During the reign of Elizabeth there appeared a group of religious dissenters known as the Separatists. They were more zealous reformers than the Puritans who wanted to remain in the Anglican church and reform it from the inside. This had been attempted during the time of Henry VIII and led to the separation from Roman Catholicism and the formation of the Anglican church. This movement had begun because the people had access to the Word of God and were internally free to follow the Word in all matters of religion. God used Henry to separate England from the Pope and though historians give him the credit, the credit is, in fact, due to the free access of the Word translated by Tyndale and smuggled into England under the name of the Matthew and Coverdale Bibles, both of which were accepted by King Henry.
The Separatists could not condone anything resembling Catholicism, so they separated themselves from the Church of England. At first, they took the names of some of their prominent leaders; Brownists, Barrowists, and Independents, all became synonymous with Separatists.
They believed church government was regulated by the local congregation and no church should have any say about the governmental affairs of another church.
In 1602, the last year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, a Separatist movement was begun at Gainsborough by John Smyth. Smyth had been a clergyman in the Church of England but had adopted the principles of the Separatists and formed this first congregation in England.
Another congregation was formed at Scrooby in the manor-house of William Brewster. In 1604, John Robinson, a former clergyman in the Anglican Church also, became pastor. A young man was joined to this church by the name of William Bradford; these three men, Brewster, Robinson, and Bradford would be responsible for a “special people” prepared by God for a very special task.
When the Act of Uniformity was instituted by King James I, these people were severely persecuted and sought asylum in Holland, the freest country in Europe at that time.
In 1607, an attempt was made by the Scrooby congregation to flee to Holland. The ship’s captain took their money and betrayed them. They were stripped of all their money and belongings and were cast into prison at Boston, a Puritan town. The magistrates were kind to them and they were finally released. The people were sent to their homes, but seven of the leaders, including Brewster, were kept in prison. Finally, all were released.
The next year, 1608, they made another attempt to leave England. After a struggle of events they found passage on a Dutch vessel for Holland.
They settled first in Amsterdam, the city in Holland that stood for liberty of speech and thought and was the most tolerant city in Europe at this time. After a years’ time, the Scrooby congregation, under the leadership of John Robinson, moved to Leyden. Leyden was best known for its university and was considered an important seat of learning in Holland.
The Pilgrims remained in Leyden for eleven years. While there they grew in ‘the nurture and admonition of the Lord.’ They maintained an excellent testimony before the Dutch, so much so that the Dutch loaned them money on their word and preferred them as employees because of their ‘honesty and diligence.’
God allowed them to stay in Leyden for eleven years, but as Brown states, “that stirring that God puts in the breast of the birds to migrate, also became irresistible in the hearts and mind of these people whom God had called.”
Bradford gives us the reasons for their leaving: they wished to propagate the Gospel in those remote parts of the world; they wanted Christian education, the liberty of the Gospel for their children; their children were being drawn away by the evil example of the Dutch young people.
We often hear that the Pilgrims came to America for religious freedom, but this was not the case. They came because God compelled them to come; they had religious freedom in Holland, but they also had a message to share with those who had never heard. God had finally refined this Saxon-Norman character to His satisfaction. Now they were ready to accomplish His purpose in the New World; the propagation of the Gospel of Christ, and the forging of a new link on the Chain of Christianity.
Only twenty from the Leyden church sailed that July of 1620 for the coast of England. Pastor Robinson remained behind to care for his congregation, though he planned to come to America later. This plan was never realized however, as he died before it was completed.
William Bradford and William Brewster were among those who went. They were to sail to Southampton on the Speedwell, a Dutch vessel, and meet the Mayflower. These two ships would then sail on to America with 102 aspiring Pilgrims.
For the sake of time we skip the challenges of the 66 Days at sea, save to say our Pilgrims were filled with hope, passion and purpose. Most of all, they were filled with trust in the Almighty God of the Bible they deeply cherished. Incidentally, their Bible was not the King James Bible first printed just 9 years earlier. Whereas it was King James who persecuted them in the first place with his Act of Uniformity they were not going to embrace his Bible. Instead they carried to the New World, the Geneva Bible.
Upon arriving in Single Vessel, the Mayflower at the New World on the 9th of November in the year of our Lord sixteen hundred and twenty, our Pilgrims were blown off-course some 200 Miles North of their Manhattan Target to land at what is today Massachusetts. They came upon a deserted Indian Village with a storage of Corn.
It was providential that they would find the lone Indian survivor named Squanto — Bradford called – “Special instrument sent from God”.
Sqanto had been captured and enslaved by the Spanish and taken to Spain, however, British Monks released him and ferried him to England where he learnt English and embraced Christianity. He found passaged back to his home only to find that a plague had claimed the lives of his tribe.
Sqanto was a blessing from Jehovah as he taught the early Pilgrims how to grow corn and establish trade with the Massasoit tribe.
Tragedy lay ahead many of these believers who braved the voyage on the Mayflower. The winter was harsh, and half the pilgrims perished leaving only 51 of the original 102 who sailed from Plymouth.
Those who survived wish to show their thanks for their survival and a good harvest to make it through the upcoming bitter winter. An Invitation was given to Massasoit to join them in their three-day Harvest Festival. Massasoit brought 90 of his hungry braves along with Five deer. For recreation, they enjoyed sport shooting targets with black powder muskets.
These humble, fragile beginnings, of Christian Faith and Values are deeply engraved into our Nation’s History.
It was the example of the Pilgrims that caused our Nation’s first President, George Washington to proclaim that Americans should celebrate God’s Good and Benevolent Blessings on their New Nation, that a day be set aside, to rest from our labors and give Thanks to the Almighty.
President Washington’s proclamation was not law and therefore vanished away for a time until President Lincoln. Whereas, a Day of Thanksgiving was an event to bring peoples together, like the Pilgrims with the Indians…. Therefore, Lincoln instituted a Day of Thanksgiving at the height of the Civil War to bring together the North and South from being a Divided Nation, to a United Nation. To move thoughts from division, but rather to God’s bountiful Blessings upon our Land.
From that day forward, States would set aside a Day of Thanksgiving, but it was not observed uniformly on the same DAY for a Nation to be together, with ONE heart and ONE voice to offer a national thanks-giving to our Jehovah-Jireh, our benevolent provider. It wasn’t until 1941 under Franklin Roosevelt and that the fourth Thursday of November would mark our Nation’s Day of Thanksgiving.
As Thanksgiving has brought together peoples who were divided by a culture, or a war in our nation’s past. May this Thanksgiving Day, today, bring Americans together in the present. May we set aside our division this day and set our eyes upward to the great sustainer and provider, who has given us a bounty of blessings. To be unified with one heart and one voice as one nation to lift our unified Praise and Thanks to the Almighty!
1Thes 5:18 In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.