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America’s First Thanksgiving Part 1 - History of the Pilgrims In Europe

In the fall of 2011, I taught a series of classes on the history and religious worldview surrounding the Reformation, origination of the protestant denominations, the founding of America, and a few other related topics.  This article is primarily derived from research notes and transcripts of that series.  Due to the length, we have split it into two parts.  Part 1 (this page) covers the historical background in Europe that led to the formation and the departure of the Pilgrims, and their journey across the ocean to the new land.  Part 2 will cover the Pilgrim's first few years in America, and lessons that we can draw from their lives today.

Written: Nov 2016.  For ease of navigation, we've duplicated the table of contents onto both pages.

Table of Contents

Historical Background in Europe

We begin with the Wars of the Roses.  No, not the one between Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas; these wars were a series of battles fought over a period of 30 years (1455 – 1485AD) for control of the throne of England.  These civil wars were fought between the House of Lancaster (whose badge or symbol was a red rose) and the House of York (whose badge was a white rose).  Both houses were direct descendants of King Edward III.  The wars finally ended when Henry Tudor (a Lancaster relative) succeeded Lancastrian king Henry VI and defeated Yorkist King Richard III at the battle of Bosworth in 1485.  As a result, Tudor was crowned King Henry VII, launched the Tudor Dynasty, and united the houses by marrying Elizabeth of York (grand-daughter of Edward III).  He symbolized the unity by creating a new symbol with both a white and red rose.

Henry VII and Elizabeth had two sons, Arthur (the eldest), and Henry VIII along with two daughters.  Arthur married Catherine of Aragon, a Spanish princess, but after his death, Henry VIII, who began his reign in 1509, took Catherine as his wife.  Henry and Catherine had several children, but only one, a daughter named Mary, survived past infancy.  Henry interpreted this failure to produce an heir to the throne (a son) as God’s judgment for marrying his late brother’s wife (Lev 20:21).  After meeting a beautiful aristocrat, Anne Boleyn, Henry attempted to have his marriage to Catherine annulled, but for political as much as religious reasons, Pope Clement VII refused to grant the annulment.

As a result of the papacy’s refusal, Henry VIII split from Rome, declared himself Supreme Head in Earth of the Church of England (the Anglican Church), and got the annulment from his newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer.  Archbishop Cranmer also put in some protestant reforms for the Anglican Church.  Upon Henry’s death (1547), his son Edward VI (by his third of six wives, Jane Seymour) assumed the throne and generally left Cranmer’s theology and liturgy in place.  Ironically, after Edward’s death, Henry and Catherine’s daughter, Mary Tudor ascended to the throne as Queen Mary I in 1553.  Mary had Archbishop Cranmer and many other church officials burned at the stake for heresy, and placed the Church of England back under papal authority. Her reign was so ruthless that she became known in history as “Bloody Mary”.

Upon Mary’s death, Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, became queen in 1558.  Elizabeth initially charted a centrist course between Roman Catholicism and the Reformed Catholics.  In 1570, Pope Pius V excommunicated her after several failed attempts to have her removed from the throne.  Then in 1588, the papacy convinced Spain to send an armada of ships, but failed in their attempt conquer England.  Elizabeth also reinstated the Book of Common Prayer developed under Edward and Archbishop Cranmer, which remains a liturgical foundation of the Anglican Church today.

Reformation and Purification

Along with the aforementioned events of the sixteenth century, various reformation movements were taking place all over Europe (led by Martin Luther in Germany; John Knox in Scotland etc).  While many of these movements were regional, John Calvin’s reformation in Geneva went international.  Many who had fled to Geneva as refugees and studied under Calvin were now returning to England in an attempt to purify the Church by reforming its doctrine, its teaching, its lifestyles and its customs.  These reformers became known as the Puritans.

The Puritan movement met with a great deal of opposition from the established church in England (and throughout Europe from the Roman Church).  One of the primary issues of the days involved the Reformer’s insistence that the people should be allowed to study the Bible for themselves.  Many great and godly men were executed by the Roman Church for the crime of wanting to translate the Bible into the vernacular languages of the people as opposed to the language of the church officials (Latin).  In England, Henry VIII authorized one of the first English translations that became known as the “Chained Bible” since it remained literally chained to the pulpit so that no one could take it home.  It was illegal for the laity to possess a Bible in their own language.

Yet, during this time, many of the reformers were smuggling a great treasure into England that would revolutionize then entire world.  The Geneva Bible, endorsed by many leading reformers including Calvin and Knox, was published in 1560 (a NT only version had come out in 1557) and immediately was in the highest demand.  We could also say that the Geneva Bible was the first ever “study Bible”, becoming the first bible to contain cross-references, chapter and verse numbers, and extensive explanation and application notes of the bible text.  It went through several editions prior to its final edition in 1599.

As the people began reading these smuggled bibles (the Geneva Bible was the first English Bible to translate both Testaments from the original Hebrew and Greek languages), they noticed that the popes and kings had been distorting the Scriptures for their own purposes.  The more they read, the more they realized that things were not right in the land or in the church.  This develop inevitably resulted in an increased crackdown and persecution of those possessing a bible, and an increased resolve by the reformers to continue smuggling and distributing the illegal Bibles.  We will revisit this topic as we look at another movement during this time.

The Separatist Movement

While many of the reformers were attempting to reform the Church of England, a small group became convinced that the Church was beyond purifying, and reluctantly decided that the only remaining viable option was to separate from the Anglican Church.  Members of this group were called the Separatists.

The Separatist movement had its beginning in Eastern England in the counties of Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, and Nottinghamshire.  In the small town of Scrooby in Nottinghamshire, a group of people (estimated about one hundred members) led by Rev Richard Clyfton withdrew from the Church of England in 1606 and reformed themselves into a covenanted people with God.  They were greatly influenced by the teachings of John Calvin and by reading the Geneva Bible.  Thus, the Scrooby separatists were determined to walk according to the light of God’s Word, to the best of their ability, rather than by the traditions that had been elevated to equal authority by the Church.  They were also well aware of the costs, knowing that they would suffer much for their convictions and resulting actions.

Shortly after the split, Rev Clyfton left for Amsterdam, leaving the Scrooby congregation in the hands of his assistant and the group’s teacher, the Rev John Robinson, a brilliant young man who was well-schooled in Greek, Hebrew, Latin and theology.  Robinson was a graduate of Cambridge University Divinity School.  He was extremely popular and dearly loved his congregation and they loved him.  Before joining the group, he had been an ordained minister in the Church of England, but due to his high views of Biblical authority vs man-made church traditions, he met so much opposition that he finally decided to withdraw from the Anglican Church.

The group had no funds for a building, but years before, the father of an elder, William Brewster had been appointed as an overseer of an old manor, living there while collecting taxes, attending to its maintenance and other affairs.  When William’s father died, he took over his duties so the manor served as the initial meeting place of the church.  This arrangement demonstrated both God’s providence and His sense of humor.  Ironically, the actual owner of the old manor was the Archbishop of York.  So, we find this separatist church, first meeting in a building owned by the Anglican Archbishop.

Unfortunately, this arrangement was not to last.  Just a few years earlier, Queen Elizabeth I had died (1603) after reigning for 45 years, and Scotland’s James VI ascended to the throne, becoming England’s James I.  This was bad news for the Separatists.  James was a tyrant who famously proclaimed, “I will make them [the Separatists] conform [to the rituals and beliefs of the Anglican Church], or I will harry [persecute, pillage, plunder] them out of the land”.

James also hated the Geneva Bible, so in 1604, he commissioned a new translation, the King James Bible that was first published in 1611.  Yet, even with the full backing and promotion by the Anglican Church and the Throne of England, it would be over a century and a half before the KJV would overtake the Geneva Bible in popularity.  This was due in large part to the readers’ belief that, in comparison with the Geneva Bible, the KJV translators initially ascribed more power to the church and the state.

Thus, when a portion of the Scrooby separatist group eventually sailed across the Atlantic, they were accompanied by the Geneva Bible.  Yes, the separatist movement that brought this group of people, who would become known in history as “the Pilgrims”, to the shores of North America began when they began reading and studying the Word of God for themselves.  Consequentially, it should come as no surprise that, when America later became an independent nation, many of her founding documents were based upon, or at least greatly influenced by the text and notes of the Geneva Bible.  Even the far-left secular magazine, Newsweek made this statement several years ago: “Now historians are discovering that the Bible, perhaps even more than the Constitution, is our founding document”.

In Search of Religious Freedom

Returning to the year 1606, immediately after the Scrooby group became a separatist church, they found themselves persecuted by both the Anglican Church and the civil authorities.  As the oppression increased, the authorities would watch their houses, fine them, and even throw members in jail as an example to the others.  The group was forced out of the old manor and into hiding, moving from place to place until finally, Rev Robinson and his followers decided there was no other alternative but to leave England if they were to continue worshiping according to the Word of God and “according to the dictates of their own conscience” (as President George Washington would write to the United Baptist Chamber of Virginia in 1789).

As we leave England, we should mention at this point that most of what we know about the Pilgrims comes from the writings of William Bradford, a member and eventual Governor of Plymouth in America.

The Scrooby church made arrangements with an English captain to take them to Holland, a place of religious liberty where other persecuted groups had taken shelter before.  As they got in the long boats to ferry out to the ship that would take them across the sea, they were betrayed by the captain, robbed of all their money and possessions, and brought back to the magistrates who threw them into prison.  They were eventually released, and after overcoming many other challenges, they were able to arrange for a Dutch captain to smuggle them to Amsterdam.  Arriving in Holland in 1608 they were able to unite with some other English congregations.

They remained in Amsterdam for only one year before moving to the city of Leiden (also in Holland, sometimes spelled “Leyden”).  It was during the eleven years in Leiden that Robinson formed his congregation into the people who would be one of the founding groups of America.  The work in Leiden was very hard labor, so hard that it discouraged others from migrating from England to enlarge their group, but the people didn’t complain.  In fact, they were model citizens.  Bradford noted that the magistrates told the French Walloons who lived there, “These English have lived among us now these twelve years, and yet we never had any suit or accusation come against any of them, but your strife and quarrels are continual”.

The Dutch also prevented King James’ attempts to extradite the group’s members to England for prosecution.  Yet, despite their popularity among the Dutch, the separatist group decided it was time to leave.  The religious freedoms in Holland were disappearing, although due to their status, the group was exempted from some of the restrictions that the authorities placed on others.  Their children were growing up and, like the Israelites did with the Canaanites, were immersing themselves into the Dutch secular culture.  In addition, Holland’s treaty with Spain was about to expire, and many feared war would follow.  Since the Spanish Inquisition was in full swing, this could have proved disastrous for the separatists.

When Robinson’s group left Leiden in 1620, William Bradford described their departure in a now-famous passage that would later give them their name: “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”.

Modern history books in our schools portray the Pilgrims as people who wanted to go to a new land to make their fortune, to advance their social condition, to increase their worldly prosperity.  Like most of the historical revisionist writings however, it is just another attempt to remove all evidence of our Christian heritage.  The truth is, the Pilgrims were simply a local body of believers who, like their pastor, were determined to do whatever was required to insure that they could live their lives according to God’s word.  So, we could say their coming to America was essentially a “church-relocation project”.

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Coming to America

The Pilgrims decide to sail to North America in two groups.  Only a minority chose to go in the first group.  The second group was primarily comprised of women, children and the elderly, so Robinson stayed behind with them even though he was anxious to make the trip himself.  Unfortunately, the Rev Robinson would die in Holland in 1625 before he could sail to the new world.  Just before the first group left, Robinson penned an encouraging letter that was read as the group set sail on the Mayflower.  The letter ended with:

These few things therefore…  I do earnestly commend unto your care and conscience, joining therewith my daily incessant prayers unto the Lord, that He who hath made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all rivers of water, and whose providence is over all His works, especially over all His dear children for good, would so guide and guard you in your ways, as inwardly by His Spirit, so outwardly by the hand of His power, as that both you and we also, for and with you, may have after matter of praising His name all the days of your and our lives.  Fare you well in Him in whom you trust, and in whom I rest.

He signed the letter, “An unfeigned wellwiller of your happy success in this hopeful voyage, John Robinson”.

So, the Pilgrims left on what would be a 66-day journey across the Atlantic Ocean, until they made it to Cape Cod.  They had hoped to arrive in late summer, but it was late in December when they first set foot upon these shores because there had been so many delays.  We’ll next see that, even the delays were according to God’s divine providence.

God’s Providence for the Journey

During the voyage, we see evidence of God’s continuous sovereignty and protection of the group.  First, no Pilgrim died on the voyage – a real miracle in that day and age… but there was one casualty.  In order to encourage and comfort each other during the difficult voyage, the Pilgrims often passed the time by singing from the psalms.  This singing annoyed and raised the contempt of some of the crew members.  One in particular mocked and taunted them by saying that he looked forward to throwing the shrouded corpses of these “psalm-singing” religious nuts overboard after they succumbed to the routine illnesses that were very common on such voyages.

Gov Bradford writes: “He would always be condemning them [the Pilgrims] . . . and cursing them daily. . . but it pleased God before they came half seas over, to smite this young man with a grievous disease, of which he died . . . and so was himself the first that was thrown overboard.”  He was the only known casualty of the whole voyage.  Historian Peter Marshall reports that the Pilgrims showed him love by honoring him in a service, thus putting into practice the biblical admonition to “love your enemies”.

We might wonder how only one person would die on this voyage?  The Mayflower was normally a wine cargo boat, transporting wine instead of passengers, and the wine from previous voyages had soaked some of the beams and essentially acted as a disinfectant.  God often works in mysterious ways.

Next, the Mayflower  had to contend with some very severe storms, causing some to suggest turning back to England. During one particular storm, the main beam of the mast cracked.  Just in time, one of the Pilgrims produced a large iron screw that he’d brought on board to secure the mast.  Some historians argue that the screw was a jack for lifting roofs onto houses, while others suggest that it was part of a printing press.  Whichever is correct is still up for debate, but it is agreed that the screw saved everyone from certain death and burial at the bottom of the Atlantic.

Finally, the Pilgrims were blown off course, which forced them to pen the immortal words of the Mayflower Compact, which they wrote in the cabin of the ship.  If everything had gone as scheduled, this document considered by many as the “birth certificate of America” would not have been written:

In the name of God, Amen.  We whose names are underwritten…  Having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith… do by these present solemnly and mutually in the presence of God, and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends foresaid, and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and 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 at Cape Cod the 11th of November…

In addition to instigating the writing of the compact, the southern winds that prevented the Pilgrims from reaching their original destination in Virginia and forcing them to land at Cape Cod had an additional benefit.  It, in all likelihood, saved their very lives.  Because their patent did not include this territory (the London company that financed their voyage had certain stipulations), they consulted with the Captain of the Mayflower and resolved to sail southward.  But the weather and geography did not allow them to do so.  They encountered “dangerous shoals and roaring breakers” and were forced to return to Cape Cod.  Unknown to the Pilgrims, almost all of the east coast was inhabited by well-armed Indians.  However, three years earlier (in 1617), the Patuxet tribe (that had inhabited Cape Cod) had been wiped out by a plague.  Thus, the Pilgrims landed in one of the few places along the coast where they could have survived.

Now, there was one survivor of the Patuxet tribe: Squanto.  He had been taken by Captain Weymouth to England in 1605, where he learned English and was eventually able to return to New England.  When he found his tribe had been wiped out by the plague, he lived with a neighboring tribe.  When Squanto learned that the Pilgrims were at Plymouth, he came to them and showed them how to plant corn (a winter staple unknown to Europeans) and fertilize with fish.  He later converted to Christianity.  William Bradford wrote that Squanto “was a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation”.

So we can see just from these few examples that the hand of God was upon them, as they paved the way for a permanent settlement; a settlement where they could worship God freely as they saw fit and where they could live their lives in peace.  As Gov Bradford put it, “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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