(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED BY THE TIMES EXAMINER WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 21, 2001)
“…And as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone forth unto many, yea in some sort to our whole Nation. Let the glorious name of Jehovah have all the praise.”
So wrote William Bradford, longtime Governor of the Pilgrims’ colony at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1630, and one of the true giants of early American history. Unfortunately, most Americans, especially our youth, have never heard of William Bradford and know virtually nothing TRUTHFUL about our Pilgrim Forefathers and Mothers. Today, the Pilgrim story is lost amidst the typical American celebration of Thanksgiving—turkey, dressing, gravy, football, parades, and naps. Almost forgotten is the spiritual bravery, the courage, the sacrifices, the terror, the joys and sorrows that this brave little band experienced on their way to establishing not only a Christian colony in the frozen forests of Massachusetts, but ultimately the Country that most of us say we love—America.
On a windswept hill in the present day town of Plymouth, Massachusetts, overlooking the sea, is Burial Hill. Some of the original Mayflower Pilgrims are buried here. (Some of the first Pilgrim deaths were buried on what is now called Cole’s Hill, overlooking Plymouth Rock—WHL). 381 winters ago (now 400 winters ago—WHL) 102 Englishmen and women, having endured 66 days crossing the stormy Atlantic, began to build their small homes at the base of this hill, hoping to be able to survive on their meager food reserves until they could plant crops in the spring. Before that winter (1620/21) was over, half their number had died of disease and starvation. Their suffering was terrible.
As Governor Bradford later recounted in his book, “Of Plimouth Plantation”. the first history written in English in America: “But that which was most sad and lamentable was, that in 2 or 3 months time, half of their company died, especially in January and February (1621), being the depth of winter, and wanting houses and other comforts; being infected with the scurvy & other diseases, which this long voyage & their inaccomodate condition had brought upon them; so as they died sometimes 2 or 3 in a day. In the foresaid time, that of 100 & odd persons, scarce 50 remained. And of these in the time of most distress, there was but 6 or 7 sound persons who, to their great commendations be it spoken, spared no pains, night nor day, but with abundance of toil and in hazard of their own health, fetched them wood, made their beds, washed their loathsome clothes, clothed & unclothed them; in a word, did all the homely & necessary offices for them which queasy stomachs cannot endure to hear named; and all this willingly & cheerfully, without any grudging in the least, showing herein their true love unto their friends and brethren.”
Often they were at the point of starving. Initially their dead were buried on a hill (now called Cole’s Hill) overlooking Plymouth harbor, just above Plymouth Rock. In April, 1621, Christopher Jones, the Captain of the Mayflower, which had remained in Plymouth harbor since the previous December, offered to take back to England any Pilgrim who might wish to return, but such was their resolution and devotion to their ideals that not one of them went back. The next time you are tempted to complain about the “hassles” of preparing Thanksgiving dinner, or of the “meaningless ritual” of offering prayer and thanks, remember the sacrifices our Pilgrim ancestors made to help establish this country. Who among us today would be willing to uproot our families and ourselves and undertake a hazardous journey of thousands of miles in order to serve the Lord? Would you? Would I? Thankfully, they were.
Before leaving the Mayflower (while it was still anchored off the tip of Cape Cod, near what is now Provincetown, Massachusetts) the Pilgrim men drew up and signed “The Mayflower Compact.” In November, 1620, in the cramped cabin of the ship that had brought them to the New World, this Compact was written and signed. If you’ve never read it, you should. It was the first document in history to give manhood suffrage to all male persons. It is one of the most outstanding documents in American history, yet so few of us even are aware of its existence. The men who signed this Compact became the first Americans who believed that God created all men equal. (However, women were considered to be “weaker vessels” and not emotionally mature enough to deal with political matters in the Pilgrims’ world). This document was without precedent, since it did make all men equal before the Law. Here was the seed that grew into our popular Constitutional liberties, foreshadowing our Declaration of Independence and our glorious Constitution, the founding documents of our nation.
If you have never been on Cole’s Hill overlooking Plymouth harbor and Plymouth Rock, and stood in front of the sarcophagus (actually an ossuary) which contains the bones of some of the original Pilgrims who died in the first harsh winter of 1620-21) which were discovered over many years, I strongly urge you to do so. On this sarcophagus is an inscription. I challenge you to read this inscription without getting a lump in your throat and tears in your eyes, because I couldn’t:
“READER, History records no nobler venture for Faith and Freedom than that of this Pilgrim band. In weariness and painfulness, in watching, often in hunger and cold, they laid the foundations of a State wherein every man, through countless ages, should have liberty to worship God in his own way. May their example inspire thee to do thy part in perpetuating and spreading, throughout the world, the lofty ideals of our Republic.”
On Burial Hill, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, is a modest marker, the grave of Governor William Bradford, who died in 1657. On one side of it, in Latin, is this inscription: “DO NOT BASELY RELINQUISH THAT TO WHICH THE FATHERS HAVE WITH SUCH GREAT DIFFICULTY ATTAINED.” (“Qua Patres difficillime adepti sunt nolite turpiter relinquere.” )
Are we, the heirs of the freedoms which our Forefathers bequeathed us, “basely relinquishing” these very freedoms? Would the Pilgrims be proud of what we, their spiritual heirs, have retained of their bequests to us? Or would they stand aghast at what we have become? What do you think?
On Thanksgiving Day, let our prayer be that of Rev. John Pierpont (1785-1866):
“O thou Holy One and Just,
Thou who wast the Pilgrims’ trust,
Thou who watchedst o’er their dust
By the moaning sea;
By their conflicts, toils and cares,
By their perils and their prayers,
By their ashes; keep their heirs
True to them…and Thee.”