Dateline: 22 November 2005
The Thanksgiving holiday is a time when we recall how a small group of people known as the Pilgrims came to the shores of America in 1620 and established a settlement in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Most Americans who have any understanding at all of the Pilgrims believe that they came to America for religious freedom. I’m here to tell you this is not true. I’m here to tell you there was another reason why they came to America. After reading what I have to say here, your view of the Mayflower Pilgrims will be forever changed.
I used to think religious freedom was the reason for the Pilgrim Exodus but then I read William Bradford’s book, Of Plymouth Plantation. Bradford was on the Mayflower and was the elected leader of the Plymouth settlement for 36 years. His book tells the whole story of the Pilgrims from 1608 to 1650. There is no better way to understand who the Pilgrims were and why they did what they did than to read what they themselves wrote on the subject.
The story of the Pilgrims is a riveting chronicle of a small group of everyday folks who changed the world. They laid the foundation for what would eventually evolve into our Constitutional form of government; a form of government that, in the beginning (at least), clearly recognized the God of the Bible as the holy sovereign He is, and applied principles of His law as the basic foundation for all civil government.
It is worth noting that the Pilgrims did not change the world as they did by conquering nations with powerful armies, or with political wrangling and domination. On the contrary, they changed the course of history by living simple, separate, deliberate, and obedient lives for the glory of God and the advancement of His kingdom. Christians of today can learn much from the Pilgrim example.
Now, Governor Bradford and I will tell you the real reason why the Pilgrims came to America. The quotations that follow are the words of William Bradford. For my own purposes I have taken the liberty of making some portions of the quotations bold.
To fully understand the Pilgrim story, you must first understand who these people were. According to Bradford, the original Pilgrims were from a single rural church congregation in England. They lived a ”plain country life” and they worked at ”the innocent pursuit of farming”.
They were Christian-Agrarians
The Pilgrims would have remained plain farmers in England if not for their non-conforming Christian beliefs. They did not agree with the dominant English church which still held to many of the traditions of the Roman Catholic church. Bradford writes that they..
”...endeavored to establish the right worship of God and the discipline of Christ in Church according to the simplicity of the gospel and without the mixture of men’s inventions, and to be ruled by the laws of God’s word...”
For this, they were known as “reformers.” The powerful state church did not take kindly to such people. Yet, the Pilgrims were resolute in their beliefs. Bradford again says:
”Those reformers who saw the evil of these things, and whose hearts the Lord had touched with heavenly zeal for his truth, shook off this yoke of anti-Christian bondage and as the Lord’s free people joined themselves together by covenant as a church, in the fellowship of the gospel to walk in all His ways, made known, or to be made known to them, according to their best endeavors, whatever it should cost them, the Lord assisting them. And that it cost them something... history will declare.”
The established church, with the aid of civil authorities..
”... began to persecute all the zealous reformers in the land, unless they would submit to their ceremonies and become slaves to them and their popish trash, which has no ground in the word of God.”
This persecution became so bad that the Sepratists (as they were also known)...
”...were hunted and persecuted on every side, until their former afflictions were but as fleabitings in comparison. Some were clapped into prison; others had their houses watched night and day, and escaped with difficulty; and most were obliged to fly, and leave their homes and means of livelihood. Yet these and many other severer trials which afterwards befell them, being only what they expected, they were able to bear by the assistance of God’s grace and spirit. However, being thus molested, and seeing that there was no hope of their remaining there, they resolved by consent to go into the Low Countries, where they heard there was freedom of religion for all.”
The “Low Countries” Bradford mentions were the Netherlands, and Holland. The reformers left England and went to Holland (not America) so they could have religious freedom. Bradford tells the story:
”For these reformers to be be thus constrained to leave their native soil, their lands and livings, and all their friends, was a great sacrifice, and was wondered at by many. But to go into a country unknown to them, where they must learn a new language, and get their livings they knew not how, seemed an almost desperate adventure, and a misery worse than death. Further, they were unacquainted with trade, which was the chief industry of their adopted country, having been used only to a plain country life and the innocent pursuit of farming. But these things did not dismay them, though they sometimes troubled them; for their desires were set on the ways of God, to enjoy His ordinances; they rested on His providence, and knew Whom they had believed.”
With much trouble and harassment, the Pilgrims left England for Holland. They were practically destitute. They went first to the city of Amsterdam and then to the city of Leyden where...
”...they fell to such trades and employments as they best could, valuing peace and their spiritual comfort above any other riches whatever; and at length they came to raise a competent and comfortable living, though only by dint of hard and continual labour.”
During their time in Leyden (approximately 12 years), the Pilgrims earned the respect and trust of their employers. They also...
”lived together in peace and love and holiness; and many came to them from different parts of England, so that there grew up a great congregation.
That might have been the end of the story, but...
experience having taught them much, their prudent governors began to apprehend present dangers and to scan the future and think of timely remedy. After much thought and discourse on the subject, they began to incline to the idea of removal to some other place; not out of any new-fangledness or other such giddy humour, which often influences people to their detriment and danger, but for many important reasons...”
Now we get to the real reason(s) why the Pilgrims came to America. William Bradford lays out four of them.
1. the hardships inherent with living in Holland were a detriment to many of their brethren who could not (or would not) join them because they could not...
”endure the continual labour and hard fare and other inconveniences which they themselves were satisfied with.”
The fact is, the size of their congregation was dwindling. So the Pilgrims sought to find a better and easier place of living so as to accommodate their less hardy brothers & sisters who wished to join them.
2. Old age was creeping up on the congregation and...
”their great and continual labours, with other crosses and sorrows, hastened it (old age) before their time.”
They did not, in other words, know how much longer they could take the physical hardship and they felt that, for the long-term survival of the congregation, they needed to make a move while they still had the strength and stamina.
3. Their children were suffering.
”Many of their children, who were of the best disposition and who learned to bear the yoke in their youth and were willing to bear part of their parents’ burden, were often so oppressed with their labours, that though their minds were free and willing, their bodies bowed under the weight and became decrepit in early youth,—the vigour of nature being consumed in the very bud, as it were. But still more lamentable, and of all sorrows most heavy to be bourne, was that many of the children, influenced by these conditions, and the great licentiousness of the young people in the country, and the many temptations of the city, were led by evil example into dangerous courses, getting the reins off their necks and leaving their parents. Some.... embarked... upon... courses tending to dissoluteness and the danger of their souls, to the great grief of their parents and the dishonour of God. So they saw their posterity would be in danger to degenerate and become corrupt.”
”Last and not least, they cherished a great hope and inward zeal of laying good foundations, or at least of making some way towards it, for the propagation and advance of the gospel of the kingdom of Christ in the remote parts of the world, even though they should be but stepping stones to others in the performance of so great a work.”
Clearly, these Christian-Agrarians, separated from the soil and transplanted into the wicked culture of a worldly city, were not in the best place to raise their families. One can imagine how these people, separated from the comfort of their own farms must have pined for land to once again raise crops and animals to once again care for.
God had surely worked in their congregation to refine them during those years in exile. But He did not intend for them to stay in such an ungodly environment. He would bring them back to the land; to a new land; to a better land. This hardy band of humble servants were called to establish a Christian-Agrarian civilization. And that is exactly what they did.