Since history is linear rather than cyclical, one of the responsibilities of every era is to embrace the wisdom of previous generations (Job 8:8). Ignoring the wisdom of the ages assures meaningless lives. When a society is only interested in the present, it refuses to appreciate the advantages of recognizing that the one hundred and two Mayflower passengers of 1620 birthed the founding fathers of 1776 and the virtuous patriots of 2014.
Writ large upon the birthright, heritage, legacy and future of America is the DNA of a small courageous folk whose handprints are our own. How did they come to plant such a vibrant spirit in a godless land? The briefest of answers is that they were persecuted for their pursuit of the biblical Christ.
In 1608, a gathering of about one hundred and twenty-five people left the small English village of Scrooby in Nottinghamshire for Holland. Why did they leave? They recognized that the difference between their government’s view of religious freedom and their own perspective could not be reconciled. They were called Puritans by their detractors because they so wanted purity in their worship of God that they willingly sacrificed living with their families in their homeland.
These plain country folk set ashore in Amsterdam but soon moved to Leiden where they stayed for eleven years and became about five hundred in number. The problem they encountered was though they had freedom of worship, they could not maintain their English culture – their children were becoming like the Dutch in their language, customs and worldview. Their options were few, so they returned to England where they regrouped and set sail for the Land of Liberty.
These English Puritans, who would become known as Pilgrims, “thought of liberty as the freedom to do what is right, not to decide what is right.”[i] The diminutive Mayflower vessel anchored near Cape Cod with forty-one adult males who signed the 153-word Mayflower Compact intended this Constitution to serve future generations as one of the people’s founding documents.
Provincetown, Cape Cod, MA today looking seaward to where the Mayflower would have been anchored on November 11, 1620.
Plaque marking first landing of the "Pilgrim" Puritans from the Mayflower. Modern day Provincetown, Cape Cod, MA.
They Mayflower congregation perceived themselves as pilgrims in the sense that this world was not their home. William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth Colony settlement, left his three-year-old son in England because he was going to secure a better country for his heirs. As our national ancestors, these English Puritan-Leiden Pilgrims established a standard for all future generations inhabiting this sacred soil – and they paid dearly!
The first recorded thanksgiving celebration of 1623 was enjoyed by fifty of those still living who survived the maiden voyage and the first year (in addition to a child who was born aboard the Mayflower after they reached Cape Cod). Only three of the fifty-one were older than forty and there were only four married couples who remained due to the harshness of the winter.
Nonetheless, nature was not their adversary (Eph. 1:11). God was working His purpose in all the matters surrounding His brave pilgrim band. Though it is difficult for us westerners, we rarely know life’s “whys.” What we do know is that God moves heaven and earth to accomplish His will in the lives of individuals and nations. The sweep of history beggars our vision, imagination and minds (Ps. 73:3; Isa. 55:8; Mt. 5:45; Ro. 11:33).
Because they knew that their God was not a God far from them, they were patient and thankful in difficulty, judicious and thankful in prosperity (Jer. 23:23). Though we never comprehensively know God’s perfect will or the implications of His divine providence, we are reminded of Governor William Bradford’s insight that though he did not know whether God’s will was for the Leiden congregation to settle in America, he did know it was “lawful” and “honourable.”[ii]
America’s foundational history battles today’s individualistic narcissism, egotism and self-centeredness. Our storied past reveals where God was when the Mayflower set sail – He was right where He is today. America’s former days allow devoted Americans to place our lives in the grander story of statecraft and nationhood. The Puritan-Pilgrims were chosen by God “to become His temple in America,” His “citadel of light,” and were “being led in a path that had been walked by another Chosen People.”[iii]
We name the same Name they named and we do so in the very same part of God’s world. We are part of them because they were a congregation of God’s saints. They were committed to something so much larger than themselves. They were in covenant with God and with one another – and with the generations preceding as well as following them. They faced much difficulty, but their difficulties proved the value of a national character birthed by their Bibles.
Just as your theology will determine your address to vexatious developments, your forefathers were looking for the HEBREWS 11:16 country and city. Though they were dogged by unruly elements and hardships of every sort, they did not love the world as much as they loved God’s character and glory (I Jn. 2:15ff.).
The Pilgrims were not grander, larger or more gifted than you. Nevertheless, they may have been more trusting of the God of Scripture. Affix your mind upon the looking glass of Thanksgiving and describe the face you see. From where you stand, how are you treating your ancestors and heirs? Has your affluence and pursuit of life enriched or damaged the covenant God has for you with those around you, with those who have gone before, and with those following you?
Just outside Plymouth there is a cemetery known as Burial Hill. It overlooks the harbor where the Pilgrims built their first church and fort. At the foot of Burial Hill stands First Parish Church. The present congregation of First Parish Church directly denies much of your Bible including the Trinity. They have chosen to sever their covenantal bond with the Pilgrim saints and the godly ones throughout the ages. Why? How has this happened so quickly?
By 1644, Governor William Bradford reported that he no longer saw many of the original colonists because they pursued larger farms. He said of the Plymouth church that she was “an ancient mother grown old and forsaken of her children.”[iv]
Modern Americans must become a people who will not allow their focus diverted from the Celestial City, the Heaven of God. C. S. Lewis wrote, “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in.’ Aim at earth and you will get neither.”[v] The Pilgrims were a people who had no home in this world because “this world is passing away” (I Cor. 7:31).
Alexis de Tocqueville pronounced the proven truth that “a false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex.”[vi] Scores of historical revisionists attempt to re-write and falsify America’s history – they shall not succeed. There is nothing historically confusing or complex about where we came from and who we should be.
Christian Americans follow in the path of their forefathers by being willing to risk all as they challenge the fallen gods of this world. They (you!) refuse the approach of those claiming so many rights yet share so little responsibility for preserving America’s foundational historical rights. A twisted governmental culture and foolish society is fostering a fabricated past that allows a people to escape the humble history of their grand nation.
On this Thanksgiving, we are thankful for God’s America. We are not apologetic for how greatly our majestic God has blessed His America. Our covenant commitment must be to turn our families to Christ and return God’s America to God. May it be so in our day!
[i] Robert Tracy McKenzie, The First Thanksgiving (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2013), p. 108.
[ii] William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, intro. Francis Murphy (NY: Modern Library, 1981), pp. 364.
[iii] Peter Marshall and David Manuel, The Light and the Glory (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1977), pp. 110, 111, 359.
[iv] Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, p. 370.
[v] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (NY: Macmillan, 1943), p. 118.
[vi] Alexis de Tocqueville, On Democracy in America, ed. J. P. Mayer (1834; repr., NY: Harper-Collins, 1969), p. 164.