Joe’s Neighborhood: A Thanksgiving story, the Pilgrims and same-sex marriage11/2/2016
Knocking on the door of No. 9 Beschuitsteeg in Leiden is unsettling. Don’t get me wrong, not the unsettling of eating slimy raw herring by the tail, a Dutch delicacy that is plenty unsettling, but more like “my wife is going to wonder one more time why she’s married to such a dope” type unsettling.
This nondescript door — in a deserted, narrow, cobblestone street, with darkened windows and an ancient exterior — does not seem like the entrance to a major museum about the American Pilgrims. Of course not. It’s Holland, not America. I have so made a mistake. Perhaps I should try Plymouth, Massachusetts, next time? Duh. I turn to flee down the street before some elderly Dutch man opens the door insisting that I join him for raw herring.
Too late. The top half of the door opens, and a square, solid man with grey hair looks out, blinking rapidly in the bright light.
“Are you Dr. Jeremy Bangs?” I ask hopefully.
Gestured into the small room, I duck my head under the door, breathe the dry, stale smell of old books, and look around in the light and shadow. Half a dozen folks are sitting or standing in the cluttered room. Candles are lit. Large volumes are spread out on the center table. And Dr. Bangs, director of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, begins his presentation.
“I offer people various rates to come into the museum. The normal cost is 5 euros. University students are free, but they have to pay tuition, which is 5 euros. 7.50 is if you try to convert me. 10 euro if you don’t want jokes.”
No smile. No change in the flat, deep, monotone delivery. No pause for a laugh line. This guy has taken dry humor to the furthest reaches of the Sahara.
I come to find out that Dr. Jeremy Bangs left Chicago 30 years ago. He earned his doctorate at the University of Leiden in art history and began working for the town archives in Leiden. And it was the folks at the town archives that got him started on the Pilgrims.
“They said to me, ‘You’re an American, what do you know about the Pilgrims?’ I said, ‘Nothing.’ I had specialized in 15th and 16th-century artistic and cultural activity in Leiden. But, as a result of their request, I started doing Pilgrim stuff.”
Well, “Pilgrim stuff” resulted in authoring multiple books on the Pilgrims, several years as the Chief Curator at the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts, visiting curator of manuscripts at the Pilgrim Hall Museum, and finally, director of the American Leiden Pilgrim Museum. Yup, he’s as close as you’re going to get to black shoes and a buckled hat — which, lo and behold, is not a true Pilgrim fashion statement after all.
Dr. Bangs told me that the Pilgrims came to Leiden because they had problems with King James and his religion back in England.
“The Pilgrims were Calvinist dissenters from the state Church of England — the Anglican Church. They called themselves ‘separatists’ because they wanted to be separate from the Anglican Church. So they made their way from England to Amsterdam and then to Leiden in 1609.”
Leiden was still reeling from the war with Spain, where they had survived a long siege of the city but lost half their population.
The Pilgrims were one of many groups of refugees in town. And not the largest by far, as folks of various religions from around Western Europe gathered in Leiden where jobs were plentiful and the City was tolerant.
And this is where it gets weird.
“Civil marriage was invented in Leiden. In 1575. The Dutch Reformed ministers were chosen and appointed by the magistrates of the City of Leiden. Which meant that for purposes of marriages, they were civil servants. Catholic priests, Lutheran priests, Mennonite leaders, were not. To provide for legitimacy in marriage and inheritance, Leiden invented civil marriage, and it was followed very soon by other Dutch cities.”
OK. Interesting. But why is this important?
Well, in 1620, the Leiden Pilgrims left Holland for America with a short stop in England to pick up the Mayflower. Dr. Bangs said that they left Leiden because of concern that Spain would soon start up another war with Holland. They wanted no part of that. So off to America they went, husbands, wives and kids.
“And now we have the book William Bradford mentions by page number as the source for civil marriage in America.”
Of course. I knew that. Now, who exactly is William Bradford?
Bradford, it turns out, is an original Pilgrim on the Mayflower and was the governor of the Plymouth Colony in 1621 — and for about 30 years after that. A big shot, as my mom would say.
“Bradford mentions the practice in Leiden, and he also points out that marriage is not a function of the church in the New Testament. They realized the colony would have people who weren’t part of their church. But they thought everyone had the right to legitimacy in marriage and inheritance. Civil marriage in America starts with the Pilgrims, and it comes from Leiden.”
“The Pilgrims introduced civil marriage and consequently the beginnings of the separation of church and state. Bradford’s authority for this claim, according to him, is found on page 1029 of the ‘History of the Netherlands.’ And here’s the book, and here’s the page.”
And why should you care about something that occurred nearly 400 years ago?
Well, if you go to the amicus brief arguing in support of same-sex marriage, filed by the California Council of Churches with the United States Supreme Court in the landmark same-sex marriage case of Obergefell v. Hodges, you will find a citation to Dr. Jeremy Bangs and the practice of civil marriage by the Pilgrims. In the very first sentence of the very first argument.
And, according to the Council of Churches, civil marriage begets same-sex marriage.
“I was very surprised. I was very pleased,” Dr. Bangs smiles for the first time during my visit.
So there you have it, a direct link between the Pilgrims and same-sex marriage. Go figure. ♦
Joe Weeg spent 31 years as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, his wife is once again assisting in the prosecution of war criminals in the Netherlands. He writes about being an Iowan in Europe on his blog at www.joesneighborhood.com.