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“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.”

Yet (writes Martin Marty) they found it difficult to find a way to flee from the profane multitude that harassed them in their gatherings at the manor house of William Brewster in the village of Scrooby. These well-educated and somewhat prosperous people, knowing they had much to lose, put it all at risk by booking a ship onto which they sneaked one night in 1607. Someone betrayed them before they could leave for Holland and religious freedom. They tried to escape again a few months later, but only some husbands and fathers eluded authorities. The wives and children of these pesky believers were later permitted to join them in their new haven: Amsterdam.

The Dutch city was tolerant of their religion, but so busy and diverse that these English “non-conformists” were more at home settling in the university town of Leyden. There William Brewster and their beloved Rev. John Robinson helped bind the “Separatist” group together as a Congregation for the next 12 years, at which time someone proposed going to the New World.

After much travail (writes Martin Marty) they left John Robinson behind as they boarded the Speedwell in Rotterdam harbor. It was he who gave them their classic nickname: (quote) “They knew they were pilgrims” and Pilgrims they have remained … as well as the classic UCC statement: “There is yet more light & truth to break forth from God’s word.” With those encouraging words, the Pilgrims were sent on their journey to America.


At this point, I’d like to interrupt the sermon to sing you a song that I wrote as part of the Bicentennial celebration at Fort McPherson in 1976. Tom Grubaugh will narrate what happened on that voyage to America as I play & sing “Mayflower Passage.”

On the 5th of August, 1620, the colonists first set sail on the 180-ton “Mayflower” and the

60-ton “Speedwell”. Beset by coastal storms in their first and second tries, the Pilgrim’s

ship the “Speedwell”, soon proved unseaworthy.

Whether to go on and weather the storm, or whether to turn around? Whether she’ll make

it or whether she’ll break up; who knows where they are bound? – From Holland to

England the Speedwell served them well, but out on the open sea, the Speedwell failed.

(Cold, blue northern wind…)

With the passengers of both ships aboard, a packed “May-flower” left England. Of the

colonists, less than a third were seeking religious freedom. Seasick Pilgrims were jeered

and cursed, but the soon commanded awe: saying prayers, and singing hymns, they kept

their faith and trust in God.

Whether to go on and weather the storm, or whether to turn around? Whether she’ll make

it or whether she’ll break up; who knows where they are bound? – The Pilgrims had

nothing, the least among the crowd. They prayed and they made it through the grace of

God. (Cold, blue, northern…)

They encountered a season of crosswinds and met many fierce storms. The ship was

shroudly shaken and the main beams cracked and bowed. So, the leaders of the company

met with the officers of the ship and considered returning to England rather than take the


Whether to go on and weather the storm, or whether to turn around? Whether she’ll make

it or whether she’ll break up; who knows where they are bound? – The sailors said, “No,

sir. We’ll see what we can do. We’re paid to deliver; by God, we’ll see it through! (Cold,

blue, northern wind, blow on…)

So furious were the storms at times that they would lie for days in a lull. So leaky were the

decks and upper works that sails dared not be unfurled. But through the grace of God and