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Archive for the ‘American History’ Category

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 ec641bb454454e98a76916c9cdeb45cfangry 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 Pilgrims2so 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

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I1413374964-8-origmagine each day wrapping your hair up in a lovely bun and then slipping a very tiny bible into your chignon?  Odd?  Well, there was a day when many young Christian women hid their bibles this way! In September 1685, in France, all Bible reading was forbidden and Christian homes were subject to search. French Protestants known as Huguenots were forced to keep their scriptures hidden and to worship in secret. I was privileged to get a little glimpse into the lives of this courageous minority on a recent visit to Provence, France while visiting with ICCP of Aix-en-Provence. While staying there with a gracious 93 year-old Huguenot gentleman, a Monsieur D’Cazenove, we were able to visit the Musée du Désert, where this fascinating and inspiring history is kept alive. And indeed it’s true that Huguenot women hid their very tiny bibles in their chignons!

This tiny bible measures just one inch high yet is very legible. Huguenot women hid them in their chignons.                                                                                   From Le Musée du Désert, Cevennes, France

The Huguenots were the fruit of the tide of the Reformation coming to France in the mid 16th century, and were devoted to reforming the church and the political institutions of their times.  Many noble and highly intellectual families joined this movement, but in a majority Catholic country where the Church was all powerful, persecution was inevitable. The most notorious incident occurred on St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572, when thousands of Huguenots were in Paris to celebrate the wedding of Henry of Navarre (a Huguenot) to Marguerite de Valois (a Catholic). The young King Charles IX, under the sway of his powerful mother, Catherine d’ Medici, ordered the massacre of all Huguenots.  Thousands died in Paris that day and tens of thousands all across France.

When Henry IV, a Huguenot known as Le Bon Roi–the Good King, came to the throne, he passed the Edict of Nantes (1598) granting religious freedom to Huguenots–one of Europe’s first IMG_2727documents to protect this fundamental right. However, 80 years later, King Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, and Huguenots were harassed out of all educated professions, arrested, tortured and imprisoned, their lands and properties confiscated.  Louis XIV  issued countless warrants for the arrest of Huguenots who refused to convert to Catholicism.  At left are just a few of King Louis’s numerous warrants persecuting Huguenots.  In these samples, agents of the King are instructed to destroy all the Huguenot churches, extinguish and suppress  their colleges, arrest their midwives, and to obtain their declarations as to whether they will convert  or die as Protestants.

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This barrel converted into a pop-up pulpit, but looked like an ordinary barrel when not in use.

It was particularly during this period that Huguenots became very creative in finding ways to worship in secret.  As a large majority lived in the Provence region, where there are thick forested areas and many caves and grottoes, the Huguenots often met secretly in caves to worship.  A home church or a church meeting in a factory might have a convertible pulpit, that when not in use looked like an ordinary wooden barrel, but converted quite ingeniously into a pulpit by a clever system of levers.  Goblets for communion wine could be converted to appear as ordinary looking candlesticks, and picture frames were designed so that bibles could be hidden between the mirror and the back of the frame.

Despite these subterfuges, countless Huguenots were arrested, tortured and put to death.  Over 5000 men were forced to slave on the galleys of the King, choosing that grim fate over giving up their faith. Marie Durand was arrested at age 19 and spent 38 years imprisoned because she refused to violate her conscience.

Remarkably, despite these tremendous hardships, the Huguenot people were known as the “people who sing.”  Their secret IMG_2802worship services were marked by their joyful singing of the scriptures set to music, particularly the psalms.  When I question our host, Monsieur d’Casenove, about this fact, he slips quietly into his centuries-old chateau and reemerges quickly holding an ancient book in his hand.  It is a psalmer, a very old book of the psalms set to music.  When I ask him how old it is, he turns to the copyright page, and the book had been printed in the 1550s.

The history of the Huguenot people is a rich, varied, and inspiring history of a people who fought, suffered, and died for freedom of conscience.  It is a history that has some bearing on American history too.  In my next post I will explore what Huguenot history has to do with Paul Revere, George Washington, and the Marquis de Lafayette!

 

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The chateau of Monsieur d’Casanove in the Cevennes region of France, an area rich in Huguenot history.

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o-GRAPES-OF-WRATH-ARISTS-facebook“She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt or fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build laughter out of inadequate materials . . . She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall.”
― John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

Dear Readers,

One of the beauties of reading classics again is the heightened ability to empathize in different seasons of life. Reading The Grapes of Wrath with my 15 year-old daughter, is an entirely different experience than reading it as a teenager.  I see it now through the eyes of a grandmother, a mother, a sister and a daughter.  But it is the position of Mrs. Joad that is particularly striking for me as a mother and grandmother.  Steinbeck’s passage above reflects an unconscious notion many mothers feel as they strive to build strength and integrity in their families.

Becoming re-acquainted with Steinbeck’s tale of the great Dust Bowl migration displays the timeless power of literature.  As we immerse in the story of a formerly middle-class family cast off from their one-time prosperous farm, forced to migrate with little more than the clothes on their backs, a few family members in extremities of health, with little money and facing cruel prejudice wherever they go, I’m struck by how capricious our relative ease and comfort can be and how blithely we view it.

I relate particularly to Mrs. Joad, as she struggles to keep her family together, knowing how important that is, yet watching the vicissitudes of fate and chance play their hand cruelly against her best intentions, and my heart aches with her mother heart.  As she buries both parents along the way due to the extremities of travel and little chance of rest and sustenance, I feel I can understand her heartbreak and agony.  So determined is she to keep the family together that when the men make plans to split up, she takes up a jack handle and threatens to wallop Pa if he forces his plan.  The formerly mild-mannered and temperate Ma is forced to such means to do what she believes is right. Tragically, despite her best efforts the family is split up.  Steinbeck describes in vivid detail how the tragedy of the Dust Bowl, corporate and individual greed, and small-minded prejudice brought such devastation to hard-working, happy, God-fearing families all across the plains.

The lessons of The Grapes of Wrath are many.  But the one that is resonating with me currently is how displacement is such an ongoing human tragedy.  It strips dignity, creates prejudice, subjects the innocent to violence, and destroys families. While we have no great forced migrations occurring in America today, around the world they are an ongoing reality.  We have displaced Mexican children swamping our borders, the Syrian refugee crisis is daily in the news, Rwandan refugee camps burst at the seams, and there are continuing crises in Sudan and Somalia.

Watching the heartbreak of Mrs. Joad is an important exercise in learning to have a heart for refugees and for the disenfranchised around the globe. Mrs. Joad stands as an icon of the tragedy that is repeated around the world as families are forced to flee their homes.  Through one of his characters, Steinbeck poses the question, “How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past?”  It is a good question to ask ourselves.  The next time we’re tempted to dismiss the plight of the refugee, whether at our border, or elsewhere on the globe, let’s remember Mrs. Joad, and say a prayer for all those in her place.

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Marilyn Nelson's tender, poignant and inspiring life of a man of faith and science.

Marilyn Nelson’s tender, poignant and inspiring poetry portrays the  life of a man of faith and science.

Dear Readers and friends,

August 9, 2014 will be my Summer Literature Soirée, which many of you have attended in the past.  Normally I like to do a summer reading event at the beginning of the summer and then a Back-to-School event at the end of August, early September.  But due to speaking engagements and other life commitments (2 new grandchildren born this spring!), I am only able to provide one this season. Regardless, I am very much looking forward to spending this special time discussing literature, nurturing friendships, and making new acquaintances too!

So, I am mixing it up a bit this time, as I’d like to spend a bit more concentrated time digging into literary analysis with all of you!  Don’t panic if you’ve never analyzed literature before as this format will empower you to feel confident and equipped to discuss literature with your children/students on a deeper level.

Richard Kim's memoir of his childhood in Korea is one of the most beautiful an moving coming-of-age stories I've ever encountered.

Richard Kim’s memoir of his childhood in Korea is one of the most beautiful and moving coming-of-age stories I’ve ever encountered.

Here’s the literature we will discuss on August 9th:

Carver: A Life in Poems by Marilyn Nelson

Water Buffalo Days by Quang Nhuong Huynh

Lost Names by Richard Kim

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Time of Wonder by Robert McCloskey

The Little Island by Margaret Wise Brown

For convenience sake, Beautiful Feet Books will offer anyone who signs up for the soirée, an opportunity to purchase the above books discounted and have them shipped  to your home, in the next week or so,  to give you enough time to read them before August 9th (yeah for summer lazy days to read and rest!).  If you are interested in this, please visit the this link to order as soon as possible. The book pack is featured at the bottom of the page. We will offer  the above set of books at a 25% discount, but this offer will only be available until Friday, July 11.   And of course, bring the books with you on August 9th, so you can work directly with the text!

McCloskey's classic summer story evokes the pathos and innocence of childhood days spent on salt water, enchanted by the beauty of nature and the freshness of summer showers.

McCloskey’s classic summer story evokes the pathos and innocence of childhood days spent on salt water, enchanted by the beauty of nature and the freshness of summer showers.

So here are the details:

Date: Saturday, August 9, 2014

Place: my home: 1306 Mill Street, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401

Cost: $35.00 (which includes lunch)

Time: 9:30 am – 3:30 pm.

Registration here.

Hoping you’ll join me for this sweet summer time event!

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The sole substitute for an experience we have not ourselves lived through is art and literature. –Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Early American Primary SG CoverDear Readers,

At the Great Homeschool Convention in Ontario, California, June 12-14th, I will be presenting a session on Early American History Through Literature.  This presentation will explore the power of studying the history of our nation through literature, rather than standard textbooks. The joys and advantages of learning history when it is taught through narrative are too numerous to address in a blog post, but I will address a few here by way of a teaser for my upcoming session next month!

Dana Gioia, man of letters, poet, and social critic has written extensively on the importance of literature in society.  In an article he wrote a few years ago, titled “Why literature matters: good books help make a civil society”, Gioia notes how dramatic declines in the reading of literature have negatively impacted our society.  This decline has manifested itself in dismal historic knowledge, such that college seniors cannot pass a high school level American history test of basic knowledge; the corporate world laments that local schools graduate students with poor reading skills, and higher order problem-solving skills dependent upon imagination are at an all-time low.

Other studies cite that 42% of college graduates never pick up another literary work again.  The tragedy that this represents is hard to fathom but given an educational system that in many cases blights any love of reading through the imposition of dry lifeless textbooks, it isn’t difficult to imagine that the outcome would be exactly what we are seeing.

One extraordinary advantage of home education is the opportunity it provides families to choose a vast array of literary works and center their studies around those. The benefits of a literature approach are multifaceted and I believe, lifelong.  Students who have the option of rich, broad, and expansive literary choices become lifelong lovers of literature and creative problem-solving adults.

Other benefits of literature include a deeper connection and respect of our cultural and literary past.  Students who are exposed to a broad range of literary works see the world through a much more hopeful, optimistic, and understanding lens. Reading the thoughts of great minds who have gone before us, understanding and having empathy for their trials, and rejoicing in their triumphs, brings perspective and wisdom.

As Gioia notes in the aforementioned article, literature is also a powerful force for good in society.  Important literary works have changed the course of history and brought justice and truth to bear upon society’s ills.

 “Indeed we sometimes underestimate how large a role literature has played in the evolution of our national identity, especially in that literature often has served to introduce young people to events from the past and principles of civil society and governance.  Just as more ancient Greeks learned about moral and political conduct from the epics of Homer than from the dialogues of Plato, so the most important work in the abolitionist movement was the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Having read Uncle Tom’s Cabin a few times over the course of our home schooling years, I think I can understand in a small way why this novel was able to move a nation in the manner it did.  Harriet Beecher Stowe was gifted in helping her readers identify vicariously with the victims of slavery–not just the slaves, but even the inheritors of slaves.  Her characterization ghc_250x125of the evil effects of slavery on an entire society, slave and master alike, turned the conscience of a nation and became a powerful catalyst for change.

Literature is powerful.  For the homeschooling parent, there is no more effective tool in his or her tool chest.  This seminar at GHC will explore the literature that has impacted the course of American history, the books to read with your students, the best authors for children, and how to establish a literature-based curriculum that will encourage lovers of literature and life long readers. Sign up now to attend GHC in Ontario, California, June 12-14.  If you sign up through the BFB link (here) your registration will help to support the Blickenstaff family as they continue to adapt to life altering challenges.  Also, GHC has posted the schedule for the conference, so be sure to go online and check it out!  Hope to see you there!

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History is the essence of innumerable biographies. –Thomas Carlyle

Why Teach History through Literature? by Rea Berg

In our first installment of this series, we looked at the importance of the study of history. When we consider the question of how history ought to be taught and why we would consider teaching  history through literature, there are some interesting points to bear in mind: 1.  How has history been taught through the ages?  2. Why use literature to teach history?  3. Why is the use of literature the most effective way to learn history?

How has history been taught through the ages?

Waves of immigrants posed challenges to 19th century educators

Waves of immigrants posed challenges to 19th century educators

In the nineteenth century, with the dawn of compulsory education in America, schools were forced to begin to standardize what should be taught to all these children sitting eight hours a day at their obligatory desks. Because the dawn of compulsory education coincided with industrialization and with a massive influx of immigrants, educators felt motivated, from a sometimes elitist mindset, to educate the masses for the purposes of creating a literate work force.  Presented with the challenge of getting all these children from varying backgrounds on the same educational “page”, it is easy to see how the textbook naturally evolved.  Certain events, personages, significant battles and historical milestones were deemed essential knowledge for the creation of good citizens and a stable workforce.  These “facts” were compiled into disseminated formats stripped of the narrative elements of story, resulting in dry works of little human interest and no literary value.

Standardizing the teaching of history spelled the death knell for creating any love of history in that rising generation of new Americans. It alparisso flew in the face of how history was taught for centuries.  From ancient times forward students studied history by reading history.  In other words, if a student say, in the Middle Ages, was studying history he read the works of Herodotus, Thucydides, Eusebius, Plutarch and Josephus. Of course, if you were a young French boy studying in a monastic school in Paris, reading these works meant learning Greek, Latin, and in some cases Hebrew, for ancient histories were not translated into vernacular languages until the late 1200s.  In some instances, it would be centuries before these ancient classic texts appeared in English.  An English schoolboy in London, would not have had Plutarch’s Parallel Lives in English until the late 1500s.   This is one reason why a classical education was always inextricably linked with the study of Latin and Greek.

Why use literature to teach history?

Our ancient young predecessors, sitting by candlelight or lamplight, reading history, actually read history through literature.  There simply was no other way to study history–which brings us to our second point. History has effectively been taught through literature since ancient times.  Only just the last century or so has this vibrant subject been robbed of its human connection by the ubiquitous textbook.  As Neil Postman urges in his book, The End of Education, those who desire to improve teaching ought to get rid of all textbooks which, in his opinion are “the enemies of education, instruments for promoting dogmatism and trivial learning” (116).  Exchanging literature–biographies, classical works, even historical fiction, for the history textbook not only restores this discipline to its historic roots, but also reinvigorates it with its inherent passion, human interest, and wonder.  A middle-grade child reading Johnny Tremain for her studies of the American Revolution will learn far more about the essence of that struggle than even the most colorful textbook could ever impart.

Why is the use of literature the most effective way to teach history?

Literature, as defined by the Oxford reference is “written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit.”  Now, I’m not sure about you, but I have yet to hear of a single history textbook to win a Pulitzer or a Nobel prize for Literature.  Written works achieve the status of literary merit by their ability to speak to the human condition and the experiences, trials, and aspirations of the human heart. In this way, the best works draw the reader into the drama of the story and through the emotions open the mind.  David McCullough, Pulitzer prize-winner for his work John Adams, affirms that the most effective way to teach history is to “tell stories.”9780684813639_p0_v2_s260x420

That’s what history is: a story.  And what’s a story? E. M. Forster gave a wonderful definition to it: If I say to you the king died and then the queen died, that’s a sequence of events.  If I say the king died and the queen died of grief, that’s a story.  That’s human. That calls for empathy on the part of the teller of the story and . . . the listener to the story. (“Knowing History”)

The notion of emotion and empathy as a critical component of history’s ability to speak to the human heart, was promoted by Charlotte Mason, the 19th century educational reformer. She advocated the use of “living books”–literature, history, biography—”to open limitless avenues of discovery in a child’s mind”.  She taught that all, “Education should aim at giving knowledge touched with emotion” (For the Children’s Sake). It is the connection between the human heart, mind, and will, that makes the study of history so enjoyable and memorable to those fortunate to study it through the best books. As a wonderful by-product, students brought up on an educational curriculum rich in the best literature often become compassionate, engaged, and thoughtful adults–the best possible educational outcome.

Works Cited:

“Knowing History and Who We Are.”  David McCullough.  Imprimis.  Hillsdale, MI: Hillsdale College. April 2005.

Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, For the Children’s Sake: Foundations of Education for Home and School, Wheaton, IL: Crossway

           Books, 1984.

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images-1Taken 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 ec641bb454454e98a76916c9cdeb45cfangry 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 teen-aged 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 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 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 are 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.

Finally the ships depart, once and for all, they believe.  But 300 miles out, the Speedwell begins to leak again Pilgrims2so 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 has been used up.

Finally 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 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

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