The Pilgrims should be remembered four-hundred years hence for their Christian dedication, virtue, persistence, work ethic, and commitment to covenantally govern themselves. The Covenant of Grace bound them redemptively to God and one another, while the political covenant of the Mayflower Compact bound them to their neighbors for the common good as administered by capable and pious leaders. Things did not always go well, but the Compact directed colonists to select civil leaders appropriate for the task of doing the best for all concerned. Working together was essential to survival and harmony in Plymouth.
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.