The American Pilgrimage Turns 400!
Dr. Paul Jehle – Plymouth Rock Foundation
A film called The Pilgrims, produced by Ric Burns and starring the late actor Roger Rees as William Bradford, was released in 2015. It would be Roger’s last film with his passing that same year. What made this film unique was the amount of primary source material used as Bradford’s own words narrated much of the docudrama. Many historians with whom I am familiar thought it was one of the more complete renditions of one of the least known stories in our nation’s history. With the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrim journey to the shores of New England converging in 2020, Americans have an opportunity to become more familiar with the story of that remnant church that migrated to the shores of New England. The unique form of pilgrim self-government owes its origin to a church planting project done under the most amazing of circumstances. The story does indeed make for a great movie!
But, it will be more than a movie Americans can experience in 2020 if they come to Plymouth, Massachusetts June 29 to July 3. Sponsored by the Plymouth Rock Foundation, started in 1970 after the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims arrival, the event will feature dramatic re-enactments, patriotic music, and costumed guides re-telling the history of Plymouth, Cape Cod and Boston. In addition, since Billy Graham, whose funeral we just witnessed, was the keynote speaker in 1970, it was only fitting that we invite Franklin Graham to come in 2020. This historic week will feature a three-dimensional look at the faith, drawn from the Bible, that motivated these pilgrims to venture across the Atlantic as families and church members at a time when only individuals, primarily males, did such exploring.
It was on a cold Monday, December the 11th, 1620, that a group of 18 men stepped on a rock jutting out from the coast of what would become New Plymouth. The day became known as Forefathers Day, first celebrated in 1769. The rock came to symbolize their venture for faith as they wrote: “a great hope and inward zeal they had of laying some good foundation, or at least to make some way thereunto, for the propagating and advancing the gospel of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world; yea, though they should be but even as stepping-stones unto others for the performing of so great a work.”
Known as “separatists” for forming their own church covenant and leaving the Church of England, they fled the wrath of King James who was determined to “harry them out of the land.” Caught attempting to flee, the leaders were put in jail. Finally escaping in 1608, they spent twelve years in Holland where their church grew to over 300 under the able leadership of Pastor John Robinson who did not just teach Biblical theology, but applied the wisdom of Scripture to every area of life “for besides his singular abilities in divine things (wherein he excelled), he was also very able to give directions in civil affairs and to foresee dangers and inconveniences, but which means he was very help to their outward estates.”
When William Bradford, governor and historian, commented on their departure from Holland for the new world, he wrote “so they left that goodly and pleasant city which had been their resting place near twelve years, but they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.” It was this reference to their church as pilgrims, in the context of Hebrews 11, that two centuries later gave the name they carry today. Their commitment to the Word of God, their church covenant, and the heart felt expression of their faith caused them to “fall on their knees and bless the God of heaven” upon their arrival. It also carried them through losing the only ship they owned, the Speedwell and the first winter where half their number died. But the legacy they left us was not just their sacrifice and commitment resting on their faith. Though only 51 remained after the first winter, their legacy is what God did with so few.
The native Wampanoags had been mistreated by Europeans and some taken as slaves prior to the arrival of these Pilgrims. These natives had every reason to attack these newcomers out of self-defense. It would take real character to change the reputation attributed to those who called themselves “Christian” but had utilized methods of oppression. It would also take character and integrity for Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoags to trust these Englishmen. To the credit of both, they made peace with each other in March of 1621 that lasted more than 50 years. Other such treaties with Native Americans in our history have not lasted nearly as long, often being broken by the white man.
The nucleus of these Pilgrims were believers bound together by “a covenant of the Lord into a church estate, in the fellowship of the gospel, to walk in all His ways made known, or to be made known unto them, according to their best endeavors, whatsoever it should cost them.” They also came as family units, demonstrating their desire to plant a new church and commonwealth. They wrote the Mayflower Compact before they landed, beginning a practice of self-government that would set a precedent for such documents in our history. They followed this with a constitution in 1636. In addition, they broke with the communal arrangement of their financial backers and introduced private property ownership of both land and labor in 1623 that would set in motion what we know as free enterprise today.
So why should you consider investing in and attending the American Pilgrimage 400 in 2020? First, it is imperative that we know our history. Second, we need to understand the godly motives for which these Pilgrims crossed the ocean. Third, it is time that we leave a legacy for our children and grandchildren “that we might have hope” as Psalm 78 declares. There will be a national and international stage that will allow the true faith of the Pilgrims to be shared. We are challenging churches and Christian ministries to invest $400 in this endeavor. We are challenging individuals to invest $40. You can contact Plymouth Rock Foundation at 800-210-1620; firstname.lastname@example.org or 48 Summer Street, Plymouth, MA 02360.