Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Life Aboard The Mayflower

This year, during this time of thanksgiving, I’d like to reflect on what it would have been like to be a Puritan in 1620. That was the year that English separatists were finally able to leave England to establish a new colony in Virginia. And while planting a new colony and avoiding the religious persecution brought down by King James are some of the reasons commonly taught in textbooks for the Puritan’s departure, the opening words of the Mayflower Compact reveal even more about their purpose:

“In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God of Great Britain, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, etc.

Having undertaken, for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the First Colony in the Northern Parts of Virginia…”

A study of their purpose reveals that the Puritans wished to glorify God and advance His kingdom above all else. And so, on September 6, 1620, 102 people (half of them were part of the Puritan group, the other half were not) boarded a boat about 110 feet long and 25 feet wide – the Mayflower – and set sail for Virginia. Very little is known about the voyage itself. William Bradford, the leader of the separatists kept a small account of the journey. It is interesting to read one of his written passages, about the fate of a crew member who treated the Puritans poorly:

“There was a proud and very profane young man, one of the sea-men, of a lusty, able body, which made him the more haughty; he would always be condemning the poor people in their sickness, and cursing them daily with grievous execrations, and did not let to tell them, that he hoped to help to cast half of them overboard before they came to their journey's end, and to make merry with what they had; and if he were by any gently reproved, he would curse and swear most bitterly. But it pleased God before they came half seas over, to smite this young man with a grievous disease, of which he died in a desperate manner, and so was himself the first that was thrown overboard. Thus his curses light on his own head; and it was an astonishment to all his fellows, for they noted it to be the just hand of God upon him.”
Only one other death occurred during the journey – a young Puritan servant named William Butten, who died just three days before the ship landed. Finally, 66 days after leaving England, on November 11, 1620, the Mayflower dropped anchor off the tip of Cape Cod – 600 miles north of where they were supposed to land. Because of bad weather, the ship was not able to get down to Virginia – their desired landing point – and so the passengers and crew spent their first winter aboard the ship.

Cold and disease took its toll. By the spring, only 53 of the 102 original passengers survived (two had been born during the journey, so exactly half of those who had left England remained). I often wonder what kind of courage it took for them to stay the course and not leave their new home, in the face of danger and death. The passengers left the ship itself in April of 1621, and the Mayflower returned to England shortly thereafter. None of the passengers returned with it.

Would I be able to maintain the same faith and strength of purpose as these men, women and children? In the face of possible loss of family members – sorrow upon sorrow – would I hold fast to the purpose of furthering God’s kingdom and glorifying His Name?

I close with the words of John Robinson, a pastor to the Separatists who stayed behind in England, but who left them with the words from this passage in Ezra 8:21:

“There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions.”
I hope that all of us who treasure God and family are able to stay humble before Him in the coming year, and that He will bless us explicitly. I am thankful for my friends, my family, and most of all for my Lord who knows my desires and who watches over me with a long-term plan that I cannot begin to fathom.

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