Taken at face value, the story of the Pilgrim Fathers has something of the mythic quality about it. The Pilgrims were a harassed people fleeing their homes under cover of darkness, betrayed by a ship’s captain, arrested, left to languish in prison, and separated from their families. Their eventual escape to Holland and their lives as immigrants presented economic, cultural, and social challenges. On their trans-Atlantic crossing to the New World, they suffered the wiles of unscrupulous investors, the near sinking of the Speedwell, the miseries of life “tween decks” for nine long weeks, and treacherous gales upon the sea that split their mast and nearly forced them back to England. Their troubles weren’t over once they reached the New World. There they suffered disease and death. Despite all of this, or perhaps because of all of this, the Pilgrim story echoes across the generations with hope in the midst of heartache, and with promise in the midst of pain.
The story of the Pilgrims is a story of persecution.
Convinced by their understanding of the scriptures that the state-mandated Church of England could not lead them into religious truth, the Pilgrims began meeting in secret. This infuriated King James, and he swore to make these Separatists “conform, or he would harry them out of the land!” Many were arrested and imprisoned. Even the young orphan William Bradford, who joined the Separatists at age 15, was harassed by his own family who threatened to disown him if he continued his association with Separatists. To them he calmly replied:
To keep a good conscience and walk in such a way as God has prescribed in his Word, is a thing which I must prefer before you all and above life itself. Wherefore since it is for a good Cause that I am likely to suffer the disasters which you lay before me, you have no cause to be either angry with me, or sorry for me. Yea, I am not only willing to part with everything that is dear to me in this world for this Cause, but I am thankful that God hath given me heart so to do, and will accept me so to suffer for him.”
It is remarkable that a teenaged boy could make such a proclamation, and yet, it was also predictive of his future. William Bradford did eventually lose nearly everything that was dear to him, excepting his faith. Bradford’s youthful bravado was the type of devotion that enabled the Pilgrims to endure persecution. Ultimately, King James did drive the Separatists out of England.
The story of the Pilgrims is a story of prison and pain.
The Separatists were Englishmen bound over generations by history, culture, and language to their land. Their attachment to the very soil of England and their English identity was deep and profound. Making the choice to leave was wrenching and traumatic. It was a painful choice that could only be rationalized by a new identity. They realized they were no longer just Englishmen, but Pilgrims and sojourners.
Added to the pain of leaving England, was the trauma of the heartbreaking separation of families. In 1608, when the Pilgrims secretly hired a ship to help them escape to Holland, unforeseen events conspired to separate the men from their wives and children. When the ship’s captain saw king’s soldiers approaching the families awaiting the ship on the beach, he panicked and sailed off with only the men aboard. The men were devastated as they watched their beloved wives and children hauled off by the king’s soldiers, completely helpless to do anything. Their pleas to the captain to let them off the ship went unheeded. On the shore, William Brewster was arrested once again and thrown back into prison. The homeless women and children had to find shelter with hospitable neighbors until arrangements could be made once again for the passage to Holland.
The distraught men who sailed to Holland were set upon by a gale that blew their ship mercilessly for a solid week. Given up for lost, the ship finally reached the shores of Norway and eventually Amsterdam. On landing, nineteen-year-old William Bradford was promptly arrested by Dutch authorities. They’d been “informed” by King James’s agent that Bradford was an escaped criminal. The falsehood was eventually cleared up, and Bradford was released as the religious refugee that he was.
The story of the Pilgrims is also a story of providence.
The Pilgrims delight in the freedom of religion they are able to enjoy in Holland. Life in the beautiful city of Leyden is peaceful and in some cases prosperous. Though the former landed gentry of England will never completely adjust to being tradesmen, carpenters, and craftsmen, they are grateful for provision. But for these Pilgrims, being sojourners and citizens of a heavenly kingdom, prosperity and provision is not enough. Fathers and mothers watch their children growing up in this prosperous city with little sense of the destiny they felt when they left all they loved to follow a higher calling. The Twelve-year truce between Holland and Spain is coming to an end, and English sons will soon be drafted into the Dutch army to fight against Spain. Circumstances, especially difficult ones, viewed through the eye of providence can bring perspective.
The Pilgrims choose to follow providence–a strong leading and sense that they are called to something higher. They call it a New Jerusalem in the New World and they begin to discuss, research and plan. The timid ones, those who rightly fear the very real dangers of the wilderness or the great length and hazards of the ocean voyage, are encouraged by none other than that former orphan boy, the man William Bradford. He replies:
All great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties; and must be both enterprised and overcome with answerable courages. It was granted the dangers were great, but not desperate; the difficulties many, but not invincible. For though there were many of them likely, yet they were not certain. It might be that sundry of the things feared might never befall; others, by provident care and the use of good means, might in a great measure be prevented; and all of them, through the help of God, by fortitude and patience, might be either borne or overcome.”
Again, Bradford’s words prove prophetic. Through careful planning, many obstacles are overcome. But some cannot be foreseen and must be suffered through. That includes unscrupulous agents who at the last minute change the terms of their agreement, virtually assigning the Pilgrims to seven years of slavery in exchange for their passage to the New World. This they will not do. So, they must sell much-needed provisions in order to pay the port tax and leave England. Finally, at sea, the Speedwell begins to leak so badly both ships must return to port. Long delays and expenses ensue while the Speedwell is overhauled from stem to stern.
At last the ships depart, once and for all, they believe. But 300 miles out, the Speedwell begins to leak again so badly that the captain can barely keep her afloat. The disheartened Pilgrims return again to shore where the captain concludes the Speedwell is over-masted and unseaworthy. This was suspected to be treachery on the part of the captain and his crew, as they did not really want to sail to America. Now the Pilgrims must abandon one ship, consolidate as best they can on the Mayflower and leave passengers and provisions behind. Valuable time and money have been used up.
At sea, a North Atlantic gale blows up. The Pilgrims pray while the sailors delight in cursing the pious seafarers and their God. But when the main beam buckles under the violence of the storm, it is the Pilgrims who haul out a great iron jack-screw they had brought from Leyden, and fix the buckled beam.
Nine weeks later, on November 20, 1620, the Pilgrims sight land in Cape Cod. But before the Pilgrims can fully give thanks, the captain announces that the treacherous currents around Cape Cod may run the ship into deadly shoals. The Pilgrims pray once again and disaster is averted. As the men explore the land for a suitable habitation, the women and children remain aboard the Mayflower. Sadly, one day, Bradford returns to find his beloved wife Dorothy has fallen overboard and drown. Later, when the Pilgrims are finally able to come ashore and begin to build their shelters, the exposure and lack of provisions have devastating effects. Of the hundred Pilgrims who made the journey, only six or seven remain well enough to care for the sick. By the end of the year, half of the Pilgrims have died.
The saga of the Pilgrims is a saga of persecution, prison, and pain. But it is also a profound saga of perseverance, promise, and providence. By November of 1621, the colony has recovered such that William Bradford proclaims three days of “praise and thanksgiving to God for his mercies to the children of men.” Despite the profound pain, Bradford has the perspective to see God’s providence and provision.
If ever any people in these later Ages, were upheld by the Providence of God, after a more special manner than others, then we: and therefore are the more bound to celebrate the memory of His goodness, with everlasting thankfulness . . . So that when I seriously consider of things, I cannot but think that God hath a purpose to give that land, as an inheritance, to our nation.” –Edward Winslow, Good News from New England, 1623