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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

their decision to press on, after 65 days on their way on the water, “Mayflower’s” journey

was done.

(God knows where they were bound!)


Two of the passengers on the Mayflower wrote accounts of the famous voyage of 1620. (I’m told that the Alpena County Library has an excellent Discovery Channel documentary about it.) It was a harrowing, dangerous, voyage! First of all, they left England much later than the ship’s Master (Christopher Jones) had hoped to leave. There were disagreements with the people who had loaned the passengers the money to hire the two ships. Then, taking the passengers from the badly leaking Speedwell made for crowded conditions: 102 passengers, plus 30 sailors!

Because they were late leaving, they encountered autumn storms on the Atlantic Ocean that were particularly severe. The voyage took 65 days (more than two months at sea)! The storms also blew them significantly off-course northwards. By the time the ship came into Plymouth Harbor at Cape Cod, it was winter… November 9, 1620.

Martin Marty writes: “Though they lacked any document authorizing them to stay there, they settled anyhow, choosing to leave behind the “vast and furious ocean” for the “firm and stable earth.” Their land of promise was (and I quote) a “hideous and desolate wilderness,” so they huddled off-shore on-board the Mayflower. Before they settled, they agreed on a “Mayflower Compact”, which spelled out the terms of a covenanted society.

The crew and the passengers had not had fresh food in several weeks. The cold and damp, along with their poor nutrition, caused many people to get sick. By spring, when the Mayflower finally left to return to England (April 5, 1621), nearly half of the passengers and half of the crew had died.

They were buried in unmarked graves, for fear that the native Indians might notice the weakness of these newcomers. They found native villages nearby, but the huts were deserted. There was an eerie silence in the surrounding woods (writes Martin Marty). It was not until March that a stray Indian named “Samoset” (who had learned some English from occasional fishermen) told them that about four years earlier a disease almost wiped out his people. He also introduced the last Paw-tuxet survivor, an Indian named “Squanto”, who had been snatched off to England as a youth, where he had learned the language well enough to serve now as a middle-man negotiator with the few Indians in the area.

The intervention of Samoset and Squanto, along with their Indian corn and teaching hunting and gathering skills, literally saved many of the settlers’ lives. The Pilgrims had come to America intending to pursue their faith free from the constraints of organized Anglican religion… assuming they would live on fishing and farming in the new world. However, they were not good at it.

Mark Kurlansky wrote a book about cod -- not God, “cod”… (the fish we will have for supper tonight at our Reader’s Theater in Fellowship Hall!) I chose “cod fish” for tonight’s menu because it would have been a huge part of the Pilgrim’s first Thanksgiving feast. However, the fish could have saved some of them during that first winter aboard the Mayflower, if our pious Pilgrim ancestors had been a bit more broadminded about what to eat. They were parked in what we call “Cape Cod” because cod fish were absolutely everywhere! And yet the Pilgrims were starving![1]

The fact that they arrived at the onset of winter is the first hint of how little they knew about survival! Still, they had come to New England for fishing as well as farming, so why were the Pilgrims starving in the richest fishing grounds ever recorded? According to Kurlansky, it seems they had not thought to bring much fishing tackle — not that these university-trained townsfolk would have known how to use it. (!)

Four or five English ships had been fishing in New England since 1616. The year after the Plymouth landing -- in 1621… while the Pilgrims were nearly starving -- ten British ships were profitably fishing cod in New England waters, bringing their catch back to feed Europeans. The following year, thirty-seven ships were sent. By 1624, fifty British ships were working off the coast.

Part of the Pilgrims' problem was that, being English, they did not want to eat unfamiliar food. [The natives, Samoset & Squanto, showed them not only how to grow corn, but how to harpoon sturgeon, catch eels, and pry open the clams & mussels they found along the shore. But the Pilgrims wouldn't do it. (!) Shellfish were forbidden foods in the Bible.] They wouldn't eat such things... The waters were so rich in lobsters that they were literally crawling out of the sea and piling up on the beaches. But the Pilgrims (and most people until quite recently) did not want to eat these huge, clacking, speckled sea monsters.

Not only couldn't they fish, the Pilgrims didn't know how to hunt. [Some grazing herds of deer provided venison – much like our Michigan hunters! And the slow moving turkey-birds, were an easy target. That’s where we get the phrase “a turkey shoot” meaning something very simple to do.] Accustomed to organized village life in England & in Holland, where there were markets for goods [markets for fish, markets for meat] most of the Pilgrims were bad at farming. (!)

In fact, they never had a good harvest until they learned to fish cod and plow the waste into the ground as fertilizer. Their greatest food-gathering skill in those early years was finding caches of food that had been hidden away by the native tribes-men! Samoset and Squanto provided the corn that kept the Pilgrims alive during their first winter. That’s why you were given the little packet of five kernels of corn when you arrived this morning. Imagine… that’s all you had to eat for an entire day. (!) Before we feast and give thanks for our “abundance”, pause to reflect on the hardships of those early immigrants to America.

With the help of Samoset and Squanto, the Pilgrims agreed to a treaty with Chief Massasoit that lasted for half-a-century. It was this occasion of friendly relations between the native Americans and the immigrant Pilgrims that is remembered as the First Thanksgiving in North American history. Altogether 90 natives responded to the Pilgrims’ invitation to a Harvest Feast.

When we see news articles about the hopes & hardships of today’s immigrants making their way to America, let’s recall what it must have been like for our early English immigrants coming to America. The first Americans, like Samoset & Squanto & Chief Massasoit, helped the Pilgrims survive as they settled. Their covenant of peace (friendship) lasted well into the Puritan Era.

Every year (as I said), more Pilgrims arrived at the Plymouth Plantation, but no minister was among them. This was a sign (writes Martin Marty) that these radical Protestants could do without priests. They simply followed the New Testament advice: “Rejoice in the Lord always… Let all men know your forbear-ance. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:4-7) Amen.

[1] Mark Kurlansky, Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, Penguin Books: New York, NY, 1997, pages 68-69

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