The Pilgrim Story: A Faith-Full Decision

William Bradford 2The Separatists/Pilgrims made it to Holland and were left alone by the government to worship as their consciences led. So why not stay there? Hadn’t they achieved what they desired? William Bradford, who became their governor at Plymouth for 35 years, was also the historian of the movement during that era. In his History of Plimoth Plantation, he lays out the reasons they decided Holland shouldn’t be their final destination. They were as follows:

  • News of their hard life working in the factories kept other Separatists in England from joining them. This lifestyle was very different from the pastoral existence they were used to.
  • They were aging prematurely due to this type of work.
  • Their children were being lured away from their beliefs. Since the children also had to work under the same conditions, they were questioning the decision of their parents to stand for what they believed. If their beliefs led to this, some of the children reasoned, maybe there’s something wrong with what they believe.
  • They had a desire to take the Gospel to another part of the world. The first three reasons were the negative aspects of staying in Holland, while this final reason was a positive one: they might be used of God to spread His Word.

Bradford also writes about the debate they had on whether they should commit to the ocean voyage to the New World. He makes it quite clear that the concerns of many were well-founded—sickness on the trip, their dire finances, ignorance of the New World, the savagery of the natives—and they didn’t make the decision without careful consideration and prayer.

Ultimately, they concluded that even though they might die in the endeavor, if God had called them to do it, they should be obedient. They simply wanted to be faithful to God’s calling. The decision to uproot everything once again was a decision based on faith.

In my next American history post, I’ll examine what it was like for them to make that voyage.

The Pilgrim Story: Convictions, Not Preferences

You’ve heard the cliché “actions speak louder than words.” The New Testament book of James puts it another way when it says that faith without works is dead. People may say they believe something, but you don’t know if it’s a real belief until you see if, under pressure, it holds solid. A few days ago, I began an examination of the English Separatists who eventually became known as the Pilgrims when they settled in America. How solid were their beliefs? What indicators show the genuineness of their faith?

Pilgrims Going to HollandDue to their belief that the Anglican church should not speak for everyone, and that they should be free to set up churches apart from the state, they were perceived as traitors to the nation. One simply cannot reject the church without rejecting the head of the church—the king or queen of the realm. Taking that stance put them in peril, so much so that many Separatists throughout England sought to leave the country for Holland, where they would not be punished for pursuing their beliefs.

The little group of Separatists that ultimately found their way to the New World tried twice to leave England. Twice they suffered for the attempt. They had to make arrangements in secret so the government wouldn’t know, since they didn’t have permission to emigrate. On the first attempt, the captain of the ship betrayed them to the government, which paid him for the betrayal. He was in it only for the money. Consequently, they ended up in prison for a time.

Pilgrim Women & ChildrenDiscouraging, right? Why try again? Yet they did. As the men were loading all their goods on the ship, suddenly soldiers appeared on the horizon. Somehow word had leaked about what they were doing. The captain of this ship, not wanting to experience the same fate as his erstwhile passengers, pulled up anchor and took off with the men; the women and children were still on the shore waiting their turn for boarding. Now they were left alone. The soldiers dragged them away, where they suffered in prison, this time without their husbands. Meanwhile, the men on the ship were in the deepest distress as they took off for Holland without their families. To add to the distress, they sailed straight into a terrible storm that almost sank the ship.

Eventually, everyone arrived in Holland—men, women, and children—but the ordeal had been harrowing. One has to ask why they would go through such stress when all they would have had to do was outwardly submit to the authorities, put on a show of external obedience, and quietly gone their Separatist ways. Why subject themselves to this potential punishment when they could have lived in peace?

The reason they didn’t submit, of course, is that they wouldn’t have been at peace in their spirits. Their reading of Scripture convinced them of the rightness of their beliefs; they would have violated their consciences if they had disobeyed what they felt God was calling them to do.

Conviction vs. PreferenceI like to explain it this way: for some people, their “beliefs” are no more than preferences; they lack the conviction to follow through on what they say they believe. A preference is not a conviction. A preference isn’t even a real belief. These Pilgrims showed integrity in their steadfastness through trial. They were the real deal.

Just getting to Holland, however, did not signal the end of their trials. More hard times awaited them, more instances when they had to make decisions based on their heartfelt convictions. I’ll continue the Pilgrim story in upcoming posts.

The Pilgrim Story: English Separatism

Now that we’ve completed our look at Jamestown in our journey through American history, I’ll give you some posts on the next significant group of settlers. We call them the Pilgrims, but that’s only because they proclaimed they were following God’s leading on their trek to the New World. So “pilgrim” is a later term applied to them. In England, they were known as Separatists, and that name could be dangerous to one’s life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

Henry VIIIWhen Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558, her nation had been through a real trial with respect to religious beliefs. Her father, Henry VIII, had been a staunch Catholic who had even written against Martin Luther. The pope at that time had honored him with the title of “Defender of the Faith.” Then things went sour.

Henry didn’t have a male heir with his wife, Catherine of Aragon. His concern for the stability of the throne once he passed away led him to ask the pope for an annulment of the marriage on the basis that he had sinned by marrying his deceased brother’s wife. The English clergy found a passage in Leviticus that they used for their argument in favor of the annulment, but it was clearly a twisting of Scripture for personal reasons.

Popes had not been reluctant in the past to grant such annulments, but this time Henry ran into a brick wall. Catherine’s nephew, Charles V, was the Holy Roman Emperor, and the pope was not eager to alienate him. That led to Henry deciding to break from the Catholic Church and set up England’s own church with him at the head. He then appointed bishops that did his bidding. He set aside Catherine and married Anne Boleyn, who became the mother of Elizabeth.

Henry didn’t get his male heir with Anne, so he had her accused of unfaithfulness and executed. He then married Jane Seymour, who finally gave him a son. But that son, Edward VI, didn’t live past his teenage years, so the daughter of Catherine, a queen the Protestants called Bloody Mary, ascended to the throne. She persecuted Protestants and tried to turn the nation back to Catholicism. She reigned only five years, however, so she didn’t accomplish her goal.

Elizabeth IElizabeth followed Mary to the throne, having stayed alive during the former’s reign by a careful balancing act. She continued that act as queen, deciding that the Church of England—the Anglican Church—would be Protestant in doctrine but look very Catholic. She hoped that would unite the kingdom.

There were, though, some Protestants who were not happy with the idea of the sovereign determining the “true” faith. They had read the Bible for themselves and believed God had given them liberty to set up churches apart from the state so they could follow their consciences in how to worship Him. Those were the Separatists.

They were small in number, but very dedicated to their beliefs, willing to suffer persecution for being faithful to their understanding of Scripture. Queen Elizabeth considered them a thorn in her side, working to divide her kingdom. If they tried to spread their ideas via the printing press, they could even be put to death.

It was a congregation of these Separatists who ultimately decided they had to leave England in order to worship God according to what they saw in Scripture. They are the ones we now call the Pilgrim Fathers.

What were they like? What trials did they endure? Did they exhibit the kind of character worth emulating today? When they came to the New World, how did they treat the natives?

Today was the background; we’ll delve more into the precise history of these people next week.