The Pilgrims and Their Faith – Charles E. Jefferson (historic sermon 1860-1937)
“Being destitute, afflicted, tormented” Heb. 11:37
A distinctive feature of the system of Hebrew education was the tremendous emphasis which was laid upon the illustrious deeds of the immortal dead. The religious teachers of Israel made the past live in the mind of Hebrew youth. It was made to live in great personalities. The Hebrew mind had no liking for abstractions. It was not interested as we are in the analysis of virtues. It did not interest itself in pale ideas. It was fond of the concrete, the personal. It took little interest in the graces and virtues of character unless they were embodied in a living man. And so, Hebrew teachers were always dealing with the past. They were constantly picking up some chapter of history and asking the people to read it. In order to show what God is like and what God wants, they were always studying the experiences of their ancestors. It was only in experience that they found inspiration to make the future better than the past. Parents were always talking to their children about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or if not about these, then about Moses and Joshua. They related again and again the wonderful experiences that attended the exodus from Egypt, and also the wonderful experiences attending the conquest of Canaan. They never grew weary of telling about Gideon and Samson and Jephthah and Barak. They spoke often of David and Solomon, Elijah and Elisha, of Isaiah and Jeremiah. It was by concentrating the mind upon the character and achievements of the mighty dead that the Hebrew mind was trained and the Hebrew spirit was strengthened. Thus in the course of the centuries there was built up what is known as the Hebraic mind, the Hebraic disposition, the Hebraic attitude to life. And out of this Hebrew stock there came in the fullness of time one who was the fairest of ten thousand and who was altogether lovely; the Son of Man, and as we Christians think, the Son of God.
We Americans might adopt with profit the method of the ancient Hebrew teachers. To be sure, we follow their method more or less already. We use it probably more in the public schools than we do as yet in our churches. In our churches we have gone only a little way. No preacher would hesitate to preach a sermon on George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, but most preachers do not go beyond that. The average preacher would not think of preaching about any great American poet or philosopher or scholar, or any distinguished American lawyer or doctor or merchant. Yet a great company of noble and great hearted men have contributed to the building of this republic, and it is only because of their heroic service and sacrifice that our nation is today what it is. We do not think of these men as often as we should. We should be braver and stronger if we made a larger use of the past. It is absurd to suppose that God is a God of the Jews only; he is a God of Americans, too. It is unthinkable that God inspired men in olden times and that his inspiration ceased something like 1900 years ago. It is a fundamental teaching of the Christian religion that God s inspiration is continuous, that he is always guiding and teaching men, and we are to believe that all the virtues and graces which are exhibited in our American people are the outflowering of his Eternal Spirit. We impoverish our life, therefore, if we do not hold communion with our mighty dead. We should be better Americans and better Christians if we went back more frequently to ponder the characters and the deeds of our ancestors. Let us think this morning about the Pilgrims. In the roll of American immortals they must hold forever a conspicuous place.
When we think of the Pilgrims we think of them as a group, a body, a family. There is no one Pilgrim who stands out head and shoulders above all the others. There is no one of them who shines with a peculiar glory as a central sun round which the others revolve. No one ever got the start of the rest so as to bear the palm alone. They constitute a sort of constellation which shines in our American sky. We are not so much interested in the particular stars as in the entire constellation. Indeed they hardly form a constellation, but rather a piece of the milky way. The stars have lost their individual splendor, and their light has melted to form a patch of fleecy whiteness. Many of us would find it difficult to give the names of a score of the Pilgrims, others of us could not name a dozen.
Some of us are more or less familiar with William Brewster and William Bradford, John Carver, John Alden, Samuel Fuller, Isaac Allerton and Edward Winslow. Probably most of us know Miles Standish better than any of the rest because the poet Longfellow has thrown upon Standish s face the light of his poetic genius. But I am not to speak this morning about any one or two or three of these men my subject is the Pilgrims, the whole body of the people who came over in the Mayflower. I want simply to tell the story of their coming to America.
There are different kinds of sermons. There are explanatory sermons in which the purpose of the preacher is unfolding some principle or idea, explaining its contents, and applying it to the affairs of every-day life. There are hortatory sermons in which the preacher exhorts his congregation to believe some truth, or to perform some duty. There are story sermons in which nothing is explained, and where there is no exhortation, the simple narrative being allowed to make what impression it will. For instance, the story of Joseph and his brethren is a sermon ; it contains no explanation or exhortation, but from first to last it makes a mighty appeal to the heart. The story of Gideon and his exploits lays a strong hand on the soul. Various missionaries have told us that they have never been able to preach a sermon so moving as the simple story of Jesus death on the cross. By the repetition of the facts as they are related by the evangelists, the missionary is able to get deeper into the human heart than by any other sermon which he is able to create. Let me tell you this morning, in a simple, unadorned manner, the story of the Pilgrims.
In the northern part of England, about 140 miles from London, in the county of Nottinghamshire, there is a little village with the unattractive name of Scrooby. It is a very old town, with a history running back to the twelfth century. At the beginning of the seventeenth century there lived in this village a man by the name of William Brewster. He was a graduate of Cambridge University. After graduating he became the private secretary to a distinguished English diplomat. Later on he succeeded his father as the postmaster in Scrooby, where he lived in a large manor house belonging to the Bishop of York. In the hall of this manor house a company of English men and women were in the habit of meeting every Sunday to worship God in a way that was different from the worship prescribed by the State church.
Some of them came from Scrooby and others from small hamlets round about. Among them there was a boy seventeen years of age, William Bradford, who came from Austerfield, three miles away. The one thing peculiar about these people who met in William Brewster s house was that they believed it was their right, as believers in Jesus Christ, to worship God in the way which they believed God had ordained. This belief, however, was contrary to the general belief of that time. Englishmen, on the whole, believed in uniformity. Queen Elizabeth had always insisted upon it, and now her successor, James I, insisted upon it still more strongly. James I was the son of Lord Darnley and Mary, Queen of Scots. Somebody once said that he was the wisest fool in Europe. He was not without a certain kind of ability, but he was very narrow and very stubborn, always insisting stoutly on the divine right of kings, and believing that the State has a right to determine all the forms of religious worship. Andrew Melville once drove him to fury, almost, by telling him that there were two kings in Scotland James and Jesus Christ, and that in the church, Christ was king, and that James was his subject. Near the beginning of his reign the king called a conference at Hampton Court, where he heard so many distasteful things that he finally broke up the conference, saying of the Non-conformists: “I will make them conform or else harry them out of the land.”
Things became more and more unpleasant for all non-conforming Englishmen, and the little company in Scrooby began at last to think of emigrating to the continent. Holland was at that time the place of refuge for all persecuted people, and so to Holland they decided to go. The first attempt was made in the year 1607. They hired an English captain to take them to Holland, but the rascal having gotten them all on board, turned them over to the English officers, who threw them into jail. There they were kept for a month. At the end of the month all were released except seven, who were held over until the next session of the court. Not at all, however, dismayed by this unhappy outcome of their effort, they made the attempt in the spring of the next year. This time they hired a Dutch captain, telling him of their former experience, and urging him to be true to them. On the day appointed he met them according to his promise, on a lonely stretch of shore, but after the first boat load had been put aboard, English officers appeared on the shore, and the Dutch captain, fearful of losing his liberty and his ship, immediately set sail, leaving most of the company behind. It is not easy to conceive of the consternation of those on the ship, or the distress of those on the land. Most of those who had been put on board the ship were women and children, only a few men being carried in the first boat. They had nothing with them but the clothes on their backs. What little money belonged to the company was in the hands of those who remained on the shore. In some cases husbands and wives were separated, and the outlook for all was dismal. I cannot do better at this point than simply to quote a few sentences from the history written by William Bradford.
“But pitiful it was to see ye heavy case of these poor women in this distress; what weeping and crying on every side, some for their husbands, that were carried away in ye ship as is before related; others not knowing what should become of them, and their little ones; others again melted in tears, seeing their poor little ones about them, crying for fear, and quaking with could. They were hurried from one place to another, and from one justice to another, till in ye end they knew not what to doe with them; for to imprison so many women and innocent children for no other cause (many of them) but that they must go with their husbands, seemed to be unreasonable and all would cry out of them; and to send them home again was as difficult, for they alleged, as ye trueth was, they had no homes to go to, for they had either sold, or otherwise disposed of their houses and livings. To be short, after they had been thus turmoiled a good while, and conveyed from one constable to another, they were glad to be rid of them in ye end upon any terms; for all were wearied and tired with them. Though in ye mean time they (poor souls) endured misery enough; and thus in ye end necesitie forste a way for them.”
Men and women of such grit and pluck could not be finally thwarted in the accomplishment of their purpose. And again quoting the words of Bradford: “In ye end, notwithstanding all these storms of opposition, they all gatt over at length, some at one time and some at another, and some in one place and some in another, and met together again according to their desires, with no small rejoicing.”
And so in the year 1608 a goodly number of these Pilgrims found themselves in the city of Amsterdam, to which city there had already come a number of English exiles, also seeking liberty. These exiles, however, were far from happy even in Holland, for fierce and irreconcilable differences had broken out among them, and the atmosphere of the English colony was so torn with storm that after living there for nearly a year the Scrooby Pilgrims deemed it wise to go on to Leyden. It was in the summer of 1609 that the change was made. And here for eleven years they enjoyed, as Brewster says, ” much sweet and delightful society, and spiritual comfort together in the ways of God.” We do not know a great deal about those eleven years, and it is not necessary to dwell at this time on the little that we know. It is enough to remember that their minister was John Robinson, one of the most learned and spiritual and noble of men, and that his congregation numbered about three hundred. Most of the members were quite poor and were compelled to work hard. William Brewster at first taught English, and later on set up a printing office. Bradford was a fustian worker. The life of all of them was discouraging and exhausting, and after they had been there a few years they began to make inquiries as to a possible refuge elsewhere. In the first place, they were afraid that their colony might become extinct. They had hoped on coming to Holland that many of their English friends would follow them, but in these expectations they had been disappointed. Moreover, Leyden was at that time a city of a hundred thousand, and like all large cities had in it many bad boys and girls, and these boys and girls were constantly leading the children of the Pilgrims astray. Because they were so poor, and because they had to work so hard, and because their children were in danger, they became convinced that they had not yet found a permanent home. Moreover, they had in them the genuine missionary spirit. They had heard much of a great new world lying on the other side of the Atlantic whose inhabitants had never been taught the gospel of Jesus Christ, and when they began to think of seeking a new home, it was natural that their thoughts should run across the sea. Bradford tells us that “they had a great hope that they might lay some good foundation for advancing the gospel in those remote parts of the world, even though they should be only as stepping stones to others for the performing of so great a work.”
But it was not easy for them to decide in what part of the new world to settle. At one time they thought of going to Guiana, but reports from that quarter being so discouraging, they decided not to go. Virginia was strongly recommended by some, but Virginia was at last voted down. At one time an effort was made to induce them to come to New Amsterdam, at the mouth of the Hudson, but this also did not permanently appeal to them. New England was considered undesirable because of its extremely cold winters. It was finally decided that they should settle somewhere near the mouth of the Delaware.
We should pause at this point to ponder the magnitude of the courage of the men who decided to cross the Atlantic ocean in the year of our Lord 1620. The Atlantic was far wider in those days than it is now. You must measure the width of an ocean not by a yardstick, but by the clock. Measuring it in that way, the Atlantic ocean in the time of the Pilgrims was 30,000 miles wide. It required nine weeks to cross it. Moreover it was a mysterious and forbidding land. One is surprised in reading the history of the early seventeenth century to find how many settlements were attempted, only to end in failure. The difficulties were so numerous and the hardships were so awful, and the perils were so daunting, that only the stoutest-hearted of men and women were equal to so great an undertaking. A few years before the Pilgrims sailed a company of English men under George Popham had made a settlement near the mouth of the Kennebunk river, but some of the company having died, the rest became discouraged, and they all hastened back to England again. Of a hundred and fifty Englishmen who sailed in a ship for Virginia, a hundred and thirty died on the voyage. Stories of these disasters all reached Holland, but none of these things moved the Pilgrims. Having decided to emigrate to the new world, their hearts did not fail them.
One of their greatest difficulties was to secure means of transportation. It was not easy to get anybody to finance the trip. Finally they succeeded in interesting a body of London merchants, and through their assistance a little vessel called the Speedwell was bought, and a larger vessel called the Mayflower was chartered. Nobody knows how the Mayflower looked, no painter thought it worth while to paint her, no artist took the trouble to sketch her. All the pictures of the Mayflower which you have seen are nothing more than the creations of some artist s imagination. And yet, we know, in general, her appearance. We know that she was small, having a tonnage of only 180 tons; we know that she must have looked very much like many other ships of her own size, descriptions of which have been preserved for us. She deserves a place in the list of ships that might rightly be called immortal. One of the others was the ship that carried Columbus from the old world to the new; another one was the little ship that carried Paul from Asia into Europe; and shall we name also the little boat on which Jesus of Nazareth slept one day in the midst of a storm?
We need not dwell upon the departure from Leyden. It is enough to know that the parting was a sad one. Only those were to go to America who had volunteered, and a majority of the church decided to stay in Leyden. The pastor staid with the majority. The Pilgrims came to America without a minister. It was the Speedwell that carried the members of the Leyden church to Southampton, and there it was joined by the Mayflower. After a long controversy with the merchants in regard to financial matters, the two ships finally set sail on August fifteenth. Before they had proceeded far, the Speedwell began to leak, and so it was necessary that both ships should return to England, putting in at the little Devonshire harbor of Dartmouth. The repairs having been completed, on September second, they sailed again. After proceeding about three hundred miles, the Speedwell began to leak again, and it was necessary for both ships to return to England, this time anchoring in the harbor at Plymouth. It is not surprising that the hearts of some of the company began to fail, and that twenty returned to London. It was now decided not to take the Speedwell again, and so all the Pilgrims a hundred and two in number boarded the Mayflower. In this continuous sifting of the settlers of New England one is reminded of the sifting of the army of Gideon. In the first place, only the bravest of Englishmen ventured to cross into Holland, only the bravest of the Holland company decided to sail for America, and only the bravest of this company outlived the disheartenment caused by the leaking of the Speedwell. They were indeed a company of heroes who sailed on September sixteenth on the Mayflower.
It is singular how, again and again in human history, nature has done its utmost to thwart the efforts of men in great movements which were evidently according to the will of God. No sooner was the Mayflower in mid-Atlantic than a series of fierce storms broke upon her, and in one of these storms one of her main beams became sprung and cracked. So imminent was the danger that a conference was held for the purpose of considering the advisability of giving up the whole undertaking. On investigation it was discovered that the cracked beam could be forced back into its place again, and this repair having been made, the little vessel once more proceeded on her way.
It was on November nineteenth, more than nine weeks after leaving Plymouth, that the Mayflower cast anchor near Cape Cod. It had been their intention to make a settlement somewhere south of the mouth of the Hudson, but finding that they had gotten far out of their course they turned the prow of the Mayflower to the south. But here again nature seemed to be determined to resist them. Not only did the Atlantic become shallow, but a fierce storm threw itself across their way, and turning back they cast anchor, this time in the harbor of what is now called Province town. William Bradford says that ” they fell upon their knees and blessed ye God of heaven, who had brought them over ye vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all ye perils and miseries thereof, again to set their fete on ye firm and stable earth, their proper element.”
It was on a Saturday while the Mayflower was at anchor in the harbor of Provincetown that the men of the May flower drew up and signed their famous compact. For the information of all the boys and girls who are listening to this sermon, let me present the compact entire:
“In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyal Subjects of our dread sovereign Lord King James, by the grace of God of Great Britain, France, and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith, &c. Having undertaken for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian Faith, and honor of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first Colony in the Northern parts of Virginia, doe by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, covenant, and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation, and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, acts, constitutions, offices from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony ; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have, hereunder subscribed our names, Cape Cod, 11 of November, in the year of the reign of our sovereign Lord King James, of England, France, and Ireland 18, and of Scotland 54. Anno Domini 1620.”
About a month was now spent in making explorations. On Monday, December twenty-first, they set foot on the mainland where Plymouth now is.
It is not my purpose at this time to tell the chapter of the hardships and sufferings which now opened. The tribulations of the first winter were never forgotten by any body who passed through them. In the months of January and February, fifty-one of their number died. Sometimes two and three died in a single day. At one time there were only six or seven of the entire colony that were able to be up and around. It looked as though possibly not one of them would survive. They used to bury their dead at night, and carefully smooth over the soil where the graves had been made in order that the Indians prowling round might not discover how great were their losses. But as William Brewster once said: ” It is not with us as with men whom small things can discourage, or small discontentments cause to wish themselves home again.”
These men and women could not be disheartened, they had come to America, and they had come to stay They had come to this country for the sake of religion; it was for the liberty to worship God in a way that they felt sure God had ordained that they were willing to face all dangers. We are in the habit of speaking much about our political liberty; we have a right to rejoice in it, but it should never be forgotten that our political liberty came out of a passion for religious liberty. It was because men were determined to worship God free from the dictates of the State that by and by there was liberty both in the Church and in the State. It is sometimes said that the love of money is the mightiest force in the world. We are told that men are willing to endure every hardship for the sake of making money, but the experience of the Pilgrims proves that there is a mightier force in human nature than love of money, and that is the love of God. The colonies planted as commercial enterprises on the coast of New England in the early seventeenth century all went to pieces, unable to stand the strain of the terrific forces which played upon them. But the Plymouth colony, composed of men who were dominated by the spirit of religion, endured. It is devotion to God and to his Son, Jesus Christ, that is able to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things and endure all things.
It was on the fifth day of April that the Mayflower started on its return voyage. There were only about fifty of the original company left; twenty-one of these were men, and six were lads old enough to work. The remainder were women and children. When the time came for the Mayflower to depart, not one of the Pilgrims expressed a desire to return, not a man was dismayed, not a woman was afraid. I love to think of them as they stood there on the shore watching the Mayflower sail out to sea, I love to fancy the wistful look in their eyes as they saw the ship grow smaller and smaller until at last it was only a speck on the horizon, and then finally disappeared altogether. If I were a painter I should paint that picture. It is one of the great scenes in the history of the world.