*Guest post by Professor Erik Goldstein, Boston University*
One of the earliest commemorations of the Pilgrims in Britain, and of the voyage of the Mayflower, was the Pilgrim Fathers’ Memorial Church in Southwark. Planning for the church building commenced in 1850, a cornerstone was laid in 1856, and completion came in 1864, only to be destroyed by aerial bombardment in 1941, followed by a short postwar existence in a new home.
The Pilgrim Church (as it was usually called) traced its origins to the earliest Independent Separatist church. Many prominent early Separatists were held in the infamous Clink Prison in Southwark, with several of them becoming martyrs to their cause. In 1592, while allowed out on an unofficial parole, some of the prisoners managed to establish a congregation nearby. It has been claimed that one of the members of this group, John Smyth, later moved to Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, and established a congregation in which he was joined by the postmaster of nearby Scrooby, William Brewster, and which attracted to its meetings the young William Bradford, the future historian of the Plimoth Plantation (the claim is an interesting one in its attempt to make such a link, but awaits documentation). In 1616 what is considered to be the first Independent church in England was formed at Southwark. The founding pastor of the Pilgrim Fathers’ Church claimed both descent from this church and that some of its members sailed on the Mayflower (another claim that would require documentation); most of the ship’s crew hailed from nearby Rotherhithe.
The original 1616 Southwark congregation moved its venue many times, until in the mid-nineteenth century it was located in a building on Union Street. By then Southwark was the most densely populated district in England. Serving a poor community this Congregational church had developed a significant following, but was suddenly confronted with the imminent loss of its lease. The driving force in envisioning and fundraising for a new church building was its dynamic pastor, John Waddington. Deeply interested in the history of the denomination, of which he produced a five-volume work, Waddington was inspired to propose that the new church be named in honour of the Pilgrim Fathers, which would also provide a trans-Atlantic identity.
One of the earliest supporters of the new building scheme was the American Minister (ambassador) to London (1849-52), Abbott Lawrence, a descendent of the second pastor to serve the Southwark Church, John Lathrop. Lawrence suggested that money for a new church be raised from ‘both branches of the Pilgrim family’, and made a substantial financial contribution, although he was himself an active Unitarian. The Lawrences, a wealthy and powerful New England family, helped the initial fundraising in America. Amos Lawrence’s Civil War era successor, Charles Francis Adams, (served 1861- 68) likewise supported the effort, and links were maintained with the United States embassy over the decades. One of the early fundraising appeals stated, ‘The intention of this church to erect what shall be at once a suitable home for itself, and a fitting monument to its noble ancestry….is adapted to excite interest on both sides of the Atlantic’.
In 1856 the first stone of the new building – to be erected in Buckenham Square – was laid, perhaps prematurely, by American missionary and educator, Cyrus Hamlin, a cousin of the future Civil War era United States vice-president, Hannibal Hamlin. In his remarks at the ceremony Hamlin alluded to being himself a descendant of the Pilgrims.
Naming the projected house of worship the Pilgrim Fathers Memorial’ Church entailed educating its English audience as to the rationale. An article in The Christian Cabinet (30 Jan. 1861) explained that, ‘The Pilgrim Fathers were a company of plain Christian men, who sailed in a ship called the Mayflower in 1620, and landed in America on a wild, desolate and wintry shore.’ It went on to explain that they were ‘the pioneers of truth and freedom in England and America.’
A drawing of a suitable impressive church was prepared and circulated.
Waddington travelled to America in 1859 to garner support for the building campaign, and while there was present at the dedicatory services for the canopy being erected over Plymouth Rock. With sufficient funds raised the church itself was completed and opened in 1863, though not as grand a building as originally envisaged. The outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 undoubtedly had an impact on fundraising.
There is no evidence that it ever became a regular stop for American visitors, not surprising given the economically poor environs. The church was always confronting difficult financial circumstances, and its pastors were part-time from 1906. In 1925 an appeal was launched to buy the freehold, and as an act of Thanksgiving it was promised, if successful, to inaugurate an Annual Sermon in honour of the Pilgrim Fathers. The leaflet for this appeal carried an image of the Mayflower under full sail.
In September 1940 a German landmine fell in an adjacent street, damaging the church. Then in December an incendiary bomb destroyed the church. The small congregation moved to temporary accommodation in a house on Great Dover Street, naming it Pilgrim Church House, but this too was hit three years later by a rocket bomb. Lost in the 1940 bombing were the memorial stone laid by Cyrus Hamlin, which soon after the bombing crumbled into dust; and the Pulpit Bible given by Dr. William Patton of New York. Each year prominent English and American preachers who had delivered the promised Pilgrim Fathers Sermons, had signed their names in the pulpit bible.
The congregation survived the war, despite the loss of its church. Eventually they overcame the constraints on postwar construction and in 1954 obtained a license to rebuild. Set among the large new London County Council housing estates on Great Dover Street a new church was dedicated on 5 October 1956. The person who took the lead in the rebuilding of the church was Rev. Alfred David Belden. He had been born on Great Dover Street, a lifelong pacifist, who lectured and preached frequently in the United States, and was unafraid to support unpopular causes. In this instance he took on what proved to be both a popular and successful task, assuming the honorary post of superintendent of the Pilgrim Fathers’ Memorial Church in 1948. In advocating for the rebuilding he commented that ‘The Mayflower tradition is thus being rooted afresh in historic Southwark’. The new church was opened by the American ambassador, Winthrop Aldrich, who in his remarks observed ‘The Church and I stand for the same thing – Anglo-American friendship’. To replace the lost Hamlin memorial stone a new one was made for the new church, and unveiled by Belden.
Within a decade, however, the Pilgrim Church was confronted with declining numbers, and by1961 the congregation was down to 12 adult members. At his point the church appointed the first woman to serve as pastor, Katharine Mitchell, followed in 1964 its first full time pastor in over half a century, John Kneller. One of the initiatives to revive the church’s fortunes was the creation of a ‘Mayflower Room’, sometimes billed as a ‘Mayflower Museum’ to attract tourists. This closed in 1973.
After Belden’s death in December 1964, a memorial to him was unveiled in April 1966. The old burial ground of the church had been transformed by Southwark Borough Council into the Mayflower Gardens, and the memorial took the form of a sundial set atop a large stone, bearing on its side a depiction of the Mayflower. At a later date the monument was moved into the neighbouring St. Saviour’s and St. Olave’s School for Girls.
At some point, possibly after 2005, the church either closed or merged with another congregation, and its current heir is Crossway United Reform Church. Any information about the history of the Pilgrim Fathers’ Church and its artifacts, would be much appreciated.
*updated 1 July 2020 with new information about the Church’s fate in the recent past*
There is a file on the church, PC 285.8.812, at the Local History and Archive, John Harvard Library, Southwark. The following images are from that file, and from materials in that file, unless otherwise noted. We have tried to trace the current copyright holder for these works; if you are that owner, please do get in touch.
image 1: leaflet ‘Memorial Church of the Pilgrim Fathers’ (a copy is in the Congregational Library / Dr. Williams’s Library).
images 2, 4, 6: from the booklet by Albert Belden, “Through the Cloud=Kift”: The Record of the Church of the Pilgrim Fathers, Southwark’
image 3: from the fundraising booklet The Church of the Pilgrim Fathers
image 5: leaflet – ‘The Oldest Congregational Church in the World’ (a copy is in the Congregational Library / Dr. Williams’s Library
images 8 and 9. Booklet compiled by A.D. Belden and W.M. Field, A Southwark Ship, A Southwark Church’ (a copy is in the Congregational Library/Dr. Williams’s Library)
image 10: clipping from the newspaper South London Press, 7 Feb. 1969.
image 12. leaflet, (a copy is in the Congregational Library / Dr. Williams’s Library).
image 11. Denis Godfrey (pastor of church), Clink: The Story of a Forgotten Church
image 13: photocopy of letter from President Eisenhower (marked ‘Original at Pilgrim Church’).