Marriage Pilgrim Style

By Stacy B. C. Wood, Jr.

Pilgrim wedding

The 1627 Plimoth Plantation presented a recreation of a Pilgrim wedding ceremony on August 14, 2010. They chose to go back to the year 1623 when Governor William Bradford, whose wife Dorothy May had drowned shortly after the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620, married Elizabeth Carpenter, the widow Southworth. She had arrived on the ship Anne earlier that year. There were earlier marriages than theirs. The first marriage in the new Colony took place on 12 May 1621 when widower Edward Winslow and Susanna, the widow of Pilgrim William White, were united. The original partners of both had died during the first few months after arrival. John Howland and Elizabeth Tilley, both youths on the Mayflower, were married before April 1623. John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, also both Mayflower passengers, were married probably in 1623. Captain Myles Standish, whose wife had died the first winter, remarried in the Colony by 1624.

   Re-enactment of a Pilgrim wedding   

Dr. Jeremy D. Bangs states in his book Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners, that the Bradford and Carpenter wedding is the only marriage in the Plymouth Colony for which there is a written report. It was recorded in a September 1623 letter from an Emmanuel Altham. It says that the wedding dinner included “about twelve pasty venisons [deer], besides others, pieces of roasted venison and other such good cheer in such quantity that I could wish you some of our share, For here we have the best grapes that ever you say [sic, for “saw”] – and the biggest, and divers sorts of plums and nuts.”You might have expected that the Pilgrim’s Elder William Brewster would have conducted the ceremony. But it is probable that Isaac Allerton, who was the Governor’s only Assistant for many of the early Colony years, officiated. Why not Elder Brewster? It was a matter of faith. The Pilgrim Church was governed by Pastors, Elders and Deacons, not by Archbishops, Bishops, etc. John Robinson, the Pilgrims’ pastor in Leiden, who unfortunately died before he could come to the Colony, held that marriage was not a church service.

Leiden Town HallLeiden Town Hall

Gov. Bradford in his history, Of Plymouth Plantation, in writing about the first marriage (Edward Winslow) states that it took place according to the custom since 1590 of the Low Countries (The Netherlands) where the Pilgrims had spent a dozen years after fleeing England. Their magistrates performed the wedding ceremony because marriage was not a religious matter, but instead a civil matter. The Pilgrims, who were Christian Separatists, believed that the New Testament contains only two sacraments that are unique to Christianity: baptism (without making the sign of the cross) and communion. Although this was a period of great church music, the only music tolerated by the Pilgrims in their church service was the singing of psalms. Burial of the dead is another matter that they held to be strictly a civil matter for it has been carried on by believers and non-believers alike. They would, however, be buried in a churchyard. Dr. Bangs in his book lists those Pilgrims buried in Leiden churchyards and included are children of their pastor John Robinson and Elder William Brewster. Inheritance, a civil matter, was based on marriage and any children born of the union. In Leiden a couple would register their betrothal (intent to marry or engagement) three weeks before a wedding. The ceremony, with witnesses chosen by the couple, took place before two magistrates in the town hall.. It might be followed by a wedding banquet with family and friends just as we often do today. In 1635, Pilgrim Edward Winslow (often referred to as New England’s first diplomat) while on the Colony’s business in London, was imprisoned for approximately seventeen weeks by the Archbishop of Canterbury for admitting to publicly teaching in church and conducting marriages contrary to the laws of the Church of England which forbid such actions by the un-ordained.

Vrouwekerk Church

However, among those who also fled to Holland for religious freedom were the Walloons or Huguenots. Among them were Francis and Hester Mahieu Cooke. They were married in the Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady) that had been assigned by the Leiden city fathers to use by the Walloons and it became known as the “French Church.” The Cookes were among the 1620 Mayflower passengers. Philip Delano, who joined the Plymouth Colony after arriving on the 1621 Fortune, had been baptized in the Vrouwekerk. Dr. Bangs, a former curator at Plimoth Plantation and now the director of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, has been a major leader in saving the last ruins of the Vrouwekerk from removal and the city fathers will be dedicating a plaque designed by Dr. Bangs with text in both Dutch and English later this year. Our Society contributed to the purchase of the plaque.

The Vrouwekerk, the Walloon Church in Leiden  


The First Parish Church of Plymouth First Parish Church Plymouth

In the previous section about Pilgrim marriages the Walloon Vrouwekerk church was mentioned but the church where the Pilgrims worshiped in Leiden was not because there was no former Catholic church building assigned to them by the Leiden city fathers. On page 4, the coloring page, is a drawing of the replica of the Fort-Meeting House where they worshiped in the early years of Plymouth Colony. The current stone 1899 First Parish Church of Plymouth stands on the site of the Pilgrims’ Fort-Meeting House. During the past four centuries five houses of worship have stood at the top of First Street (now Leyden St.) at the foot of Burial Hill. The street is “the oldest continuously occupied street in British North America.” Those previous to the current stone edifice, being wooden. all burned to the ground. See the First Parish website for illustrations at The church has Tiffany stained glass windows depicting Pilgrim scenes. Its bell was made by Paul Revere. It is a beauty to behold. It is the oldest congregation in North America, though it is now Unitarian. Would the Pilgrims wish to worship there today? Where did they worship during their 11 year stay in Leiden? First it is important to know that “church” to the Pilgrims meant a group of worshipers, not a building. The former Catholic churches, stripped of their imagery, that the Leiden fathers assigned to the various faiths that settled there in pursuit of their idea of religious freedom, were not acceptable to the Pilgrims: they wanted no part of the buildings that had once housed Catholics. They renounced steeples, stained glass windows, crucifixes, organs (they sang Psalms unaccompanied), etc. Thus they most likely would not be pleased by what has become a lovely memorial to them. Dr. Bangs has thoroughly searched the records of Leiden and not found documentation for the buildings Pilgrims used for worship. In his Strangers and Pilgrims he surmises “that during their early years in Leiden (from 1609) Sunday services, prayer meetings and other gatherings were most likely held in ‘The Green Close’ house that they bought on Pieterskerkhof, the square where St. Peter’s Church stands. He further states “that there are indications towards the end of 1618 that the Pilgrims were using a room in the [Leiden] university library (which was a converted chapel).” In 1619 a law was passed forbidding gathering in private homes to discuss religion.” It was time to move on!