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The Primary Thing for Them
Reflecting on the nature of the heroic, Thomas Carlyle claims, “It is well said, in every sense, that a man’s religion is the chief fact with regard to him. A man’s, or a nation of men’s.” Carlyle is speaking here of something more than the mere assertion of beliefs. He further clarifies:
But a thing a man does practically believe, the thing a man does practically lay to heart, and know for certain, concerning his vital relations to this mysterious Universe, and his duty and destiny there, that is in all cases the primary thing for him, and creatively determines all the rest… I say, if you tell me what that is, you tell me to a very great extent what the man is, what the kind of things he will do is. Of a man or a nation we inquire, therefore, first of all, What religion they had?2
So it is, that to understand the Pilgrims one must understand “what religion they had.” Unlike the Puritans, who were content to remain in England hoping to purify the church from within, the Pilgrims, or Separatists, saw no way forward in what they deemed a compromised church. Their Religion demanded they journey forward in faith. Arguably the greatest of their leaders, William Bradford, describes this in his journal, Of Plymouth Plantation.
They could not long continue in any peaceable condition but were hunted and persecuted on every side…. For some were taken and clapped up in prison, others had their houses beset and watched night and day, and hardly escaped their hands; and the most were fain to flee and leave their houses and habitations, and the means of their livelihood.3
Moving to Holland, the Pilgrims settled in Leiden, a strange, new city to them, with unfamiliar customs, and trades, and an unknown language.
But these things did not dismay them; though they did sometimes trouble them; for their desires were set on the ways of God, and to enjoy His ordinances; but they rested on His providence, and they knew Whom they had believed.4
Leiden would be the Pilgrims’ home for only twelve years. Their religion, the chief fact of them, compelled them to pursue a more suitable land to actualize their vision of a home in a vast wilderness. Led by faith, they would face the hardships of a still longer journey to a still more unknown place. Thus, they set off for a New World. Traveling first to England, the Pilgrims boarded the Mayflower. From there, one hundred two passengers began a grueling ten-week crossing of the Atlantic.
Sustained by an absolute faith in a Divine Sovereign to whom they were consecrated, the Pilgrims voyaged to the New World. Confident in Divine Presence and motivated by the desire to be intimately acquainted with their Heavenly Father, they sought Him moment by moment, not lamenting the perils, not questioning the Father’s direction, not afraid of the unknown, resisting every temptation to despair as they faced the unknown future. Their religion instructed them in the knowledge of a God whose providential care was ever present. Thus, they “set on the ways of God.”
Throughout their journey, they commended themselves to God’s Providence, perceiving His favor even in the midst of adversity.
Being thus passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before in their preparation, they had now no friends to welcome them nor inns to entertain or refresh their weatherbeaten bodies; no houses or much less towns to repair to, to seek for succor…What could now sustain them but the Spirit of God and His grace? May not and ought not the children of these fathers rightly say, “Our fathers were Englishman which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in the wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord, and He heard their voice and looked on their adversity,” etc. “Let them therefore praise the Lord, because He is good: and His mercies endure forever.”5
Seeing God as Almighty, thankful for His mercies and his deliverances, they sought him and found refuge in Him, His presence, His kindnesses, and His enduring love. Their religion proclaimed a God omnipotent as Creator, Everlasting Love as Savior, and True Guide as Shepherd.
The Pilgrims arrived at Cape Cod on November 11, 1620. They then faced the most terrible of times, a harsh winter with meager supplies, and the greatest of sorrows, what became known as the Starving Time.
But that which was most sad and lamentable was that in two- or three-months’ time half of their company died, especially in January and February, being the depth of winter, and wanting houses and other comforts; being infected with the scurvy and other diseases which this long voyage and their inacommodate condition had brought upon them. So as there died sometimes two or three of a day in the foresaid time, that of 100 and odd persons, scarce fifty remained.6 And of these, in the time of most distress, there were but six or seven sound persons who to their great commendations, be it spoken spared no pains night nor day, but with abundance of toil and hazard of their own health, fetched them wood, made them fires, dressed them meat, made their beds, washed their loathsome clothes, clothed and unclothed them. In a word, did all the homely and necessary offices for them which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure to hear named; and all this willingly and cheerfully, without any grudging in the least, showing herein their true love unto their friends and brethren; a rare example and worthy to be remembered. Two of these seven were Mr. William Brewster, their reverend Elder, and Myles Standish, their Captain and military commander, unto whom myself and many others were much beholden in our low and sick condition. And yet the Lord so upheld these persons as in the general calamity they were not at all infected with sickness or lameness….That whilst they had health, yea, or any strength continuing, they were not wanting to any that had need of them. And I doubt not but their recompense is with the Lord.7
After burying the dead, the 53 surviving Pilgrims began the labor of spring planting. It would lead to a successful harvest which was celebrated, as was the English custom, in the autumn of 1621. There are two accounts of this celebration: William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation and Edward Winslow’s Mourt’s Relation. Winslow writes:
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 fruits 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 amongst 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 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.
The Pilgrims defined daily living in relationship with God; He was ever before them, the primary thing for them; their unfailing constancy in need and in provision, lives sustained in Him and through Him. May we gain daily perspective through the uncertainty of our times lived in and through Him, and pause for Thanksgiving.
Follow our Pilgrim Heritage:
Pilgrim Roots in the United Kingdom
Leiden American Pilgrim Museum
Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Mass.
 Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, The First Thanksgiving, 1914. She was a direct descendent of Mayflower passenger, Elder Brewster.
 Thomas Carlyle, Heroes and Hero Worship and the Heroic in History (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1904), 2-3.
 William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016),10.
 Ibid., Excerpts 61-63.
 Of the 102 Mayflower passengers who reached Cape Cod, 4 died before she made Plymouth; and by the summer of 1621 the total deaths numbered 50. Only 12 of the original 26 heads of families and 4 of the original unattached men or boys were left; and of the women who reached Plymouth, all but a few died.
 William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016), 77-78.