The Mayflower Pilgrims

Sermon for July 2, 2023

In the late 1500’s and early 1600’s, there was a lot of unrest in the Church of England. The Reformation was a bumpy ride in England, and the official church was a sort of middle way between Catholicism and Protestantism. But there were many who didn’t think the church had gone far enough—they wanted to purify it of all its non-biblical practices. They were called Puritans. And for others, even that wasn’t enough. And to this latter group belonged a man named Robert Browne. He didn’t want to purify the state church, he wanted to separate from it. His leadership in this group was so strong that these Separatists were often called Brownists.

Somehow these Brownist beliefs made it to a tiny village in the County of Nottingham called Scrooby. The postmaster there was named William Brewster, who joined the local Brownists. They had to meet in secret, so Brewster tried several times to lead a group of like-minded Christians to the Netherlands where they’d be free of persecution. He was finally successful, and a group of English Separatists settled in the Dutch city of Leiden.

The long arm of English law still tried to reach them in Holland—especially because of William Brewster’s publications. By the way, the publishing house of the United Church of Christ (called the Pilgrim Press) traces its history to Brewster’s publishing activity. But anyway, the Separatists lived peacefully with the Dutch themselves—a bit too peacefully, in fact. They were so well integrated into society that they lamented the fact that their children were not growing up English. So the little flock longed to find a place where they could both practice their religion freely and maintain their identity: A new Jerusalem, a quiet habitation, an immovable tent, whose stakes will never be pulled up, and none of whose ropes could be broken [Isa. 33:20]. They wanted to immigrate to the New World.

But when they were finally granted permission to go, more than half of the group decided to stay in Holland. In order to have a viable colony, they had to allow what they called Strangers—people who didn’t belong to their church—to join them on the two ships they’d chartered. And so on August 5, 1620, the Mayflower and the Speedwell set sail from Southampton. But the Speedwell proved unseaworthy, and so they had to dock in Plymouth where they transferred all the people and cargo, making the Mayflower horribly overcrowded. On September 16, 102 men, women, and children finally set sail for what they thought would be Virginia.

After ten weeks at sea—during which one person died and one baby was born—102 men, women, and children landed on Cape Cod on November 21, 1620—far north of their intended destination. They decided not to try to go farther south, so they sailed across Cape Cod Bay on a cold December day, and found a more suitable place to build a colony.

There are two theories about the name Plymouth. The easiest explanation is that Plymouth was the place in England the Pilgrims had just left. But apparently there’s another explanation. And that’s that English trappers had founded a temporary settlement a few years earlier in that same spot—and it was that group of Englishmen who had named that place Plymouth.

But whichever reason is true, the original inhabitants of the place were the Patuxet, and what the Pilgrims couldn’t have known was that those previous Englishmen had brought with them a disease—probably smallpox—which they were resistant to, but wiped out virtually all of the native Patuxet. That’s why the Pilgrims encountered so few people. But one person they did encounter was the man we know as Squanto (Tisquantum)—who had been captured and taken back to England, where he learned their language. It was he who helped the colonists understand their new land, plant crops there, and eventually thrive.

The first winter was difficult, though, and almost half the colony was wiped out. But the next year, after their first harvest had been brought in, the Pilgrims invited the indigenous people in the area—members of the Wampanoag nation—to a harvest thanksgiving feast. It’s the same Thanksgiving we celebrate today.

The Pilgrims have fallen out of favor with modern society. We look at what has happened to Native Americans and we blame them… or at least attribute to them the first atrocities committed against Native Americans. And so it’s ironic that the church that’s most likely to condemn such treatment is the very church that traces its roots in this country back to these horrible Pilgrims.

Except, as it turns out, they weren’t really horrible at all. They entered into agreements with the nearby native peoples, and they abided by them. They didn’t try to convert Native Americans to their religion. They lived peaceably with their neighbors, and everybody benefited. They weren’t even the ones who had unintentionally brought the plague that had wiped out so many people. That had already happened, and the Wompanoag needed neighbors to trade with. Everybody learned from everybody else, and everybody did business with each other. The Pilgrims’ colony was a win-win for all.

It has to be said that when the nearby Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded a few years later—this time by Puritans who weren’t Separatists—things started to change farther north. But as long as the original Mayflower Pilgrims lived, agreements were respected and there was peace in Plymouth Colony. In fact, if the pattern they lived by had been used in other colonies, the story of what followed might have been very different.

But the Puritans of Massachusetts were not as peaceable. Nor were the Pilgrims’ descendants fifty years later.* However, we should know better than to condemn the Pilgrim Fathers and Mothers for what happened after they died. So let us embrace them, their bravery, the ideas they held, and the Congregational Way they brought with them to this continent.

It wasn’t easy to disagree with the great powers of their home country. And it wasn’t easy to cross to the other side of the world to declare, as Isaiah put it, The Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler, the Lord is our king; he will save us [Isa. 33:22].
—©2023 Sam Greening

*King Philip’s War (1675-78)