Four hundred years ago this week, on September 16, 1620, the people we now know as “Pilgrims” set out from Plymouth for the New World, seeking relief from religious persecution in their home country. Every Thanksgiving, children don paper hats and cardboard bonnets to reenact the life of these settlers after their arrival. Their difficult journey as well as salvation at the hands of the local Native American tribes is the stuff of legends (as well as the basis for a national holiday).
But how much do you know about the Pilgrims before they were Pilgrims?
The Pilgrims, in fact, never called themselves Pilgrims. Instead they were “Separatists” or “Saints,” a congregation of disgruntled English Protestants from the village of Scrooby in Nottinhamshire. They did not want to pledge allegiance to the Church of England, an entity they viewed as a merger between church and state and one that, in their opinion, was as corrupt as the Catholic Church it had replaced not so long ago. Not only did Separatists believe that true worship must progress from an individual relationship with God rather than state-mandated religion, they also saw many of the church’s doctrines and practices as direct contradictions to the Christian gospel to which they claimed to adhere. For example, the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer was viewed as blasphemous, having not been inspired by God nor having having no scriptural justification. The Separatists wished instead to break away and form their own independent churches guided by the Holy Spirit rather than government assignation. (This was a remarkable split from another group of Separatists known as Puritans who sought to reform the government church.)
But, at a time in which church and state were combined, any break from the church was viewed as treason, and the Separatists were forced to flee to Holland. Although they found religious freedom in their new home, they also found themselves struggling to adapt to the realities of living in a foreign country, one in which they didn’t speak the language nor understand the prevalent culture or customs. The language barrier prevented all but the lowest-paying jobs, and the relatively “modern” society was viewed as sinful and depraved.
It was soon clear that Holland was not the answer to their quest. They needed a place where they could establish their own culture, form their own society, and worship in a way free of government influence. The best place for this, they decided, was somewhere far from England, uninhabited and away from distraction.
A place like the New World.
The Separatists returned from Holland, hoping to formulate a plan and secure finances for this new adventure. The Virginia Company, already staking claim in what would soon be America, gave the Separatists permission to establish a plantation on the East Coast between 38 and 41 degrees north latitude (roughly between Chesapeake Bay and the mouth of the Hudson River). The King of England, perhaps seeing the voyage as a solution to the headache the Separatists were causing, bid them a hearty farewell, so long as “they carried themselves peaceably.”
Joining the Separatists on their journey was a group of not-so-kindly named “Strangers,” non-religious people simply seeking fortune or a new life in America. Approximately 102 people bid England farewell in August 1620 aboard two merchant ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell.
They returned only a few days later.
The Speedwell had begun to leak almost immediately, forcing the travelers to return to port and, after a thorough inspection, was deemed unseaworthy for the voyage. Rather than delay any longer and await, not only the finances for another ship, but also the unlikely availability, the passengers and crew of TWO ships instead merged onto one. The Mayflower now carried, not only double the people, but double the food supply, weapons cache, and an overwhelming assortment of live animals, including sheep, goats, chicken, and dogs).
When the Mayflower finally set sail on September 16, 1620, she was not only over-burdened, but she had also missed the window of opportunity for a smooth voyage. Instead, the Separatists set sail right in the height of the Atlantic storm season. In addition, the ship itself was never meant for a cross-ocean trip; more suitable for short crossings, its high, wall-like sides made it difficult to sail in the strong winds that often blew across the Atlantic. A voyage that should have taken a month instead lasted 66 days, causing illness, food shortages, poor tempers, and even a few deaths.
Even more hardships waited for them upon arrival. They landed well north of their allotted land, in the midst of Native American land in which they had no right to be (although the “right” of the Virginia Company to its own claimed land is still up for debate as well). The long journey had depleted their supplies and broken their bodies, and the New World wasn’t at all what they had expected it to be.
And yet they persisted, establishing a colony for the glory of God and the right to worship in the way they saw fit. Their determination and drive set the precedent for what we now know as the “American Spirit”–and it all started with the desire for true Spirit-led worship.