September 6th, 1620
They had been toiling at the waves for days, when finally, they saw a small formation of land in the distance. The form was a welcome sight to the weary travelers. They had been at sea for months, struggling amidst waters that had already seen the strong gales that were common to sweep the ocean during that season. It seemed every odd was against them. Looking back from the ocean to the country they left, their government was against them. They had been jailed, fined, and their livelihood taken away on many occasions. Looking around them, the vast sea on the outside of the ship held the tales of many sea bound adventurers it had swallowed up. The weather was against them on the outside. The extra members who were not of their Puritan sect, as well as the crew, seemed against them on the inside. The ship itself was rather old and was barely holding the large number of its passengers crammed into it. And, looking out ahead, lay the bare unknown, as they progressed, quite slowly, to their future destination. There was no other choice.
A breeze of frigid cold air whipped across their faces, and mothers scooped their little ones up and held them tighter to keep them warm. Their timing had been horrible because of the need to leave when the opportunity finally came. They should have left England months ago, so they could have arrived in Spring. Then they would have had time and good weather to sail, make land, build their houses, hunt and plant crops. But now it was Autumn, and the cool weather was about to make setting up a colony almost impossible for them. No one knew what the natives on the land would be like. They were extremely ill prepared for what awaited them in the thick of the forest of this New World.
They might have thought, ‘why am I here? Or, why am I doing this?’ And then, the familiar passage comes back to mind, and they remember the words,
“But now they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for He hath prepared for them a city.” Hebrews 11:16 KJV
The Pilgrims were a people I can identify with. They were a group of people that had a deep conviction for what they believed about God, the Bible, and His direct connection to the common man. They did not believe it was right to attend the government placed churches in England because of the explicit corruption located in them. They were scorned by the King, and suffered greatly from his hand because of it. It reminds me very much of the underground churches today in China (which I had the privilege of serving around 15 years ago on a short term trip.) They wanted the freedom to worship God freely, and to read scripture and interpret it literally, the way they believed came directly from God to them, and not from any hierarchy. They believed their country’s current practices were so against what God wanted for them that they refused to attend the local parishes, and instead, started meeting in each other’s own homes.
The price for disobeying the Church wasn’t cheap. They could be fined eight thousand dollars (20 pounds in that time), for not attending a service once or twice. And then, if they still refused to attend the government sanctioned church, they could be banished or jailed. Why all of the fuss? If someone was disobedient to the church, they were considered a revolutionary in the eyes of the Crown. The King had made an alliance with the Roman Catholic church, and took it over, so that Monarchy could control what people believed, and laws could be made that would benefit their wishes, not God’s. This system was extremely corrupt, and the Pilgrims, also called the Puritans at that time, would have no part in this. But being against the Church of England made them enemies of the King.
They met in their homes, and the King sent men many times to find where they were, and when they were found, hauled off to jail. Husbands would be separated from their families for short and long periods of time, only to return to continue the same cycle over again. They realized soon something had to change.
They found that Holland was a land that offered freedom to express their new-found faith, and made tentative plans to flee England for a new home. They couldn’t get free passage to go, so they had to make secret plans to pay ship owners to sail them there without any knowledge of the authorities. To leave the island country they would have to Pass Port. This wouldn’t be allowed by trouble-making Separatist Puritans.
This small crew of people were incredibly courageous. They were not particularly wealthy, but possessed such an abandonment in their faith – that burned in them – that implored them to leave their land, their homes, relatives, and everything they knew about life to embrace a strange country, with strange language and customs, all for the sake of being able to be free to express love, devotion, and service to God. And to raise their families to do the same. They valued this sacrifice of love to God above everything. And they were willing to do it again and again.
After a failed first attempt at securing passage to Holland, and a second attempt that separated the men from their wives and children, the families were finally reunited on the shores of this new country, which would provide them with a safe haven to build homes and worship their Creator.
But things weren’t quite Heavenly there, either. Holland provided it’s own challenges to the Pilgrims, economically and spiritually. The culture had so much potential to uproot this small community, that the decision was made to move outside of the larger city, Amsterdam, to Leiden, where they could live closer to the country, and stay in community there. There they used the printing press, which helped them to publish the English Bible for many people to read and understand. Things seemed to be looking upward for them.
But, while the Pilgrim community was grateful for the freedom they had in meeting together in their homes without government threat, life for these Christians was not easy. They took jobs working in what was like a factory, making wool to spin for clothing. They worked for cents a day, and worked from dawn until dusk, six, and sometimes seven days a week. Life for them was exhausting, and they weren’t used to job life, when most had been farmers in England.
This season in the Pilgrims lives reminds me much of the hardships Americans faced in the Industrial Revolution, and, in many cases, I believe, where our churches are at today. We have a lot of great modern conveniences because of the Industrial Revolution, and I am grateful. But there were a lot of negative impacts that lifestyle brought. Folks moved from working on their own farms with their families, to living in cities – many times away from their families, in unhealthy work environments and conditions. In an agricultural community, large families are valued, not just because more children meant more workers, but the quality of family life and learning together was achievable, while working in city factories meant that if the older children couldn’t work and make money for the family, they would be considered a burden, and not necessary to have. It’s what happened in the Industrial Revolution centuries later. This way of life made the Pilgrim’s values difficult to live out.
A New Generation
What’s worse, was that a new generation of children were growing up not knowing about their way of life. They spoke Dutch and not English. They started going to Dutch schools. They learned the Dutch way of life. The Pilgrims started seeing the simplistic values of life that they wanted their children to embrace slowly erode away, as the culture in Holland moved into the younger of the community, impressing its belief system on them.
The Option for a New Life
And, after hearing reports of English government coming for them because of their continued work at bringing English Bibles through the printing press, and the talk of a new European war, a decision was made that would change their lives forever. There had been talk of expeditions to a New World, where people could go and start a fresh. No English government to come in and haul them away to prison. No Dutch culture to seduce their children away from the purity of their Holy lifestyle. It sounded scary, but it also became the perfect opportunity to live in what they believed to be true freedom.
I have to stop and ask myself here, ‘Why was the option to travel to the New World so appealing to the Pilgrims? Not only – what was the gain for their move, but why was it so valuable to them?’
There are qualities in these men and women I find that every Christian needs. I don’t see what they had as an ability to be brave, but as some type of fire inside of them that fueled a singleness of purpose and devotion to live, and only live, in the way that God wanted them to. They knew they couldn’t live that way in England. They knew they wouldn’t be able to live that way forever in Holland. It was more desirable to fling themselves and their families into the great wilderness of the unknown. There being able to give God the worship, work, and worth that He deserved from them freely, instead of staying in the old world, full of set traditions and rules regarding worship, work, and worth made by man. They were risking everything. Some of their families wouldn’t be able to make the voyage. They might never see them again. They could get sick and die easily. They had no shelter to go to. They didn’t have a lot of money. And there was no place for gold or silver there, anyway. No inns or beds or ready made food to wait for them. Savages who might kill them or sell them as slaves somewhere. No guarantees of success awaited them. Just a terribly long voyage on a overcrowded and suffocating ship, which would be their boat to freedom.
In Psalm 84, David speaks of the pilgrimage of the faithful, and how to interpret the road ahead of us as we travel. Verses 5 through 7 tell us how to face the journey ahead:
“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on a pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Baca (weeping), they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.” Psalm 84:5-7 NIV
That scripture must have been a comfort for a people that already had left their home nation with virtually nothing, only to turn away from civilization as they knew it, and start completely new.
Are you a Pilgrim? If you are called by the name of Christ, then you are. The Bible clearly states that we are to be “Strangers and aliens in this world” as we await a new home for us, which is not of this world. Jesus said in John 14:2,3 “In my Father’s House are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”
There’s an understanding here that this earth is not our home. Sure, we have 70, 80, 90 or more years here on this planet, but we have an eternity of life to be lived – and that life is going to be lived with Jesus, if you know Him. The valley of weeping is to be expected while we’re temporary residents here on earth. But the Bible says when we pass through, as the valleys that are meant to just pass through, we will turn them into a place of springs.
That word ‘springs’ is also ma’yan in Hebrew. It means a fountain, figuratively, a source of satisfaction – a fountain, spring, or well. Our valley of weeping, bad circumstances, disappointments can become a source of satisfaction for us if we let it. It can be a fountain; a place where deep truth and lasting hope bubbles out of us. And also like a well, where we can draw fresh spiritual sustenance to hold on to.
That was the mindset of the Pilgrims, as they packed up their small belongings (taking almost nothing to remind them of Holland with them), rented a Dutch ship that would be joined with another English ship that would take them, along with strangers to this New World, the Americas.
The High Seas
There were a few problems, though. The boat they had financed by a very shrewd English businessman sprung a leak, and had to come back to England. They had to transfer their belongings and half of the people onto the other ship, which was called the Mayflower. Because of this, some of the passengers had to stay behind in England, which was a heartbreaking decision. Most of those who stayed behind were already in England, and had relatives and friends they could stay with until another boat could bring them next Spring.
So, for the Mayflower set sail, and with it held it’s very precious cargo of men, women, and children, along with few items and some food. As part of the businessman’s deal, some extra travelers also were aboard, along with the sailing crew, whom did not share the religious ways of the Pilgrims. It made for a tough journey.
The time of year for the Pilgrims couldn’t have been worse. The storm season was hitting the Atlantic Ocean. A strong storm they encountered left a hole in the ship that if not plugged up, would have caused the ship to sink. Miraculously, the Pilgrims had brough with them a great iron screw, which they used to plug the hole.
Even though the quarters were dirty, cramped, and people were sick, life still emerged in this small ark floating slowly in the ocean at 2 miles an hour. Oceanus was the first baby to be born overseas in the New World by the Pilgrims. Consistent rough waters blocked them from going to their destination further south. So they settled for the more northerly location.
Now, here they were, looking out over the horizon of their new home. They instituted the Mayflower Compact which would guarantee them some community once they were on land. Surprisingly, the Pilgrims found that the area they came to was deserted. A plague had wiped out the Native American tribe that had been there previously, and the Pilgrims had a place where they could set up their colony.
They had found some corn in some of the natives’ graves, and took some for food and seed, since they did not have the provisions for it in the coming spring. They would have starved otherwise.
The Pilgrims didn’t actually settle on the land until winter. It proved to be an extremely challenging time for them to build homes in the snow and freezing ice. Most of the over 100 passengers became seriously ill with dysentery, tuberculosis, and scurvy. More people were dying than staying alive, and the ones who were well stayed on land and tried to help with the building, while the Mayflower became a hospital for the sick, and a hospice for the dying. Mothers slept on their children to keep them warm. The gravesite they let overgrow so that the sourounding natives wouldn’t see how weakened the colony had become. By March, only 47 of the 102 passengers of the Mayflower had survived.
A New Season
Spring couldn’t have come at a more needed time, with warmer weather, and crops, plants, fruit, and game, the Pilgrims finally had a chance to finish the building of their colony.
One day a Native Indian showed up in their colony. Amazingly, he spoke English. His story had found that he was once from this village of Patuxet, had been captured by English traders, learned English, and brought back to his village, where he had discovered that all of his tribe had perished from the plague. He had come to help the Pilgrims. He took them to a main chief, Massasoit, who formed an alliance with the colony, and he showed them how to plant, hunt, and the way of life for the natives in the region.
That year, they celebrated their first harvest, which was in great contrast to their year before, when most of their company were cold, starving, and dying. They had much to give thanks to God for. They invited their native friends, and had a celebration. They prayed, worshipped, ate and played games, with thankful hearts to the God who, although they had seen many troubles and hardships, had been merciful to have their small colony survive. Truly the Lord had been good to them, and His mercy endured.
William Bradford, who was the Plymouth colony’s governor, would live through most of the colony’s major rise and changes. From it’s start, through Massasoit’s death, to the new settlers who came over the following years, to the rapid success of the beaver fur trades – he chronicles the history, and his thoughts in his journal. Of Plymoth Plantation is one of such writings, and I recommend reading it.
I don’t know if they ever thought they would become so successful. They couldn’t have foreseen that this first establishment of truly free people would be the catalyst for one of the wealthiest, powerful nations in the world, that would be a major force in taking the gospel of Jesus Christ all over the world. They were faithful with what they had, but they were also driven by this force to live differently than the world around them.
I look at myself today, among the world around me. Time has changed, but a lot of truths from that time haven’t. We still have a secular society that desires to form our opinions and our way of life. There is still persecution in our world, and, in some recent places, even our own country for being a Christian, and for standing for what the Bible says is true.
What about you? If you can see yourself like these Pilgrims, what place of life are you in? Are you keeping the secret about your faith to your family and friends, like the Pilgrims were in England? Are you afraid to say words to a colleague for fear of what they would say to you, or fear you would get fired? Or maybe you’re in the place they were in Holland. Maybe you and your husband work all the time, and your children are becoming influenced by their friends, the world’s music, the media, and the culture around them. Maybe there’s just too many electronics involved, and you’re all having a hard time connecting to God, and connecting to any community of people around you. Maybe you are feeling stifled by the life you have created for yourself, and you long for the true, rich, healing communion that comes from God, and the community of loving, genuine believers. The world you live in has rejected you, and you’re longing for your true home.
Or maybe you have embarked on a new adventure, a new way of living, and you are scared. A new child. A new home. A new career. An agricultural lifestyle, when you’ve been raised in the city your whole life. Challenges face you left and right, before and behind, and you feel paralyzed as to where to start. You feel unprepared, ill-equipped, and ready to throw in the towel.
Look up. Remember the pilgrimage of those of Psalm 84, and that you can make your valley of weeping your spring. It’s what we do. Hosea 2:15 says that He will make our “Valley of Achor a door of hope.”
And remember, the Pilgrims did these things for God and with God. And they were blessed. They faced so many challenges, and I believe if they didn’t have God’s purpose and guidance that they wouldn’t have succeeded. They had so many challenges, and so many extroardinary victories that they must be attributed to God. They were not smart enough, wealthy enough, or prepared enough for what they faced, and today they are our forefathers of freedom. They were the first fighters for freedom, even before the Revolutionary War was won. The true force that sets a man fully free comes from God, and they understood that so violently. They let that force guide them through the roughest storms of life, into the trust that would take them from this life to the next.
An amazing documentary on the Pilgrims journey is Monumental by Kirk Cameron.
Kirk Cameron takes you on the journey of the Pilgrims from England, to Holland, to America where they established the first colony, and then the core principles that guided our founding fathers to write the laws of this nation. They understand the word of God literally, and realize that the following generations need to remember where true liberty must come from. In so doing, they set up a stone of rememberance, just like the Israelites did to help a new people to come to see that all of it comes from God.
In My Own Life
This story has gripped me in a way that I cannot fully explain. Our family senses the call from God to move out onto our 6 acres of land to start sustainable farming. Both of us grew up in the city. It has been almost 4 years since this vision for our family came. And it’s been a wild ride of miraculous provision, staggering setbacks, and plenty of mundane days, waiting for the next step. Most of the time it’s scary to think about. But, the strength and solace the Pilgrims found has been comforting to me. It also helps me to remember that through the many challenges they faced, they were like the seed that went in the ground to produce a crop, a hundred, sixty, or thirty fold what was sown.
We know that life will give us challenges. These troubles and hardships will not leave us until we leave the earth, or Jesus returns. So, in them, we can understand that these things will work in us His eternal good, and a mighty weight of glory for us, if we allow ourselves to be trained by them. They are the reminders for us to bend the knee and put our reliance on God, who is our father, and gives us every good and perfect gift. We don’t just look forward to a better day in this life, but we journey on as the Pilgrims did, looking forward to our eternal city, where we will dwell with God, who is not ashamed to be called our own.
3 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning;[e] they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.
9 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” Hebrews 11:13-16; 32-40 NIV