The first winter was devastating. Nearly half their number had perished by the end of May, 1621. 28 men, 13 women and 7 children had died leaving only 56 people alive. By the fall only half of the 104 (102 on the voyage, and two born before landing) would remain. Yet they still saw the hand of Providence upon them. They could see God’s purpose in the midst of mourning and starvation. They saw the Providential hand of God in that only 20% of the children compared to 60% of the adults survived. In other words, in spite of the devastation God still had a future for them to fulfill their mission.
How do you rebuild a devastated colony made of widows, widowers and orphaned children? But consider what they already had; they had a relationship with God. They were, by and large, converted to Christ and had a covenant commitment to Him based on Scripture. They also had a church covenant with one another that said they would commit to “walk in all his ways, made known, or to be made known unto us… whatsoever it would cost us.” Then Bradford added in his history, “And that it cost us something this ensuing history shall declare.” It is sometimes difficult to understand what it did cost them beginning with the suffering they experienced of losing half their number in a few short months.
However the Pilgrims were not the only ones suffering. The place where they had settled had been called Patuxet by the Native Wampanoag. Due to the plague of 1616-1619, up to two-thirds of the Native population had been decimated around them. The Natives surrounding this small band of Pilgrim exiles had suffereed, and were still suffering. David Silverman writes “The historian Francis Jennings wrote poignantly that the Mayflower landed not in a virgin land but a widowed land. Epidemic disease had already nearly empited a long stretch of coastline that once thronged with people. Every survivor, which is to say, practically every living person, had lost someone, and some people lost everyone.” Jennings goes on to note Thomas Morton’s description of Patuxet and the unburied remains that “were left for crows, kites, and vermin to prey upon… it seemed to me… a newfound Golgotha.”
The very first priority was to rebuild the family unit, where needed, as the basis of society. The family was the foundation. With so many broken homes due to the deaths of the previous winter, they rebuilt their colony on marriage and the family, the same foundation upon which they had built their movement in the first place. It was this emphasis on family that had been so attractive to their financial investors. It was also this emphasis on family that made this Pilgrim adventure so unique among explorations at the time. Peggy Baker, Director Emeritus of Pilgrim Hall Museum has written, “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.”
Pastor John Robinson’s teaching on marriage inspired the small colony to rebuild the home. Robinson taught that, “God hath ordained marriage, amongst other good means, for the benefit of man’s natural and spiritual life, in an individual society, as the lawyers speak, between one and one woman: and hath blessed it alone with this prerogative, that by it, in lawful order, our kind should be preserved, and posterity propagated.” He decried the tendency in his day to demean women as less than equal to men. “Not only heathen poets, which were more tolerable, but also wanton Christians, have nick-named women, necessary evils; but with as much shame to men, as wrong to women, and to God’s singular ordinance withal.”
John Demos in his book, A Little Commonwealth, comments on Robinson’s teaching: “The Lord had created both men and women of an equal perfection, and ‘neither is she, since the creation more degenerated than he from the primitive goodness.’ Still, in marriage some principles of authority were essential, since ‘differences will arise and be seen, and so the one must give way, and apply unto the other; this, God and nature layeth upon the woman, rather than upon the man.’” A well ordered home, according to the Pilgrim’s Pastor, was essential.
So what do you do when you have made your settlement upon the abandoned ground of previous inhabitants who died from a devastating disease? What do you do when half your own number die in only a few months? Death has swallowed you up as it had your predecessors. Do you give up? With so much death around you, with what confidence do you hope for the future? Their confidence, and hope, resided in their faith in God and that His calling and mission for them had not changed.
Bradford writes; “May 12 was the first marriage in this place which, according to the laudable custom of the Low Countries, in which they had lived, was thought most requisite to be performed by the magistrate, as being a civil thing, upon which many questions about inheritances do depend, with other things most proper to their cognizance and most consonant to the Scriptures (Ruth iv) and nowhere found in the Gospel to be laid on the ministers as a part of their office.”
Widower Edward Winslow, who recently lost his first wife Elizabeth (whom he had married in Leyden in 1618) that first winter, married Susanna White, who lost her first husband William in February of 1621. Susanna had lived at Scrooby Manor, and was pregnant when she got on the Mayflower. She gave birth to Peregrine in Provincetown Harbor and already had five year old Resolved. Edward, the only Pilgrim who had his portrait painted, learned the Native tongue and was an ambassador both locally and in England. Interestingly enough, he was once jailed in England for performing a marriage ceremony as a civil magistrate. The Pilgrims believed that marriage was not just sacred, but the cornerstone of society as well.
Bradford continues; ‘This decree or law about marriage was published by the States of the Low Countries Anno 1590. That those of any religion (after lawful and open publication) coming before the magistrates in the Town, or State house, were to be orderly (by them) married one to another.’ – Petit’s History, fol., 1029.’ And this practice hath continued amongst not only them, but hath been followed by all the famous churches of Christ in these parts to this time – Anno 1646.” Suffice it to say that the Pilgrims left us a legacy of how to rebuild a society after disaster, pestilence and death. It be wise for us to look ahead at rebuilding our own culture in the same way – beginning with marriage, the family and the home as its foundation.