“The Hopes & Hardships of Early Immigrants to America”

(Some of the “back story” of the Pilgrims & their voyage)

a sermon based upon Philippians 4:4-9

It was 500 years ago that explorers from Spain brought Roman Catholicism to Florida, and it’s been over 400 years that the English Colony at Jamestown was settled. (The Disney movie “Pocahontas” remembers those musket-wielding early immigrants to Virginia.) The story of the Pilgrims seeking religious freedom was not the first, but the third, wave of European immigrants seeking to settle this American continent. They all had hopes – some seeking a fountain of youth and cities of gold to plunder, others seeking to settle a plantation of tobacco & cotton worked by slaves imported from Africa. Yes, we must admit that slaves from Africa arrived in Jamestown one year before the Pilgrims came to America! (…a sobering thought.)

As a lifelong Congregationalist, who traces this church’s heritage to those 102 women, children, & men on the Mayflower, I don’t want their journey to get mixed in with the earlier Virginia colony. Jamestown, had been named for the reigning King… James -- famous for his English edition of the Holy Bible in 1611 (the King James Version, still used by many Bible Belt Christians to this day!) No, in the eyes of the Pilgrims, Jamestown was an outpost of England… a colony chartered by the King. The Pilgrims were seeking a New World… free from the old order.

Historian Martin E. Marty of the University of Chicago (and longtime editor of The Christian Century magazine), in his book “Pilgrims in Their Own Land: 500 years of religion in America” (Penguin Books: New York, NY, 1984) points out that the “separatist” Pilgrims who arrived in Massachusetts in 1620 did not have the King’s permission to settle in New England. Thirty-five more Pilgrims arrived in 1621, and another sixty-seven in 1622. Even though they brought their Bibles -- and they even brought with them on the Mayflower a printing press on which the first book in America (a “Bay Psalter”) was published -- there was no Anglican priest among them. The Pilgrims would do fine (thank you very much) without any state-sanctioned clergy. (!)

These Pilgrims were people unified by their religious zeal… not necessarily by their skills as frontier survivalists, as I will point out later in this sermon.

But first, I want us to go back in the Pilgrim story to what their lives were like earlier… back in jolly old England under Queen Elizabeth and then King James. To do so, I quote from Martin Marty’s book (pages 59-66):

These “separatists” who first came to little Plymouth colony were also called variously “independents” or “Congregationalists” because of their attitudes toward the Church of England, and their insistence that only local authorities could rule the congre-gation. [Theirs was a lay-led resistance movement to the priests and bishops of both Roman Catholicism and the Anglican Church.] Church of England worship … was to them “flat idolatry” (writes Martin Marty).

In Elizabethan England, these exiles from the official church prayed and worshiped in homes. William Bradford and other strong lay leaders taught them to think of themselves as a “biblical people” bound by their covenant with their God. In their opinion, no longer should English people simply “inherit” their “established” religion. They must dare to take matters into their own hands and “own” the divine covenant [personally].

King James vowed to make these deviants conform, or [and I quote] he would “harry them out of the land, or else do worse.”