Most people think of the Pilgrims as stuffy, mournful souls who dressed in black and never smiled. The life of William Brewster quickly dispells these myths, for he was a bold leader of the Pilgrim Church. Born in 1566 or 1567 in Scrooby, England, he entered Cambridge University and became an assistant to William Davison, one of Queen Elizabeth’s Secretaries of State. William went to Holland on a diplomatic mission with Davison in 1585 and thus became familiar with the Netherlands.
With the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrims a little more than a year away, it is important to demonstrate the ideological roots of covenant that they expressed in the Mayflower Compact as well as the consistent preaching on Biblical covenant by the clergy in the colonies that resulted in the Declaration of Independence 156 years later. The foundational documents of religious and civil liberty in America are rooted in Biblical covenant and these ideas have been emulated by nations around the globe.
Historian and Director Emeritus of the Pilgrim Society Peggy Baker has noted, “Family is at the heart of the Pilgrim story….that makes Plymouth Colony unique amid a sea of other settlements – English, Dutch, French, and Spanish alike – that were almost exclusively masculine… The Separatist movement, from its earliest beginnings, was built around strong and dedicated families.” Peggy Baker is correct, and this is what makes the Pilgrim story and the Plymouth colony so clearly the fruit of Biblical Christianity at the time.
During the time the Pilgrims were staying in Leyden a famous synod was called by the Dutch Reformed Church to settle a doctrinal dispute initiated by Jacob Arminius. Though Jacob had already died, his disciples presented their objections to the teachings of John Calvin. This challenge was called the Remonstrance of 1610. Those defending the Calvinist position of a) human depravity, b) election, c) atonement, d) grace, and e) falling from grace were called the Contra-Remonstrance. The synod took place in the Netherlands from November 13, 1618 to May 9, 1619 in Dordrecht (Dort), Holland. Today we might hardly notice such a gathering, but in the early 17th century, theological differences and their consequences were taken quite seriously.
Stephen Hopkins was baptized on the 30th of April, 1581 in Upper Clatford, Hampshire, England. The adventures he would experience due to his desire for liberty of conscience could scarcely be equaled by any other who would come on the Mayflower. Stephen was the only passenger to have previously been in Jamestown prior to his arrival in Plymouth. There are lessons to learn from anyone’s life, but Stephen Hopkins’ life yields key lessons that drew him to come with the Pilgrims in 1620. The impact of his father who taught him skills of survival and self-defense just before he passed, equaled that of his mother who raised the family as a widow with great determination.
“From my years in days of youth, God did make known to me his truth. And call’d me from my native place, for to enjoy the means of grace. In wilderness he did me guide, and in strange lands for me to provide.” So wrote William Bradford about his youth in one of his many poems. Based on baptismal records William is presumed to have been born in Austerfield, Yorkshire, England in March of 1590. Before turning 6 he lost both his father and mother, and was raised by his uncles. A long sickness kept him in bed for years as a child and later Bradford wrote that this “kept him from the vanities of youth.” He was drawn to know God by the reading of the Scriptures by the time he turned 12. His desire was to go to a “separatist meeting” in Babworth, but it was eight miles away from his home in Austerfield.
The Communist League, a subversive society bent on inciting riots across the Continent of Europe for the purpose of embracing communism, commissioned Karl Marx on January 26, 1848 to complete his Manifesto by February 1st. Of course Marx had already distilled his ideas after years of reflection, but these ideas and violent methods were so revolutionary that his own name would not appear on the publication until 24 years later in 1872! Once the “48’ers” as they were known began to riot all across Europe, their ideas and methods were condemned and many had to flee for their lives to other nations, including the United States!
On January 1, 1776, while the British laid siege to Boston, George Washington raised the Grand Union Flag on Prospect Hill near his headquarters in Cambridge. It was the first flag of the united colonies. It was known as the Congress Colors, the First Navy Ensign and the Cambridge Flag and could be considered the official flag of the American Revolution. It had 13 red and white stripes and a blue field with the red cross of St. George of England and the white cross of St. Andrew of Scotland.
The 400 years of “silence” between the closing of the book of Malachi and the birth of Christ is not due to God’s inactivity but rather to no prophet speaking under divine inspiration. The writings during this time, like any other, depict the distinct intervention of God’s hand in the affairs of men. Though not inspired or on par with Scripture, these books called Apocrypha contain important events such as the miraculous story of Hanukkah recorded in 1st and 2nd Maccabees.
Martin Luther described the Apocrypha as “books which are not regarded as equal to the holy Scriputres, and yet are profitable and good to read.” In the Preface to the Geneva Bible, brought by the Pilgrims to Plymouth, the Apocryphal writings were described as “not received by a common consent to be read and expounded publicly in the Church… to prove any point of Christian religion save in so much as they had the consent of the other scriptures called canonical to confirm the same.” However, “as books proceeding from godly men they were received to be read for the advancement and furtherance of the knowledge of history and for the instruction of godly manners.”
155 years ago, on November 19, 1863, Lincoln delivered what has become his most famous address. He was not the main speaker and his remarks lasted all but two minutes. However, what he said captured the hearts and minds of Americans then, as well as serving as a reminder for us today. To understand its significance, we must be reminded about how strategic the battle of Gettysburg was and why Lincoln spoke on the battlefield only four months later. Lincoln’s remarks can also remind us of our Pilgrim roots as a nation and why we must continue to keep them alive.
In Tennessee there is a place called Pall Mall in Fentress County. The valley below is called the Valley of the Three Forks in the Wolf (the Wolf river forks into three branches at that point). This place is literally in the middle of nowhere. Like the Bible hero David who slew lions and bears in the wilderness long before he ever appeared on the scene to publicly kill Goliath, Alvin would grow up as the best marksman in the wilderness shooting turkeys and ducks; but God had a wider plan for him 100 years ago this month.
Alvin’s father died on Christmas day, 1911 on his 30th wedding anniversary when Alvin was 24 years old. Alvin then took full responsibility to provide for his mother and eight younger brothers and sisters. His two older brothers had already left home. Little did anyone know, especially Alvin, that he would end up being the most decorated war hero of World War I!
In history we find some of the best writings to be apologetics or in defense of rights. In 1774 the Continental Congress published its Declaration and Resolves stating in part: “…By the immutable laws of nature, the principles of the English constitution, and the several charters or compacts, have the following rights… life, liberty and property.” The British Parliament had passed the “Intolerable Acts” (laying siege to Boston, shutting down colonial assemblies, making British officials immune to criminal prosecution, and quartering soldiers) as punishment for the Boston Tea Party of 1773. Intending to isolate Boston, England was shocked by the response of Colonies sending in supplies and calling a day of fasting and prayer. And it was prayer the initial prayer of the delegates that was the source of the clarity written in the Declaration and Resolves.
It may come as a surprise to learn that it was a prayer meeting in 1806 and the work of missionaries in 1820 followed by a major revival that began the process of bringing the Hawaiian Islands into the United States. In 1959 Congress gave its approval, in June 93% of the people of Hawaii voted to enter, and on August 21 President Eisenhower certified Hawaii as our 50th state. On July 4, 1960, the new flag of the U. S., with 50 stars, became official. But why did it take nearly 140 years?
The Declaration of Independence was always considered inseparable with the Constitution since every charter by necessity must have a set of by-laws. However, in our day, as Americans celebrate the 242nd birth of their nation on the 4th of July, they may do so without an understanding that the truths declared in that charter is the foundation upon which our liberties rest. We have become accustomed to selective constitutional obedience in large part because we no longer interpret it from the premises set forth in the Declaration.
The Pledge of Allegiance has an interesting history and has gone through several revisions before its final rendition in 1954 which we continue to recite today. The phrase “under God” has clarified our unity as a nation and is consistent with our history. This phrase has kept us from the dangerous trend toward nationalism on one hand (my country right or wrong) and secularism on the other (having no declaration of God’s sovereignty over the nation at all).
Many may not realize that the original Pledge did not have the phrase “under God” within it. But did you know that the addition of this critical phrase came from a sermon? Let’s rehearse the rest of the story.