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Who Were The Pilgrims?

Many of the accounts of the Pilgrims do not make a clear distinction between the “Separatist Pilgrims” and all the other Europeans that settled the colonies of early America. The Separatist Pilgrims were not Puritans; they were not merchant ship men; they were not animal trappers, though they did kill animals; they were not soldiers or mercenaries. The Separatist Pilgrims, were protestant Christians who were fleeing religious persecution in their native England. Often, they’ve wrongly been called “Puritans.” The Puritans wanted to reform the Government Church of England, but did not want to separate from it. The Pilgrims did separate from the government church of England, and so they were called, “Separatists.” It’s important to understand concerning the Thanksgiving story, that the Separatist Pilgrims were more than just a band of like-minded men and women–they were a church with their own elders. Freedom of religion was non-existent in England at the time, and consequently, many Separatists were imprisoned and executed by public hanging. In fact, Puritans often took part in the persecution of Separatists. William Bradford, while living in England, was warned not to convert to Separatism. In response he said; “. . . I am not only willing to part with everything that is dear to me in this world for this Cause, but I am also thankful that God hath given me heart so to do; and will accept me so to suffer for Him.” At the outset in the Thanksgiving story, we find the future leader of the Pilgrims giving thanks to God for giving him a heart to separate from the secular government’s mandated church, and also to suffer for God if need be. In 1609, because of the persecution, Bradford and a group of Separatists snuck out of England for the religious freedom of Holland. Eventually, the Separatists considered Holland to be detrimental to their community, particularly their children’s morality and education, so they decided to leave Holland and travel to America. Bradford wrote that leaving Holland for America was motivated by the principal reason of “. . .a great hope and inward zeal ...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...” Their trip was financed by English investors and it was agreed that the Pilgrims would be given passage and supplies in exchange for seven years of labor. Leaving port was difficult. There were two attempts to get out to sea, but the second ship, full of needed supplies, kept taking in water because it was overloaded. Finally, they left the second ship behind with about twenty people. Leaving the second ship behind would prove to be a detrimental move for two reasons: first, they would desperately need the provisions on that ship; and secondly, they were going to arrive just as winter was to begin, so the difficulty of being without the extra supplies would be compounded by the weather. This was already a rough beginning, but the Separatists were determined by strong faith and a sense of vision to pursue a future to freely practice their Christianity and advance God’s Kingdom. So on Sept. 6, 1620 the Pilgrims set sail from England on the remaining ship called the “Mayflower.” There were forty-four Pilgrim Separatists, who called themselves the “Saints.” They also called themselves, the “congregation”–the church, and there were sixty-six other people that they called “Strangers.” The trip was extremely harsh; people got sick, and one boy died. But, each morning and evening, the Separatists prayed and read the Bible together. The only other person who died on the voyage, ironically, was a hostile man who threatened to murder many of the Separatists. When he died from an illness, the Pilgrims interpreted his death as being part of God’s providential hand of deliverance–even the crew of the ship, was in awe, believing that the just hand of God had repaid the man for his wickedness. Finally, on November 10th, 1620, sixty-five days from the day they set sail, they sighted land and made their way onto the shores of America. At this time, the “Mayflower Compact” was written; motivated to settle disunity between the Separatists and the “strangers” who had boarded in London. It was a type of constitution: and it starts out with five words that today would be considered by some people in America to be some of the foulest language in our land. I don’t know if I should repeat those words. The ACLU might come and get me. But I’ll take a chance anyway. Those five words are “In the name of God...” and the compact has as its core, this amazing statement of proclamation; “Having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith. . .” The mission in the first constitutional charter was made very clear ― “In the name of God, having undertaken for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith.” This is when they called themselves the “Pilgrims,” and settled an area named earlier by Captain John Smith in 1614 as “Plymouth.” Now once on land, they explored the area. On two separate expeditions, corn was found buried in mounds, and some of it was gathered and stored away for use in the spring. Winter was coming shortly, and the Pilgrims had no seed to plant, so the whole colony considered finding seed to be God’s providence. Nevertheless, Bradford and Winslow recorded the goodwill of the Separatists in repaying the people for the seed that was found; “And thus we came both weary and welcome home, and delivered in our corn into the store, to be kept for seed, for we knew not how to come by any, and therefore were very glad, purposing, so soon as we could meet with any inhabitants of that place, to make them large satisfaction [due repayment and more]. This was our first discovery. And sure it was God’s good providence that we found this corn, for else we know not how we should have done. But as soon as we can meet conveniently with the Indians, we will give them full satisfaction and reimbursement.” The Pilgrims were showing themselves to be men of integrity ― willing to repay in kind for provisions they had discovered in a time of dire need. The cold, snow, and sleet were exceptionally heavy that winter; coming in a matter of weeks, which greatly inhibited the necessary construction of their settlement. Weakened by the seven-week crossing and lack of housing, they became ill. They began to die one per day, then two, and sometimes three people would die a day. The newly arrived Pilgrims were concerned that local Native American Indians would be hostile so, they dug the graves at night to keep the Indians from seeing how their numbers were rapidly dwindling. At one point, there were only seven people who were able to fetch wood, make fires, and feed and care for the sick. To give you an idea of just how devastating that winter was, by springtime they had lost 46 of the original 102 people who sailed on the Mayflower. On March 16th, an important event occurred. An Indian named Samoset, from the Abnaki tribe walked into the settlement and called out “Welcome.” Apparently he had learned some English from the captains of fishing boats that sailed up and down the coast. Samoset later brought another Indian named “Tisquantum,” also known as “Squanto,” who spoke even better English. He had learned English in England as a result of being kidnapped by a British sea captain and forced to work on Merchant ships for fifteen years. Squanto’s importance to the Pilgrims was enormous and it can be said that they wouldn’t have survived without his help. Many of us have heard how he taught them how to get syrup from maple trees; which plants were poisonous and which had medicinal powers; and how to plant the Indian corn in mounds with several seeds and fish in each mound, and so forth. Thanks to Squanto’s help, the harvest in October was very successful and the Pilgrims found themselves with enough food to store for the winter. The surviving Pilgrims had come through a lot of hardship, and they completely gave God the glory for his providential care through Squanto. Bradford wrote of befriending Squanto; that he was a “special instrument sent of God. . .” The Pilgrims had made contact with the Wampanoag people, and were committed to be fair and honest with them. In the first treaty agreement between the Plymouth Pilgrims and the Wampanoags which lasted fifty years, they agreed that if anything had been taken by any English people, or by any Indians, it must be returned. Additionally, the Pilgrims would help the Wampanoags if they were attacked by enemy Indians, and the Wampanoags would likewise, help the Pilgrims. This was the beginning of a great friendship. Later, William Bradford, as governor of the colony, in a spirit of Christian integrity, sent word to his friend Chief Massasoit to “search out those, from whom we took their corn, that we may restore the same to them in full measure.” At the end of the harvest, the Pilgrims invited Squanto and other Indians to join them in a celebration feast. Chief, Massasoit, and ninety of his men, came to the celebration which lasted for three days. This is typically what most people know as the first Thanksgiving feast. William Bradford describes this feast: “They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercising in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first but afterward decreased by degrees. And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.” Edward Winslow described his account in a letter dated December 11, 1621. “Our wheat did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown. They came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom. Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. . .” [and in the next line Winslow gives God the glory for the abundance;] “...And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.” “To God be praised” Winslow said. “so we might after a special manner rejoice together” he added; and “by the goodness of God.” These are statements that Christians recognize as thanks unto the Creator and Sustainer of all things, also known as “Thanksgiving.” This is a wonderful story of steadfastness in hardship; goodwill; faith, and God’s provision; taken from the sources, and absent from myth.

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