Lest We Forget

It is well that we mark the 350th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims on December 21, 1620.

We praise Thee, O God, for Thy guiding hand, in leading Thy church to freedom’s fair land; Through sore persecution our fathers here came, where free and unfettered they worshipped Thy Name.

Sore Persecution – We often sing this hymn with all our heart, not realizing however the epical way in which “our fathers” came here, neither the troublesome situation of their “sore persecution.”

The story of the Pilgrims is really a small epic, a kind of odyssey. It has been told many times, it all started in “merry old England” which was not so merry after all, it continued through strict old Holland which was not so strict after all, and it ended on Plymouth Rock in the New World.

It is a remarkable thing that one of the main figures in this drama was not a minister or a noble. man, but a common citizen of England. His name was William Brewster, who became the organizer of the Pilgrim Church and its ruling elder in Plymouth, Massachusetts. In 1607, when Brewster was about forty, he lost his job as postmaster in Scrooby (England), because “Separatist” meetings were held in his house. During the reign of James I (1603–1625), whose name still lives on in the famous King James version of the Bible, these Separatists began to organize themselves in separate meetings in protest against the bishops, the ceremonies, and the laxity of the Church of England. It was then that they really experienced “sore persecution.”

William Bradford, the first governor of Plymouth colony, writes the following about it: “After these things they could not long continue in any peaceable condition, but were hunted and persecuted on every side, so as their former afflictions were but as flea-bitings in comparison to these which now came upon them. For some were taken and c1apt up in prison, others had their houses besett and watcht night and day, and hardly escaped their (the bishop’s officers) hands; and the most were faine to flie and leave their homes and habitations. Yet seeing themselves thus molested, and that there was no hope of their continuance there, by a joynte consente they resolved to goc into the Low-Countries, wher they heard was freedome of Religion for all men.”

Strangers and Pilgrims in The Netherlands – The beginning of the enterprise was a big tragedy. The captain of the ship betrayed them to the authorities, and the whole party was put into jail. Also a second attempt was only partly successful. But after many adventures finally the last of the Scrooby Separatists had arrived in Amsterdam, in August 1608.

The next year they went from Amsterdam to Leyden, in order to find a more quiet place to live, and John Robinson who had studied in Cambridge, became their minister. But even there they did not feel at home; they felt themselves to be strangers and pilgrims in the hospitable Netherlands, and there were several reasons for it.

One of the most obvious was, that even here they were not absolutely safe. Brewster had started a small printing business in 1617 in order to spread the truth in the old country, and pamphlets containing violent attacks Oil the Church of England arrived in that country. King James was very angry and the Dutch did not want to irritate him. Therefore Brewster’s house was raided, Brewster went into hiding, and an international manhunt for him started.

There were other reasons of a more general and lasting character, however, which have been aptly summed by Nathan Morton in 1669 in his; The Pilgrim-fathers New England’s Memorial. Morton mentions five objections of the English refugees against their stay in The Netherlands: 1. The neglect of the observation of the Sabbath; 2. the impoverishment of the refugees; 3. the future of their children (Holland was called a “place of great licentiousness and liberty to children”); 4. the loss of their English identity; 5. (and now I quote Morton’s words in full): “fifthly and lastly, and which was not the least; a great hope and inward zeal they had of laying some good foundations, or at least to make some way there unto for the propagating and advancement of the gospel of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world, yea, although they should be but as steppingstones unto others for the performance of so great a work.” Thus these refugees were a small group of hunted Christians with manifold cares and sorrows on the one hand, but mighty ideals and perspectives on the other!

A Dramatic Story – Also the story of their departure from Holland via England, and of their crossing the ocean, is a dramatic story, above which the words “perseverance of the saints” may be written in golden letters.

The journey on the overcrowded Mayflower, a ship of 180 tons, was far from a pleasure-trip, the ship was leaky in its superstructures, and one of the leaders who stayed behind for the time being, Deacon Cushman, said: “If we ever make a plantation, God works a mirakle; especially considering how scante we shall be of victualls, and most of all unuited amonst ourselves and devoyd of good tutors and regimente. Violence will break all.”

The Mayflower Compact – There was danger of violence indeed.

The Pilgrims were not the only passengers aboard the Mayflower. Another group had joined them in England consisting of members of the Church of England. That other group was called “The Strangers,” and the most well-known among them was Captain Miles Standish.

Pilgrims and Strangers! – when the Mayflower, due to a miscalculation of the captain, did not arrive at the coast of Virginia as had been planned, but at the barren shores of Cape Cod, disagreement arose among them; in view of the danger of mutiny the Pilgrims then drew up the famous Mayflower Compact which was signed by all. It was worded as follows:

“In ye name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyall subjects of our dread sovereigne Lord King James, having undertaken for ye glorie of God, and advancement of ye Christian faith, and ye honour of our King and countrie, a voyage to plant ye first colonie in ye northern parts of Virginia, doe by these presents solemnly & mutualy in ye presence of God, and one of another, covenant & combine ourselves together into a civil body politick . . . and by vertue hereof to enacte, constitute, and frame such just and equall lawes, ordinances, acts, constitutions & offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meete & convenient for ye generall good of ye Colonie, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.”

With this Compact the Pilgrims and Strangers entered the new country. It marked the end of their odyssey, but by no means the end of their heroism. In the first winter nearly half of the settlers died, and their hardships were matched only by their perseverance. They were real pioneers.

Significance of the Pilgrims – What is now the significance of the arrival of the Pilgrims in America 350 years ago? Although the importance of it has often been exaggerated, it should not be underrated either.

The Dutch Professor A. A. Van Schelven in his excellent book: Het Calvinisme in Zijn Bloeitijd,1 has stressed the danger of overestimation. He points to the fact that the influence of the Plymouth colony, compared with that of Massachusetts, was only small; that their separatism was premature; and that their famous Compact has unjustly been called “the birth of popular constitutional liberty,” because it bore so milch the character of an emergency measure of a provisional character.

Van Schelven writes in the same vein about the famous speech of Pastor John Robinson delivered when the Pilgrims left Holland in which he urged to progress on the way of truth: “Let us be certain. brethren, that the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy Word …. If Luther and Calvin were living, they would be as ready and willing to embrace further light, as they had received.”

Van Schelven points to the fact that these words run parallel to the slogan much in use by some French Huguenot’s in the same age: “Eccelesia, quia reformata, reformanda” (because the Church is Reformed it should go on reforming), and that Rohinson, therefore, was not a complete innovator.2 Most interestingly he points also to the fact that this well-known slogan was abused in this lime by some innovators who covered their doctrinal deviations under this pretext; therefore genuine Calvinists such as Du Moulin and Simon warned against this abuse. Rev. Simon wrote: “The ministers don’t hesitate to sign the confession for political reasons, in actual fact being convinced that Calvin and the first reformers brought about only a halfway reformation of the church.” The significance of the landing of the Pilgrims in connection with future developments can be exaggerated, and their opinion on theological (conservative or progressive Calvinists?) and political (democracy or theocracy?) matters is debatable.

Undebatable, however, are two points: the heroism of their faith, and their belief that they were pilgrims.

These men were heroes of faith.

They had made a covenant with God; and because they believed the Word of God unconditionally and wanted to serve Him uncorruptedly, they really confirmed the word of Luther: “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also.” Yes, they also confirmed the word of Paul: “For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ.”

Heritage and Example – In our age of blatant materialism these heroes of faith remind America of a heritage it should appreciate very highly; not only by building the tombs of the prophets but by following their example.

They were heroes over against the conditions of their age; they also expected a better age. Therefore they were pilgrims.

The term “Pilgrim Fathers” is comparatively modern; the term “Pilgrims” was used by Governor Bradford already in 1630. Writing about their departure from Holland in 1620 he said: “They knew they were pilgrims, & looked not much on those things (of saying farewell to their beloved ones), but they lifted up their eyes to ye heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.”

These men were no quietists, no pietists, no mysticists; often they were very grim realists.

They wanted to realize the kingdom of God, the theocracy, as much as they could; but they were aware of the fact that “their commonwealth was in heaven” (Phil. 3:20); therefore they looked forward to “the city which has foundations, whose Builder and Maker is God” (Heb. 11:10).

Reading their story, hearing about their manners and customs, one is inclined to say: “They were a very conservative people.”

Reading it again, hearing more about it, one is inclined to say: “They were a very progressive people; they belonged to the most progressive ones of the world.”

1. Calvinism in Its Florescence. The book of Van Schelven appeared in two volumes; the second part of the second volume (pp. 311–416) describes Calvinism in the United States of America.

2. “John Robinson, the Leyden Pilgrimfather, was estimated highly by Voetius, especially because he had shown himself an ardent opponent of the Arminian heresy and a defender of the doctrinal position of tile Synod of Dordt.” Dr. M. Bouwman. Voetius over het Gezag der Synoden, 1937 (p. 53).

Dr. Louis Praasma is pastor of the Christian Reformed Church of Fruitland, Ontario.