Hello, this is Robert J. Morgan talking about my book 100 Bible Verses That Made America. My thesis? Trying to explain American history without its Bible is like trying to understand the human body without its bloodstream. Had there been no Bible, there would be no America as we know it, and perhaps there would be no United States of America at all. Many modern revisionist historians are erasing the Bible’s influence on American history, but no eraser on earth can truly do that. The story is too deeply embedded and too amazingly wonderful.
Let’s begin at the beginning.
Finding The New World
We sometimes think the Pilgrims who came to America were the first Europeans to colonize the New World, but, of course, that isn’t not true. The Spanish came first, and the French, and the Dutch. The Spanish actually founded the city of Saint Augustine, Florida, in 1565, over a half-century before the Pilgrims. The Pilgrims were not even the first English settlers. In 1587, over 100 English men and women came to America and established a colony on Roanoke Island on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, not far from where the Wright Brothers would later test their airplane. But when British ships visited the area later, all signs of the colonists were gone. What happened to them is something of a mystery. When I was a boy, our family visited the Outer Banks, and we went to the outdoor drama about the event. The Lost Colony is America’s longest-running outdoor drama. It started in 1937 and is still going strong on Roanoke Island. They still haven’t found those settlers.
Exactly 20 years after the Lost Colony, the British tried again. This time the colonizers landed in the Tidewater area of Virginia and established Jamestown, close to modern day Williamsburg. This was a commercial venture and it was the scene of terrible suffering for years to come. At one point, colonists were reduced to alleged cannibalism.
The third significant British attempt to colonize America was the coming the Pilgrims, the immigrants on board the Mayflower that landed on Cape Cod in 1620. This is the group Americans know the best. Why is that? What was so special about them? Why is it we celebrate them so much, revere them so deeply, and reenact their stories in thousands of school plays and skits every Thanksgiving?
I believe the difference was spiritual. The other ventures were commercial, but the Mayflower passengers involved Christians who risked their lives to seek religious freedom for their families. They were born along by faith. They risked everything for the opportunity of raising their families without fear of religious persecution.
Let me tell you their story.
Pursing Religious Freedom
In the 1500s and 1600s, the Protestant Reformation spread across Europe like a great revival of faith. People got back to reading the Bible for themselves. People got back to the essential doctrines of the Scripture. People got back to being saved by grace through faith. But in England, the changes didn’t go very far. King Henry VIII declared himself to the head of the church, displacing the pope. But that was a political move. The British state church operated just about the same, only under the oversight of the British monarch, who was corrupt.
But there were some within the Anglican Church (the Church of England) who wanted to purify the church and bring about true revival. They were called Puritans. And some of those Puritans wanted to completely separate from the official state church and have their own autonomous congregations. They were called Separatists.
The Puritans and Separatists were fiercely persecuted by the government. They inevitably offended the king or the queen or whoever was in power. They were fined. They were rounded up and jailed. They were tortured. They were slain. And many of them fled for their lives, crossing the English channel and settling in Holland, where there was greater freedom of religion.
Up in Scrooby (pronounced Screw-bee), England, well north of London, there was a congregation of about a hundred members led by, among others, Pastor John Robinson. The church met in the manor house of a local official named William Brewster. That very house, Scrooby Manor still stands; it’s a private home now but there are great pictures of it online.
In the fall of 1607, this church – the entire congregation – realized they would have to leave England or lose their freedom of worship. King James I was determined to drive the Separatists out of the land. So they were among those who decided to flee to Holland.
A Brave Congregation
It took a while and there were dangers and disappointments along the way, but eventually the congregation settled in the university city of Leiden, Holland. There they formed the “English Separatist Church at Leiden.” John Robinson was the pastor and William Brewster was the ruling elder. The church grew to several hundred. John Robinson became involved in the theology department of the local university, and he wrote several essays, pamphlets, and books, some of them defending the Separatist doctrine and the right of Christians to be free of governmental control.
But it was difficult for an entire, growing congregation of English immigrants to exist in a foreign culture. There were language problems. There were occupational struggles. And they were especially concerned that their teenagers were becoming more Dutch than English. That’s when someone had a radical idea. Why not America?
It was not feasible for the entire congregation to relocate across the ocean all at once, to an unexplored and dangerous continent, but about a hundred of them committed to the trip—though in the end only about half that number actually made the journey. Pastor John Robinson wanted to go, but it was impossible. So he led his congregation to the harbor and held a service, sending off those who were going.
This was one of those services that should never be forgotten – the send-off service in which a brave congregation sent out 41 of their number on a very dangerous mission—to establish a town and a church in another world.
The Embarkation of the Pilgrims
Pastor John Robinson preached from Ezra 8:21, which was very appropriate. In Ezra, chapter 8, the great Hebrew scholar, Ezra, led a group of exiles back to Jerusalem and back to Judah. Before they left Babylon, they had a worship service. Ezra 8:21 says, “There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves to our God and ask Him for a safe journey for us and our children with all our possessions.”
The famous scene has been immortalized in a painting – The Embarkation of the Pilgrims – in the rotunda of the United States Capitol Building. It shows Pastor Robinson with a large open Bible, surrounded by men, women, and children, who are kneeling in prayer as they prepare to set off on their journey.
One of the passengers, William Bradford, later wrote about the send-off service at the Dutch harbor, saying “With mutual embraces and many tears… they left that good and pleasant city which had been their resting place nearly twelve years; but they knew they were pilgrims….”
That’s where the term Pilgrims comes from in relation to this group. The English word “Pilgrim” means someone who is not at home. They are traveling. They are on a journey, especially over a long distance. They are wanderers, especially in a foreign place. The Bible says of the heroes of Scripture, “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13).
The group sailed for a British port, and then boarded a little creaky ship in Plymouth, England, called the Mayflower.
The Voyage of the Mayflower
But the Pilgrims were not the only ones on the Mayflower. There were 41 of the Pilgrims, or Separatists. But there was another group of about sixty people traveling just for adventure, or perhaps in hope of financial gain, or maybe to escape their situations in England. And then, of course, there was a crew. In all, 135 souls were crammed and jammed aboard the little ship.
The Mayflower should have sailed during the summer when the weather was better, but there were delays. She didn’t sail out of Plymouth, England, until Wednesday, September 6, 1620. September isn’t a good time to begin a transatlantic crossing.
It would take over two months — 67 days to be exact – to make the voyage. As I said, this was a small ship. It was only twelve feet longer than a tennis court, and the Mayflower had never been designed as a passenger boat. There were no rooms and beds and bunks and berths. It was a cargo ship, and the only place for the passengers was the gun deck. And it was quite small and almost totally dark. It was only 25 feet by 15 feet at its widest point, and wasn’t high enough for an adult to stand upright. This is where the passengers slept, changed the babies, cooked their food on top of carefully watched flames, went to the bathroom, and everything else.
Even worse, the weather was treacherous this time of year, and the waves were high enough to make the ship roll and pitch. Virtually everyone became seasick, and they also became wet and cold, because it was impossible to keep the ocean water from draining into the cargo hold. And some of the storms were terrifying.
Kevin Jackson, in his little book, Mayflower: The Voyage From Hell, said, “The constant noise was another torment. A powerful storm can be alarming enough on land, but at sea the air is torn with the sound of wind screaming through the rigging, the crashing of water against timber just feet or even inches away, the sickening groaning of the hull as the elements batter it, and the booming of unsecured sails. At night, for our travelers, the terrors were all the greater.”
There was also a sizable population of rats and cockroaches making the voyage.
It sounds to me something like being imprisoned in a foul, dark, smelling, unsanitary dungeon for two months—one that constantly lurches and pitches and spews forth unexpected showers of cold, salty water.
But these Pilgrims were sustained by the Scripture. Every day they read the Bible, and one day the passage was so timely and incredibly appropriate that the passengers knew it was providential.
The Psalms of the Sea
It happened halfway through the voyage – on September 22 – when they were in rough waters. The Psalm for the day was Psalm 107, and these words.
Some went out on the sea in ships;
they were merchants on the mighty waters.
24 They saw the works of the Lord,
his wonderful deeds in the deep.
25 For he spoke and stirred up a tempest
that lifted high the waves.
26 They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths;
in their peril their courage melted away.
27 They reeled and staggered like drunkards;
they were at their wits’ end.
28 Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
and he brought them out of their distress.
29 He stilled the storm to a whisper;
the waves of the sea[b] were hushed.
30 They were glad when it grew calm,
and he guided them to their desired haven.
31 Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind.
Well, the Mayflower finally came within sight of the New World. On Friday, November 10, one of the sailors cried, “Land Ho!” They had expected to be farther to the south, at the mouth of the Hudson River in the general vicinity of modern Manhattan, but they had arrived instead to the north. They were at Cape Cod. That meant they were going to establish a colony outside of Great Britain’s territorial boundaries in the New World. They would be establishing a town without an overseeing government. And so they drew up a remarkable document aboard ship—the Mayflower Compact, which has been called America’s first constitution.
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, &c. Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first Colony in the northern Parts of Virginia; Do by these Presents, solemnly and mutually, in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid: And by Virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Officers, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general Good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due Submission and Obedience. IN WITNESS whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape-Cod the eleventh of November, in the Reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth, Anno Domini; 1620
In other words, they gave tribute to King James, but they said they had come to America for the advancement of the Christian faith and they were going to organize and govern themselves.
The Beginning of America
They disembarked and called their colony Plymouth, which was the name of the port from which they had sailed. Their voyage took them from Plymouth, England, to Plymouth Harbor in New England.
The days to come were terrible. They arrived just as winter arrived, and how they survived and how the Indians helped them and how they later celebrated Thanksgiving together is a well-known story. But behind the story is a Christian—a biblical, an incredible—act of faith and courage.
It was also the beginning of what we now call the Puritan Migration. Over the next 20 years some of the most godly, best educated, and most remarkable British citizens—the Puritans—would be driven to the New World by persecution. More about that in the next episode.
But for now, think of this: That a group of Christians would risk everything to establish a home on a new continent where they could worship in freedom; that they would be sent off with the words of Ezra the scribe and be sustained by the words of Psalm 107; that they would establish a covenant for the advancement of the Christian faith; and that they would forever be enshrined in our national memory by their feast of thanksgiving with their native American friends – that is why we remember them.
And in so many ways, this was truly the beginning of America.