Pilgrims and Plymouth: 400 Years Later

On September 16, 1620, the crew of the Mayflower weighed anchor to leave Plymouth, England. The Pilgrims gathered on board were anticipating a new homeland, better economic opportunities, and freedom to follow God’s commands without interference. The ship held thirty-seven Pilgrims, sixty-five other colonists, thirty crew members, some small-breed livestock, and a few dogs. The ship’s decks were also filled with food, tools (including a blacksmith’s shop), clothing, water, beer, two cannons for defense, multiple firearms, and other items needed for the two month journey and settlement in the new world.

Everything was crammed onto this three-masted ship, which measured ninety by twenty-five feet and weighed 180 tons. Three such ships could be set end to end between the goal lines of an American football field; it was nothing near a cruise ship, yet nevertheless a good vessel, and not unusual in an era acquainted with crammed living conditions.b

Before continuing the narrative of the Plymouth Pilgrims, it is necessary to back-track and learn about who they were and what motivated them to leave for America.

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The Pilgrims’ congregation began in the village of Scrooby on the River Ryton in North Nottinghamshire in the early 17th century. They gathered for worship in the manor house of one of their leaders, William Brewster, who had adopted Puritan teaching during his studies in Cambridge’s oldest college, Peterhouse.

Theologically, Pilgrims were Puritans. The definition of Puritan has been debated by historical theologians and sociological historians, with the latter often (and mistakenly) emphasizing their political motivations over their theological commitments. Puritans sought to reform (i.e. purify) the doctrine of the Church of England, pressing towards an adoption of Reformed theology and liturgy.

The Puritans have been unjustly caricatured as rough-and-ready factionalists, seeking out minor doctrinal errors in order to disrupt the Church of England. On the contrary, they sought thorough reform in the spirit of the Reformation’s sola Scriptura. Puritans had high regard for God’s universal Church as represented nationally by the Church of England, but they wanted changes that were more true to the teaching of the Bible.

As the years passed, however, growing hostility to change led many Puritans to leave the Church of England as Separatists (i.e. Non-conformists)—and such were the Pilgrims. Theirs was a road little traveled and fraught with peril. Separatists could face harassment, fines, even jail for worshipping freely. And their persecution extended beyond issues of worship. For example, they did not enjoy the same educational opportunities as those in the Church of England. Universities were overseen by the Church of England, and if one separated from its worship, then one also separated from the educational institutions it governed. Separatists were also social outcasts, as participation in England’s Church was a mark of national loyalty and status.

With several factors against them, the Pilgrims’ situation in England went from bad to worse, leading to their decision to leave for the bustling and prosperous trade center of Amsterdam. After meeting some impediments to their departure, they left in 1606 under the leadership of William Brewster, William Bradford, John Robinson, and the former Church of England minister, Richard Clifton.

In Amsterdam the Pilgrims found life among the city’s 100,000 residents a challenging cross-cultural experience. Language proved an obvious challange, but added to this was (despite the legal right to worship) interference with their gatherings by some individuals of the Dutch Reformed Church. Another difficulty was that back in Scrooby the Pilgrims experienced middling-sort respectability and prosperity, but in Amsterdam they were looked down upon and could not get similar jobs. The employment situation for them was so bad they moved to Leiden and worked in trades associated with the booming Dutch fabric industry. William Brewster, possibly the wealthiest of the Pilgrims, set up a printing business with Thomas Brewer and published tracts critical of the Church of England to smuggle into England for distribution.

After twelve years in Leiden, the Pilgrims had become increasingly concerned that their children were growing up Dutch instead of English, so they discussed options for relocation. They wanted a land with less government and more opportunities. Among the places considered were the Canary Islands, some of the Caribbean islands, and Guiana, which were all abandoned in favor of Virginia working with the support of the Virginia Company. In exchange for establishing the Pilgrims in a colony, the investors expected goods such as furs, fish, curiosities, lumber, and other saleable items to be shipped back to England for marketing.

The stipulated destination for the Pilgrims was the northern edge of the Virginia Colony near the mouth of the Hudson River. It was a good plan, the Pilgrims remained concerned about a number of factors, such as the ship sinking, starvation at sea, attacks by pirates, poor sanitation, dread they might fall overboard, and—the bane of many novice ship passengers—sea sickness. Heading to America was a major step involving innumerable decisions and logistics, but the Separatists from Scrooby eventually took up the challenge.

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Let’s return now to the port of Plymouth: The Mayflower weighed anchor, and departed for the trans-Atlantic journey to America. During the sixty-six days of their crossing, passengers experienced the dangers, excitement, and sorrows of extended transit while living in close quarters. A child was born to Stephen and Elizabeth Hopkins and given the seaworthy name Oceanus. The fear of going overboard was realized when John Howland was tossed into the sea as Mayflower rolled in the waves, but he survived by climbing a rope to get back on deck. William Bradford meanwhile noted that “many were afflicted with sea-sickness.”

The relationships between the Pilgrims and others on board did not always go well. One crewman, a “very profane young man,” cursed and condemned the sick Pilgrims every day, saying they should all be thrown overboard. About halfway through the trip the crewman died. Bradford expressed his opinion regarding the deceased crewman saying, “Thus his curses light on his own head; and it was an astonishment to all his fellows, for they noted it to be the just hand of God upon him.” The weather meanwhile was mixed; the Mayflower did encounter some horrible storms, one of which bowed and cracked one of the main beams. Yet considering the length of the journey, interpersonal conflicts, and some violent weather, the trip progressed well.

As land came into view, roaring waves and numerous shoals led the master of the Mayflower to anchor off Cape Cod on November 11, 1620, instead of sailing on to the Hudson River as their contract stipulated. The Pilgrims went ashore and fell on their knees and “blessed God of heaven, who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth.” Initially, the Cape Cod stop was intended to be temporary, but after consideration of their situation and the increasing dangers of sailing during winter, it was decided to remain at Cape Cod and search out the immediate region for a suitable settlement site.

Yet there was a problem: Since the settlers decided not to sail to the Hudson, their contract with the Virginia Company was broken. Some passengers became angry and made speeches, calling for people to join them and establish their own settlement and leave the Pilgrims and others to their own. Order and leadership were desperate needs. How would the mixture of Pilgrims, crew, and a variety of other colonists with varying religious commitments be governed?

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Source: Church Leaders