Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The 400th Anniversary of the Mayflower

After a tempestuous ten weeks at sea, on November 11, 1620 (O.S.), the ship known as the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth Rock near Cape Cod, Massachusetts. On board were 102 passengers, including adventurers, tradesmen, and English Separatists, along with 30 crew members. After leaving England for Holland in 1608, the Separatists had remained there until 1620. Seeking greater religious freedom, and the opportunity to govern themselves and earn a better living, a number of the Separatists purchased boats to cross the Atlantic for America, which they considered a “new Promised Land.” 

As devout Christians, the "English Separatists" (men and women who had separated themselves from the Church of England, and who are sometimes mistakenly referred to as Puritans) read directly from the Holy Bible (the Geneva Bible was common), sang Psalms, and believed in having a personal, covenant relationship with God. They believed, that as God’s covenant people, they would be identified as “Saints.” They also believed that living a godly life was man’s duty, guided by his conscience—described by them as “the voice of God in man.”[1] While the Separatists believed that the only way to live according to Biblical precepts was to leave the Church of England entirely, and while they shared much in common, the Puritans thought they could reform [or purify] the church from within.[2]

During that historic voyage, the crew and passengers of the Mayflower encountered many turbulent storms. In the middle of one such storm, young John Howland fell overboard. By all accounts, that should have been the end of Howland. However, as William Bradford, also a passenger on the Mayflower, reported: 

“In these storms the winds were so fierce and the seas so high the Pilgrims were forced to remain below deck. And one of them John Howland came above and, with a roll of the ship, he was thrown into the sea; but it pleased God that he caught hold of a rope that was trailing in the water and held on though he was several fathoms under water till he was hauled up by the same rope to the brim of the water, and then with a boat-hook and other means got him into the ship again and his life was saved; and though he was something ill with it, yet he lived many years after, and became a profitable member both in church and commonwealth.”[3]

"About four years after they arrived in the New World, John married fellow Mayflower passenger Elizabeth Tilley, a brave and committed daughter of God. They eventually had 10 children and nearly 90 grandchildren. But that is not where the story ends. Today, an estimated 2 million Americans trace their roots to John and Elizabeth. Their descendants include three U.S. presidents—Franklin D. Roosevelt, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush; American poets Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; and two influential 19th-century American religious leaders—Joseph Smith, Jr. and his brother Hyrum Smith [founders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints]."[4]

Before setting anchor, the men drafted and signed “The Mayflower Compact,” a solemn agreement to govern their civic affairs as a “political body” in the new Plymouth Colony: 

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, &c. Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour 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 one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid: And by Virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Officers, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general Good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due Submission and Obedience. IN WITNESS whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape-Cod the eleventh of November, in the Reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth, Anno Domini; 1620.

William Bradford, a farmer, and signatory to the Mayflower Compact—went on to serve as Governor of the Plymouth Colony (recurrently for about 30 years between 1621 and 1657). “If not for Bradford’s steady, often forceful leadership, it is doubtful whether there ever would have been a colony. [And] without his [record] Of Plymouth Plantation ... there would be almost no information about the voyage with which it all began.”[5]  Bradford later wrote, “they knew they were pilgrims,” which label stuck. 

The moment the Pilgrims stepped ashore in the new land was also described by Bradford in his journal: 

“Being thus arrived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven, who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth, their proper element.”[6]      

“The Pilgrims had originally hoped to reach America in early October using two ships, but delays and complications meant they could use only one, the Mayflower. Arriving in November, they had to survive unprepared through a harsh winter. As a result, only half of the original Pilgrims survived the first winter at Plymouth. Without the help of local Indigenous peoples to teach them food gathering and other survival skills, all of the colonists may have perished.”[7] 

A year following the Pilgrims’ landing, and after enduring the hard winter, the new colonists enjoyed a bountiful harvest. Early in October of 1621, Governor Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgiving to be shared by all the colonists and their neighboring Native Americans. They invited Squanto and the other Indians to join them in their celebration. Their chief, Massasoit, and 90 braves came to the celebration which lasted for three days. They played games, ran races, marched and played drums. The Indians demonstrated their skills with the bow and arrow and the Pilgrims demonstrated their musket skills. Exactly when the festival took place is uncertain, but it is believed the celebration took place in mid-to-late October. The tradition of a holding a thanksgiving feast and gathering after harvest time became a religious holiday perpetuated in the American colonies and states for over two centuries. 

In conclusion, “The Pilgrims of the Mayflower arrived on the American continent with the hope and promise of a new life of freedom to worship God according to the dictates of one’s own conscience.”[8]  Their example of individual faith, humility, work and sacrifice for the common good, along with their decades-long association and friendship with the Native Americans, sets an example that we should reflect upon and always remember.

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[1] Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War (Penguin Group, New York, 2006), p. 7.
[2] "What's the Difference between Pilgrims and Puritans?" History.com [accessed October 28, 2020].
[3] William Bradford,"Of Plymouth Plantation" Early Americas Digital Archive (EADA)
[4] "The Lords Hand" M. Russell Ballard, October 20, 2019, Worchester, Massachusetts.
[5] Philbrick, p. 7.
[6] William Bradford, "Of Plymouth Plantation"
[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mayflower [accessed October 27, 2020].
[8] mayflowerpromise.com [accessed October 27, 2020].

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