Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Pilgrim Faith

A few years ago, with a desire to learn more about the original Pilgrims, I read Nathaniel Philbrick’s book, Mayflower (New York: Viking, 2006).  What a great, great book!  It read more like a novel than a history.  Philbrick treats the Pilgrims with respect and honesty—as real people in a harsh, dangerous, and deadly world.  And he documents their Puritan faith with respect and honesty too.

Here at Thanksgiving 2012, I thought some of you might enjoy three brief vignettes from the book that express the Pilgrims’ theology and faith.  It’s a bit of window into how they understood God and His work amid the sorrows and joys of their lives.  Here goes:


In the fall of 1620, the Mayflower’s ability to steady herself in a gale produced a most deceptive tranquility for a young indentured servant named John Howland.  As the Mayflower lay ahull, Howland apparently grew restless down below.  He saw no reason why he could not venture out of the fetid depths of the ‘tween decks for just a moment.  After more than a month as a passenger ship, the Mayflower was no longer a sweet ship, and Howland wanted some air.  So he climbed a ladder to one of the hatches and stepped onto the deck.

Howland was from the inland town of Fenstanton, Huntingdonshire, and he quickly discovered that the deck of a tempest-tossed ship was no place for a landsman.  Even if the ship had found her own still point, the gale continued to rage with astonishing violence around her.  The shriek of the wind through rope rigging was terrifying, as was the sight of all those towering spume-flecked waves.  The Mayflower lurched suddenly leeward.  Howland staggered to the ship’s rail and tumbled into the sea.

This should have been the end of him.  But dangling over the side and trailing behind the ship was the topsail halyard, the rope used to raise and lower the upper sail.  Howland was in his mid-twenties and strong, and when his hand found the halyard, he gripped the rope with such feral desperation that even though he was pulled down more than ten feet below the ocean’s surface, he never let go.  Several sailors took up the halyard and hauled Howland back in, finally snagging him with a boat and dragging him up onto the deck.

When Bradford wrote about this incident more than a decade later, John Howland was not only alive and well, but he and his wife, Elizabeth, were on their way to raising ten children, who would, in turn, produce an astounding eighty-eight grandchildren.  A Puritan believed that everything happened for a reason.  Whether it was the salvation of John Howland or the death of the young sailor, it occurred because God had made it so.  If something good happened to the Saints, it was inevitably interpreted as a sign of divine sanction.  But if something bad happened, it didn’t necessarily mean that God disapproved; it might mean that he was testing them for a higher purpose (pp. 32-33).

Not everyone fared as well as John Howland.  One of the leaders, William Bradford had to bury his wife (p. 77):

William Bradford’s wife died when she fell from a moored ship in the harbor.  Some conjecture the death and loneliness she experienced may indicate that her death was a suicide.  No one knows for sure.

Even if his wife’s death had been unintentional, Bradford believed that God controlled what happened on earth.  As a consequence, every occurrence meant something.  John Howland had been rescued in the midst of a gale at sea, but Dorothy, his “dearest consort,” had drowned in the placid waters of Provincetown Harbor.

The only clue Bradford left us about his own feelings is in a poem he wrote toward the end of his life.

Faint not, poor soul, in God still trust,
Fear not the things thou suffer must;
For, whom he loves he doth chastise,
And then all tears wipes from their eyes.


And then this from Philbrick’s description of the unfortunate Indian wars which the Pilgrims fought some years after they had settled (p. 300):

Two days after slaughtering Pierce and his company, Canonchet and as many as 1,500 Indians attacked Rehoboth.  As the inhabitants watched from their garrisons, forty houses, thirty barns, and two mills went up in flames.  Only one person was killed – a man who believed that as long as he continued to read the Bible, no harm would come to him.  Refusing to abandon his home, he was found shot to death in his chair—the Bible still in his hands.


So there you have it: three brief stories from Pilgrim life that express something of their theology and faith.  And in the midst of all the hardship and struggle, all the sickness and death, one thing stood out: they were thankful people.  They took seriously the Bible’s admonition from 1 Thessalonians 5:16 — “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; and in all things give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”  If we’re going to learn something from them, let’s learn that.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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