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!
At this time of year many people reflect upon the Pilgrims and the origin of our American Thanksgiving holiday. Some contend that it either never occurred or was not a friendly affair with a legacy of genocide. Hopefully some context and clarity can help remove these myths and bring factual balance.
Consider some of these facts: (1) We do not know when the actual harvest feast occurred, though we know it was the fall of 1621. (2) We don’t know if the Pilgrims invited their Native neighbors to a pre-planned event, but we know they feasted together. (3) The Natives provided much of the food, and though they had turkey, venison ruled the day.
America’s Quadracentennial provides a time when Americans of all persuasions can rejoice together that the seeds planted at her birth were of such quality as to bring forth the civil liberty we still enjoy today. Yet, those conducting the “commemoration” (one cannot say celebration these days) of America’s four hundredth birthday find it difficult to give honor to whom honor is due.
It is common today to view all the European settlements, especially Jamestown and Plymouth, as an invasion. Since we must come to conclusions based upon a bias of historic interpretations (all have such a bias), it may be important to highlight the biased assumptions of some of today’s historians.