Pilgrims in a Strange Land

Ken Curtis, Ph.D.

Pilgrims in a Strange Land

It was cold that December in 1620, and they were tired and weather-beaten when they first stepped on the Massachusetts shore. Behind them lay a vast ocean and their native England. Before them lay a wilderness full of unknown dangers. Why did this small band of people leave behind all that was familiar for this precarious land?

Conform or get out!
When King James assumed the throne of England in 1603, he was determined to assert to the fullest his authority over the government and the Church of England. He opposed those who wanted to reform the Church of England and bring its teachings and practices more in line with the Bible. In a fit of rage at these people, the Puritans, King James vowed, I shall make them conform or I will harry them out of the land, or else do worse.

One group of Puritans, the Separatists, were not willing to support the Church of England in any way. They believed the Church could only be under the headship of Christ, not the queen or king. A number of Separatist congregations arose throughout England as groups of believers made compacts with each other to worship God according to biblical truth.

Secret passage
One such Separatist congregation was formed in the farming area of Scrooby and met for worship at the manor house of William Brewster. They were ridiculed by their neighbors, brought into court by the magistrates, and compelled to keep silence about the truths they were discovering from the Word of God. Realizing that in England they were not free to worship God as their consciences demanded, they resolved to move as a group to Holland. King James, however, refused to grant them permission to leave England, and they had to steal away secretly.

Difficult interim
The twelve years these Christians spent in Holland were difficult ones, but they accepted the difficulties as part of their lot as pilgrims - -wanderers and sojourners in a strange land.

Although in Holland the pilgrims enjoyed religious liberty, the King of England began to harass them for shipping tracts and religious pamphlets back to England. Most of the pilgrims had been farmers in England, but in Holland they had to learn new jobs, and even the children were worn down by hard work. Seeing all these evils coming upon them (Proverbs 22:3), these Englishmen in a strange land considered moving to America. They could carry the gospel of Christ to that remote part of the world and perhaps be "even as stepping stones unto others for the performing of so great a work."

Parting words
Lacking sufficient funds for such a venture, the pilgrims sent representatives to England to negotiate with some merchants who might back their enterprise. Only thirty-five pilgrims left Holland for the first voyage; many remained behind with hopes of joining their friends in America later. As the first group left their land of refuge, their pastor John Robinson delivered a farewell sermon, reminding them of their church covenant in which they promised God to receive whatever light or truth was made known to them from His written Word.

The pilgrims met their ship, the Mayflower, in England; some eighty other English joined them there for the trip to America. Not all of the 102 passengers on the two-month voyage were Christians, however. Some had other than religious reasons for going to America, but the pilgrims provided the leadership for this group composed of what they called "strangers and saints."

First covenant of its kind
After two months of sea-sickness and storms alternating with becalmed seas, the Mayflower arrived in America. Landfall was far north of the area granted to the group for settlement, and some of the "strangers" threatened not to obey the government of the colony. To prevent rebellion and anarchy, the Englishmen wrote an agreement to form a government whose laws would affect all men equally. Modeled on the form of church government made years before at Scrooby, the Mayflower Compact was an agreement among free and equal men to create and obey their own government. It was the first such covenant in the new land and a foundation document in America's heritage of freedom.

Small and painful beginning
The pilgrims faced many hardships in America, and many died from the cold, hunger, and disease in the early years. Yet, in all of their trials as well as their successes, they saw God's hand of guidance. William Bradford, governor of the little colony for thirty-one years, wrote a valuable history of the Plymouth Plantation.

Bradford recognized that the Lord uses small things to accomplish His great purposes. His history is full of praise and thanksgiving to the God who so wondrously sustained the colony which was to be an inspiration to many more to come. Later in the 1630's, thousands of Puritans would come and settle in the Massachusetts area first colonized by the simple pilgrims.

Many thanks, Your Majesty
King James gave us a great treasure in the authorized version of the Bible that bears his name. But he had no idea that his less worthy acts would ultimately lead to another notable accomplishment: the settlement of Pilgrims in the new world.

"One Small Candle" From Bradford's History
Thus out of small beginnings greater things have been produced by his hand that made all things of nothing, and gives being to all things that are, and as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many, yea in some sort to our whole nation; let the glorious name of Jehovah have all the praise.

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