American Heritage: Christian principles guided the Pilgrims’ voyage

Published 9:13 pm Wednesday, March 7, 2012

“Being thus arrived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven, who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth, their proper element.  And no marvel if they were thus joyful.” (William Bradford, “Pilgrim Leader’s Notes”)

Isn’t it interesting that we are told that this nation was not established on Christian principles? The voyage of the Pilgrims started out with prayer and faith in God, their Creator and Lord, and once reaching their harbor, ended with prayer.

The Pilgrims had finally reached “The Promised Land.” But one item of business was necessary before stepping their feet on dry land.  What kind of government would be established.  Should they pattern their government after that which they had in England?  Or, should they try something new — something that had not be tried by anyone else?

So, prior to disembarking, the people gathered together on the Mayflower and drew up a compact that would set out their form of government.  This was to become known as the Mayflower Compact.

The compact was to set the standard for the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America. The people did not know that what they drew up would have a great influence upon the government that would be set as the government of the original 13 colonies, which was a little more than 80 years away.  The type of government was “complete self-government.” (For the text of the Mayflower Compact, see Article No. 12.)

The first small group of Pilgrims boarded a small row boat with a sail to scout out this new land. They headed for the shoreline of the land that they had pursued for three months. What would they find when they got there? Was it as nice as they had thought it would be? How would they survive? The journey having ended, would God still bless this people? These questions would soon be answered.

It would not be long before these questions would start being answered. Upon exploring the area, they came upon a supply of corn that was stashed in the area where they had landed. It is recorded that there was about 36 ears that was buried in a large iron pot.

The irony of this is the Pilgrims had never tasted Indian corn. This was a first for them. But as time would go on, they would find themselves depending upon it for survival.

We are told that on Dec. 6, 10 of the Pilgrim leaders decided to venture out on an expedition to see what else they could learn about this new land.  The weather was “very cold, and it froze so hard as the spray of the sea lighting on their coats, they were as if they had been glazed.” (William Bradford became the historian and in his notes these words were recorded.)

It was on that afternoon that the group had seen some natives of the land, the Indians. The Indians saw the Pilgrims coming and ran.

On their second night, after building a makeshift shelter, they prepared for a night’s sleep. Early the next morning “But presently, all of a sudden, they heard a great and strange cry, which they knew to be the same voices they heard in the night, though they varied their notes, and one of the company, being abroad, came running in and cried, ‘Indians, Indians!’ and withal, arrows came flying in amongst them … two muskets were discharged at them, and two more stood ready in the entrance of their rendezvous, but were commanded not to shoot till they could take full aim at them…The cry of the Indians was dreadful.” (Bradford’s notes)

It is recorded that this battle continued for some time. Some of the Pilgrims had coats of mail. With these coats on, they rushed the Indians. The Indians scattered. William Bradford and Edward Winslow wrote articles in their journal concerning this event. They said, “Yet by the especial providence of God, none of either hit or hurt us, though many came close by us and on every side of us, and some coats which were hung up on our barricade were shot through and through. So, after we had given God thanks for our deliverance … we went on our journey and called this place ‘The First Encounter.”

After having discovered an area that had some very rich and fertile soil and was an area that would be easily protected in the event of any attack, they returned to the Mayflower with the good news. Surely this discovery was God’s way of telling them that this is where He wanted them to settle.

But, upon returning, they found some “not so good” news awaiting them. While they were on their exploratory voyage, the wife of William Bradford, Dorothy, had somehow gone over the side of the ship and drowned. Nothing is recorded concerning the circumstances of her death other than this.

The first winter in the new land, which would become named Plymouth (Plimoth), was not any easier than the voyage over the sea.

The captain of the Mayflower allowed the people the shelter of the Mayflower as they built their shelters.  He stayed, in spite of the fact that he could now leave them and return to England since his part of the voyage was complete. Why would he stay, when he could leave? Because he had seen the cheerful attitude of the Pilgrims, in spite of all they had to face and that they never had a complaining attitude as they faced the weather and the food problems that they came across. In fact, he observed them giving thanks to their God for their blessings.

The full force of winter was now upon them. It was recorded that the cold became so bad that the workers had a hard time holding their axes and other tools as they built their shelters.

People began to experience the onslaught of scurvy, as well as pneumonia. People started dying. Six died in December, followed by eight in January. The numbers continued to climb. But, their problems were about to increase.

The first large building was about completed.  It had a thatched roof. People had crowded their ill into the building. Suddenly, on Jan. 14, they found their roof afire. It was an extremely cold, windy day with very icy winds. The snow had been building up outside. The whole building became filled with smoke. Not only was the fire itself a danger, but there were open barrels of gunpowder as well as loaded muskets in the building.  The Pilgrims were able to quickly get these dangerous items outside before they exploded, possibly killing all that were housed in the building. Again, God’s hand was with the Pilgrims. Though the thatched roof was destroyed, the main timbers of the roof were not destroyed. So, the overall building was not totally destroyed.  However, much of their clothing was destroyed.

What happened next? Well, we’ll just have to wait for the next chapter in our adventure with the Pilgrims — the people who trusted God in doing what they felt was his will, in spite of the dangers and hardships that they would face.