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Leiden's legacy of open arms

Before their arduous journey to the New World, the Pilgrims and other refugees found tolerance and like-minded inhabitants in the charming city.

November 22, 2009|By Susan Spano reporting from leiden, netherlands >>>

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.

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