BY ANDRÉ FRENCH
When most Americans entertain the relevance of the Plymouth Pilgrims, images of turkeys and Indians are conjured up. There they are, sitting in festive celebration surrounded by pumpkins and cornstalks. It is a light-hearted, happy scene that gives no indication of the long and tumultuous road that brought them to this table in the wilderness.
Arguably the purest initial example of the Christian faith to penetrate the borders of this untamed continent, landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620. So, what emboldened this group to so change the course of history? What did they believe? For starters, they believed that the Church of England had become corrupted beyond repair. They held that the church must be found under the exclusive governance of Jesus Christ, not the Royal Family. Unlike their Puritan counterparts who sought to cleanse and reform the established church from within, these believers came to be known as Separatists, bent on divorcing themselves from what they viewed as a man made hierarchy, forcing dead liturgical worship upon an entire kingdom. The Separatists were enamored with one idea; to preach, teach, pray, praise, and proselytize freely and openly. They emphasized personal relationship over pious religiosity. Like a 17th Century Sanhedrin, the Church of England saw this small band of believers as a growing threat, one dangerous enough to warrant fines, imprisonment, and even execution. By biblical standards, and perhaps more than any other sect known at the time, the pilgrims were a remnant… a living testimony to the faithfulness of a loving God, ever determined not to let the light of His gospel go out. I liken these early settlers to John the Baptist. Banished, as if by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, they would rise to a prophetic stature. They were forerunners, proclaiming and through posterity, broadcasting the news of a new Kingdom presided over not by bishops, patriarchs and potentates, but by Jesus himself.
So, 102 men, women and children left the motherland for what they perceived to be ‘higher’ ground. They were not ignorant to the peril of previous expeditions, taking full account the depths they might be called to endure in pursuit of a place to worship in the new world. And suffer they did. A bitter winter greeted this human cargo after sixty six eventful days at sea. In their weakened state, stricken by scurvy, they entered into a time of what came to be known as the general sickness. In all, 47 died, cutting their number nearly in half. Of 18 wives that left Plymouth, England, the new Plymouth would welcome 5. Yet the tenacity of the Pilgrims seemed only strengthened by adversity, and thanksgiving became the language of their lips.
The Pilgrims went on to establish a plantation marked by divine prosperity, forging alliances with the local Indians. It was providence that they settled on a tract of land who’s barbarous inhabitants had been wiped out three years earlier by a mysterious plague. Like the ancient Hebrews, they had been led to a land flowing with milk and honey, a land cleared and ready to cultivate. The average American credits these early settlers with little more than Thanksgiving Dinner and a famous rock sitting in a harbor, but their contribution is one of global proportion. They left behind a twofold legacy; our spiritual heritage and our national identity. With the Plymouth arrival, came the simplicity of the gospel in a way that had not been seen on this side of the Atlantic. It recognized that salvation was not of man or might or magistrate. It was the fruit of repentance and the result of a relationship with Christ. This imported remnant and their closely held doctrine of salvation by faith would be a major influence on the church in America, and would eventually spawn the greatest exporting of the Gospel in human history.
On the national front, it was the Pilgrims that blessed this land with the idea of democracy. Originating with Richard Clyfton, an obscure Separatist minister in England, the concept of a people governed by the majority burned in the heart of John Robinson, the Pilgrim’s Pastor before embarking on the Mayflower. Robinson’s guidance became the greatest single influence on the writing of the Mayflower Compact, a direct precursor to the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution. Consequently, as we exercise our right to vote, and as more and more nations enjoy the liberty of a free and democratic society, we have our Pilgrim forefathers to thank for having planted the seeds of democracy.
If there is one lesson to take from our early fathers, it is imperative that we answer the call to remember. As the Hebrew sojourners of old, the pilgrims in the new world recognized that the need to remember not only what they were brought through, but who did the bringing, was of sober necessity. This need to remember demands no less a landmark on the contemporary American conscience. We find ourselves presently at a moral crossroad, a crisis of faith where the revisionists of history are determined to abort the legacy of our Christian heritage. The words of Abraham Lincoln penned two and a half centuries after the arrival of the pilgrims still sound an alarm seemingly unheard. “We have forgotten the gracious hand which has preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and have vainly imagined in the deceitfulness of our hearts that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving Grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.”
Nearly four centuries ago a small ship loaded down with the best and the bravest Europe had to offer, lay anchored on our shores. More than any other single voyage, the Mayflower landing marked the birth of a new world. The story must be told. The lessons must be learned. The legacy must be lived. Samuel Coleridge was right when he said; “If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us! But passion and party blind our eyes, and the light which experience gives is a lantern on the stern, which shines only on the waves behind us.”
Deuteronomy 8:7-11, Hebrews 12:1-4
Editor’s note: This column was previously published in the predecessor publication to Self-Educated American, The Moral Liberal in 2012.
~André French © 2012
André French, is a husband and father of three from Sharon Springs, NY. He is a small business owner, musician, songwriter, and worship leader, and writes regularly on history, politics, culture, faith, and family.