The Pilgrim Fathers: Diligent Seekers of Religious Liberty

During the cool weeks of November that lead up to Thanksgiving Day there is great delight in many American homes when the exciting stories of the Pilgrims are read. Who were these people and what motivated them to endure such grievous hardships?

The Pilgrims were Separatist Christians originating from the farmland around Scrooby in northern England. Because of their sincere desire to regulate their worship and lives by the Bible alone they experienced persecution and imprisonment during the reign of King James. At the direction of their pastor, Rev. Richard Clifton, they determined to flee England in search of religious freedom. They finally succeeded in 1609 after several failed attempts. The Pilgrims were also accompanied by Rev. John Robinson, their teacher, and Elder William Brewster. The Pilgrims initially settled in Amsterdam, Holland, but they found it difficult to remain there and moved to Leyden where they lived for ten years.

When the explorations of Henry Hudson and John Smith became widely known, the Pilgrims determined to attempt the dangerous journey to the New World. They sincerely believed that they could better protect their children from worldly influences, preserve their English ways, and worship God in the manner they saw fit in the wilderness than in Holland.

A mixed colony of Saints (Pilgrims) and Strangers (fellow-Englishmen) was formed under the auspices of the Merchant Adventurers in London. Terms were negotiated and signed, and the expedition set off in two ships. The Speedwell quickly proved to be less than seaworthy and the Pilgrims were forced to reduce their numbers and press as many as possible into the “between deck” of the Mayflower.

After a lengthy and arduous voyage across the stormy Atlantic they reached the New World much farther north than they had intended. Instead of the fertile shores of Virginia, they landed on the rocky barren coast of Cape Cod in New England. Since they were beyond the immediate jurisdiction of the Virginia Colony they determined to draft governing principles to better order their own settlement and solemnly composed the Mayflower Compact. All of the Saints signed, but not all of the Strangers.

In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, etc. having undertaken for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our king and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God, and of one another, covenant and combine ourselves into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation, and the furtherance of the ends aforesaid and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general use of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have here underscribed our names at Cape Cod, 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our sovereign lord, King James of England, France and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. A.D. 1620

(William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1651)

Once they had landed, they immediately set off to replenish their food and water supplies. The Lord providentially led them to mounds of corn buried by local Indians. They also sailed west finding Plymouth Bay where they landed on December 21, 1620 at Plymouth Rock. Here they steadfastly carved their colony out of a hostile wilderness by erecting a squat common house for defense atop the nearest hill and a short row of small rustic cabins in which several families lived. This was not a comfortable English hamlet, but the Pilgrims insisted that, “It is not with us as with other men whom small things can discourage, or small discontentments cause (us) to wish (ourselves) at home again”.These people were made of sterner stuff.

The first winter was exceedingly difficult for the Pilgrims. Out 102 settlers exactly one half died from sickness before those disease-ridden months were completely over. The dead were buried at night in unmarked graves so that the Indians could not see how small their company had actually become. Having survived the winter, the following March they were visited by the Indian, Samoset. When he entered their tiny village he cried out in English “Welcome Englishmen! Do you have any beer?” The settlers were astonished to be greeted by an English-speaking Indian!

Later, Samoset told them about his friend Squanto who spoke even better English. Squanto was clearly God’s gift to the Pilgrims. Governor William Bradford later referred to him as, “a special instrument sent of God for their good, beyond their expectation.” Squanto showed them how to raise corn, catch fish in the sea, and tread-out freshwater eels in the mudflats. Most importantly, he showed them how to survive the rigors of the American wilderness. With Squanto’s help the Pilgrims were able to make a lasting peace with Massasoit, the local Indian chief, for over fifty years.

The first Thanksgiving Day feast took place in November, 1621 after the Pilgrims brought in a substantial harvest. The Wampanoag tribe who had helped them so kindly was also welcomed to their burgeoning table. Edward Winslow, the assistant to Governor William Bradford, wrote about that special day in his brief history of Plymouth Colony:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, so that we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little outside help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their great king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

(Mourt’s Relation, 1622)

Indeed, there was so much to thank God for! The Lord’s promise is certainly true, “He provides food for those who fear him; he remembers his covenant forever.”Psalm 111:5

Resources for Further Study:
Bradford, William.
 Of Plymouth Plantation. Reprint, San Antonio, TX: co-published by Vision Forum & Mantle Ministries, 1988.
Brown, John. The Pilgrim Fathers of New England and their Puritan Successors. London, England: The Religious Tract Society, 1895.
Foster, Marshall, and Swanson, Mary-Elaine. The American Covenant: The Untold Story (rev. edit.).Santa Barbara, CA: co-published by The Foundation for Christian Self-Government (1981), and the Mayflower Institute (1983).
Heath, Dwight B., ed. Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Reprint, Cambridge, MA: Applewood Books, 1986.
Jehle, Dr. Paul. Plymouth in the Words of Her Founders. San Antonio, TX: Vision Forum, 2002.
Willison, George F. Saints and Strangers. New York, NY: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1945.

Copyright November 2006. Rev. Marcus Serven, Th. M.
Used by Permission. All Rights Reserved.

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