enrolled in the renowned university’s divinity school, studying many of the theological issues that ultimately fragmented Calvinist Protestantism.

The Pilgrims were one of the splinter groups. Then known as Separatists, they believed the Anglican Church of England, founded by Henry VIII in 1534, had been ruinously corrupted by false practices inherited from Roman Catholicism.

But unlike the Puritans, fellow dissenters who wanted to reform Anglicanism from the inside, the Pilgrims felt bound to break away to establish their own democratically governed church founded on a literal interpretation of the Bible.

The theological issues that divided Protestantism into myriad strands may seem arcane now, but they were hotly disputed in 17th century Europe. At the university’s handsome Academy Building, adjacent to the botanical garden, Pastor Robinson took part in a series of widely followed debates, arguing that a man could not be saved by free will because God had predetermined his fate, a belief, known as predestination, that the Pilgrims embraced.

From Rapenburg Canal, I walked east toward St. Peter’s Church (or Pieterskerk), a huge Dutch Gothic place of worship now deconsecrated and under renovation, partly to combat infestation by wood-boring insects known as death watch beetles. Peeking through the scaffolding, I saw a memorial stone dedicated to Robinson, buried here in 1625, reaching paradise, perhaps, but never the New World.

Haven for refugees

During the 1609-21 truce in the ongoing war between Holland and Spain, religious refugees of all kinds flocked to Leiden, then one of the most liberal cities in Europe. They worshiped in churches scattered around town, but the Pilgrim congregation held services in Robinson’s home across from the bell tower of St. Peter’s. I easily found the house because it bears a plaque and passed through the white portal to the courtyard in back where about a dozen Pilgrim families lived.

Many others found accommodations in the leafy neighborhood around St. Peter’s, including William Brewster. He lived with his family on nearby Choir Alley, where he operated a religious printing press that was shut down in 1619 because of pressure from English authorities. A year later he sailed to Plymouth on the Mayflower.

As if by gravitational pull, I found my way to the historic center, where I stood on commercial Breestraat admiring Leiden’s stadhuis (or city hall). Consumed by fire in 1929, the interior was rebuilt in modern style, but the building’s long western facade was salvaged so that it still displays 17th century gargoyles that testify to the goofy Dutch sense of humor.

Shortly after the small Pilgrim band left England for Amsterdam in 1608, Robinson applied to stadhuis officials for permission to settle in Leiden. Burgher Jan van Hout answered by letter, saying the town would not “refuse honest persons permission to come and take up residence,” a response that must have thrilled the congregation.

Back in England, where the state-sponsored Anglican Church held sway, they had been persecuted, imprisoned and forced to worship secretly. James I, titular head of the English theocracy, commissioned a landmark translation of the Bible but had no sympathy for dissenters. In 1604, he said, “I will harry them out of the land, or worse.”

At the time England and Holland were allies, united by trade, Protestantism and opposition to Catholic Spain, which had ruled the Netherlands since the 16th century. But even when the English ambassador in Holland requested the group’s extradition, Leiden’s welcome to the Pilgrims did not falter.

The stadhuis was well-known to the English refugees. The marriages of several Pilgrim brides and grooms were registered here, including that of William Bradford, who later became a governor of the Plymouth Colony in North America. Civil marriages like his were deemed necessary in Holland because almost half the population did not belong to the state religion, the Calvinist Dutch Reformed Church.

The square in front of the stadhuis is a wide and convivial marketplace, bisected by one of the Rhine River’s several channels. People pass the time here at cafes perched on platforms over the water or rummage through shops such as Simon Levelt, a 200-year-old tea and coffee purveyor. In a nearby bookshop I found “Newcomers in an Old City: The American Pilgrims in Leiden, 1609-1620,” by Joke Kardux and Eduard van de Bilt, and cracked it open over a strong, rich espresso at Coffee-Star, served with a sweet tucked on the saucer.

It was a short walk to the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, where director and founder Jeremy Bangs showed me around. The museum occupies a house built in 1370 for vergers, or caretakers, at nearby St. Pancras Church and consists of three snug rooms with tile-lined fireplaces, low-beamed ceilings and mullioned windows. When visitors arrive, a docent shows them Pilgrim-era antiques -- jugs, bottles, books, glass trading beads manufactured in Amsterdam -- assembled to suggest how the refugees lived in Leiden.

Bangs himself is a remarkable resource, the author of a recent scholarly volume titled “Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners: Leiden and the Foundations of the Plymouth Plantation,” a title harking back to lines written in 1622 by Pilgrim Father Robert Cushman: “We are all, in all places, strangers and pilgrims, travellers and sojourners.”

Bangs explained that the Pilgrims believed everything human, including religious creeds, imperfect and therefore avoided dogmatic religion imposed by political authorities. Thus they carried the principle of the separation of church and state with them in their torturous passage to the New World.

At neighboring St. Pancras Church (also known as the Hooglandse), where a child born in 1609 to William Brewster was buried, I found a paving stone thought to mark the graves of two Pilgrims. The magnificent late Gothic church has a massive organ and an early 17th century clock, recently restored to expose its inner workings.

That night I had spicy shrimp noodles at Sabai-Sabai, a funky Thai place near the university. It is one of many ethnic eateries around town that testify to a new wave of decidedly non-Protestant immigrants from such places as Morocco, Thailand, Ethiopia, Iraq and Vietnam. Their growing presence, which has sometimes created tensions, has forced the Dutch to revisit the idea of religious tolerance in this post-9/11 world.

The next morning I toured the city museum in the Lakenhal. The old Cloth House was a center for an industry that fueled Leiden’s prosperous 17th century golden age and employed many Pilgrims. Mill owners preferred them for their honesty and diligence. But the long, sunless hours in textile factories, the fear of assimilation and a missionary spirit eventually prompted them to leave Holland.

My favorite thing in the museum is a painting by Jan Lievens, a contemporary of Rembrandt’s. It depicts a pilgrim who committed suicide to evade Satan, disguised as St. James, on the way to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

Then I headed back to the train station. But along one of the canals that took Robinson’s congregation out to sea and thence to the New World, I saw a woman in a chador and stopped, remembering that Robert Cushman thought of everyone as a stranger and pilgrim. A closer look See more photos of the town’s many enchanting and historic sites.