In this surreal year of riots attempting to tear down cultural heritage comes a significant milestone—the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing in America.
From their storied ship the Mayflower, these New World settlers from Europe first set foot on Cape Cod in New England at what later became Provincetown, Mass., on Nov. 13, 1620—before moving on to finally land at nearby Plymouth Rock on Dec. 18. The journey and its aftermath have long been recalled in the American observance of Thanksgiving each November.
This year the fateful voyage is being commemorated by quadricentennial celebrations in not only the United States, but also Great Britain and the Netherlands.
Why was this event so significant in world history?
A world-changing enterprise
Fleeing religious persecution in England, a group of Puritans who regarded themselves as Separatists had gone to Leiden in Holland. After enduring difficulties there for more than a decade, a number decided to move to America, setting sail from Plymouth in England, hoping to make a better life for their families by being able to worship freely and in peace. Later known as the Pilgrims, these are among the most famous colonists in history. Their faith and self-governing system laid the religious and cultural cornerstone for a new nation.
A group of British merchants was persuaded to back the venture, forming a joint-stock company with the colonists. Of the 102 passengers aboard the Mayflower, just 37 were Pilgrims—with the others recruited by the London company to protect its interests.
The new settlement, Plymouth Colony, was the second successful English colony in America after Jamestown, Virginia, founded in 1607. Yet unlike many of the Jamestown settlers, the Pilgrims were not out to become wealthy entrepreneurs but to work the land and serve God without government hindrance. The social and legal systems of the colony, begun with the famous Mayflower Compact, were closely tied to their religious beliefs and English tradition.
More of the Separatists soon came to Plymouth. And over the next 20 years, 16,000 Puritans would follow in emigrating from England to the nearby Massachusetts Bay Colony, which was later merged with Plymouth. Many more Puritans settled in Connecticut and Rhode Island. And the faith and practice of these early settlers established a lasting influence on American culture and national character.
Of the initial journey, American naval historian Henry Culver says: “No vessel, neither the Santa Maria [Columbus’ flagship in the discovery of America], nor the Constitution, most noted and glorious of all the warships of the United States, can compare in romantic interest and patriotic reverence with the properly accorded fame of the Mayflower. Her name is indissolubly linked with the fundamentals of American democratic institutions. She was the wave-rocked cradle of our liberties” (The Book of Old Ships: From Egyptian Galleys to Clipper Ships, 1924, p. 84, emphasis added throughout).
What are some of the biblical aspects we should reflect on today in remembering these early founders of what became the United States of America?
A pilgrimage into the wilderness
“And the Lord spoke to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh and say to him, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Let My people go, that they may serve Me’”’” (Exodus 8:1).
Over the ages people striving to follow God have had to flee religious persecution, with the Exodus from Egypt being an outstanding example. Many centuries later, the apostle Peter described Christians who faced religious persecution in the Roman Empire as “pilgrims” (1 Peter 2:11). Jesus had said of His disciples, “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (John 17:16).
The word “pilgrims” is thus biblically based, referring to people going on a long journey mainly for a religious purpose. The term was applied to the Separatists by one of Plymouth Colony’s first governors, William Bradford. He wrote of their departure from Holland to England and then to America as follows:
“So they left that goodly and pleasant city [Leiden] 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” (Of Plymouth Plantation, chapter 1).
This was a reference to Hebrews 11:13-16, where believers are described as foreign pilgrims journeying on the earth toward the coming Kingdom of God as their homeland and country from heaven.
By extension, the name “Pilgrim” later became the popular term applied to all the Mayflower passengers and even to other people arriving in Plymouth in those early years. After their successful settlement, the Pilgrims’ influence and contacts led to more Puritan colonies being established nearby. The largest, founded in 1629, was the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The settlers were fervent in what they saw as their “errand into the wilderness” in parallel to the ancient Israelites.
“No Christian community in history,” says historian Gabriel Sivan, “identified more with the People of the Book than did the early settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who believed their own lives to be a literal reenactment of the biblical drama of the Hebrew nation.
“They themselves were the children of Israel; America was their Promised Land; the Atlantic Ocean their Red Sea; the Kings of England were the Egyptian pharaohs; the American Indians the Canaanites (or the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel); the pact of the Plymouth Rock was God’s holy Covenant; and the ordinances by which they lived were the Divine Law.
“Like . . . other Protestant victims of Old World oppression, these émigré Puritans dramatized their own situation as the righteous remnant of the Church corrupted by the ‘Babylonian woe’ [in reference to the false Christian system portrayed in Revelation 17-18] and saw themselves as instruments of Divine Providence, a people chosen to build their new commonwealth on the Covenant entered into at Mount Sinai” (The Bible and Civilization, 1973, p. 236).
And they believed this holy mission was to serve as an example. Alluding to Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:14, Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop declared, “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”
Commitment to freedom of self-rule in covenant with God
“Proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all its inhabitants” (Leviticus 25:10).
No territory enjoyed more religious freedoms than those established by the Pilgrims and their Puritan neighbors. At a time when monarchy and aristocracy held sway in Europe, the colonists did not want to perpetuate that kind of rule but instead, while pledging loyalty to the British king, created a self-governing council.
The self-ruling system of Plymouth Colony had a strong impact on shaping democracy in both America and Great Britain. William Bradford’s book Of Plymouth Plantation was widely read in Britain. It influenced the political thought of the Puritan poet and politician John Milton, who was an assistant to Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan leader who later overthrew King Charles I and ruled Britain for five years.
In America, Plymouth Colony initiated a tradition of self-rule that was followed in Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. In fact, Separatist minister Roger Williams, who was expelled by other Puritan leaders in Massachusetts Bay over his promotion of greater religious freedom and other disagreement, established Rhode Island specifically as a safe haven from religious persecution, thereby adding freedom of conscience to Plymouth’s self-governing model. (It was in Rhode Island that the first Sabbatarian Christians, fleeing religious persecution in England, would establish the first seventh-day-keeping congregations in America.)
Historian and rabbi Ken Spiro points out about the Puritans: “Having had their right to worship denied by the decrees mandating uniform liturgy, the Puritans were anxious to make sure no human being ever held that power over the conscience of others. In the words of Puritan preacher Roger Williams (later founder of Rhode Island): ‘It is the will and command of God that conscience and worship be granted to all men in all nations and countries . . . An enforced uniformity of religion denies the principles of Christianity . . .’
“A very significant political evolution was taking place in the New World. Unlike the Puritans in England who, of necessity, lived under English common law and were ruled by a king and Parliament, the Puritans of America had no central authority or national governing body. Yet they did not lapse into anarchy. Instead, they created communities governed by elected councils of elders similar to the ‘presbyters’ of England. Their communities were both stable and prosperous, with mandatory school systems modeled after the Jewish ones” (WorldPerfect, 2002, pp. 240, 249).
In this system, liberty was still to be rooted in following God and His laws yet by community agreement (see “The Puritan Aim of Living Under Divine Rule”).
Up to our present day, the United States has been a haven for many persecuted “pilgrims” from other lands and still practices widespread religious toleration. And America, despite its flaws, has served as a model of freedom to other nations.
A powerful legacy now eroded and upended
“If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:3).
Sadly, the strong Christian religious foundation that the Puritans laid has been quickly eroding over past decades. Polls in America uniformly show a steep decline in people who say they hold Christian beliefs, while morality has sunk to new lows.
If the Puritans were to come back to life today, they would be appalled at what this country has become. It would be virtually unrecognizable to them as far as basic Christian morality is concerned.
Other past Christian leaders would likewise be shocked, such as George Washington, the first president of the United States. In his farewell address to the nation in leaving office, Washington warned: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports . . . Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religion.”
The threat Washington was talking about is exactly what has happened in America today!
As evangelical author Tim LaHaye brought out in his 1987 book Faith of Our Founding Fathers: “The United States was founded on more biblical principles than any other nation in history—the secret to America’s greatness. Those principles originally permeated our educational system, courts, public life, religious life and economic system, producing what President Ronald Reagan [who was in office when this was written] calls ‘traditional values.’
“When these values prevailed, the quality of life from the family to the streets was far better than today. While citizens certainly did not have modern means of communication, mobility, or twenty-first century technology, neither did they endure streets that were unsafe for women after dark, a tragic rate of child molestation, 1 million teen pregnancies annually, and rampant violence and crime. We were certainly not known as ‘the pornography capital of the world.’
“Whenever we point to the need to return to traditional values, the humanists remonstrate that we want to take the country ‘back to the dark ages.’ In actuality, modern technology would be far more beneficial to mankind in an environment of ‘traditional values’ than it is in the permissive, humanistic society of today” (p. 34).
Societal decline foretold by God
What has happened to American society? In drifting farther and farther from God, it is plagued by real and worsening darkness. God knew this would happen all along and warned of it in the Bible.
He inspired the apostle Paul to describe the end of this age in writing to a fellow minister: “In the last days there will be very difficult times. For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God” (2 Timothy 3:1-4, New Living Translation).
That is a succinct picture of much of society today!
A far better new world is still ahead
Yes, the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims is a very noteworthy event. But since secular humanism has now prevailed in schools, the press and government, the remarkable religious foundation of the nation is quickly crumbling—and much worse times lie before us.
Yet there is still good news ahead, for God has great plans for America and the rest of the world!
The dreams of the early Pilgrim and Puritan fathers of a pure Christian society under the rule of God and His laws will be far exceeded in the wonderful new world God will bring at the return of Jesus Christ to the earth—a time of true and lasting righteousness and freedom in the ultimate promised land of the Kingdom of God!
The Puritan Aim of Living Under Divine Rule
Though little recognized today, the Pilgrims and other Puritan settlers sought in the wilds of New England to establish the Kingdom of God on earth as they understood it, seeing themselves as a new Israel.
As one source explains: “From the outset, the Puritans combed the King James Bible in search of precedents for a New World theocracy [with God as King]. In the separate but cooperative rule of Moses and his priestly brother, Aaron, for example, they found Biblical sanction for the twin offices of magistrate and minister. In the book of Acts they found precedents for the organization of their church: those congregations, in turn, provided a model for the town-meeting form of local government. Some Puritan leaders actually suggested making Hebrew the language of the colony” (“How the Bible Made America,” Newsweek, Dec. 27, 1982, p. 46).
While Native Americans were regarded to some degree as Canaanite opposition, missionary work among them was seen as the chief objective. The First Charter of Massachusetts, in 1629, was written “for the directing, ruling, and disposing of all other matters and things, whereby our said people . . . may be so religiously, peaceably, and civilly governed, as their good life and orderly [conduct], may win and incite the natives of the country to the knowledge and obedience of the only true God and Savior of mankind and the Christian faith . . .”
Setting up the Kingdom of God was central to the Puritan fathers’ national purpose. John Robinson, pastor of the settlers at Plymouth, expressed it clearly in his parting address to the Pilgrims: “As the prophetical and priestly office of Christ was completely vindicated in the first times of reformation, so now the great cause and work of God’s reforming people is to set up His Kingdom” (emphasis added throughout).
In fact, the 1643 Articles of Confederation for Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Plymouth and New Haven declared, “We all came into these parts of America with one and the same end and aim, namely, to advance the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to enjoy the liberties of the gospel in purities with peace.”
How was this to be achieved in New England? Jonathan Mitchel, famed Puritan writer, gave the answer in 1662: “In the Commonwealth, Christ’s Kingdom is set up, when all things therein are so ordered, (laws and all civil administrations) as doth most fitly and effectually tend to advance, promote, and maintain religion and reformation.” To this end, the Puritans set up a theonomist state, that is, one based upon the laws of God as found in the Bible. The 1644 New Haven Charter was written with the following stated purpose: “that the judicial laws of God, as they were delivered by Moses . . . be a rule to all the courts in this jurisdiction . . .”
How times have changed! But of course, as noble as their intentions were, their aims were not truly in accordance with the Bible, which explains that God’s Kingdom will not be established until Jesus Christ returns. Still we may marvel at the desire here—and lament how low the society founded on such principles has sunk in recent times, with outright rejection of any semblance of following God’s laws.