The people we know as Pilgrims have become so immersed in legend that we are tempted to forget that they were real people. What strength of faith and courage must it have taken to openly oppose the Church of England (Anglican Church), the King of England (James I, the head of the Church of England), their friends, and family not to mention to leave their home for a new life in a foreign country? Because some in church leadership were there for political power, there arose a movement to purify the Anglican Church, resulting in the nickname “Puritans.”
The Puritans were loyal to the Anglican Church, as compared with the “Separatists,” who considered it tainted beyond repair. The Separatists risked breaking the law to meet in secret and hold prayer meetings. Their ministers were often arrested for preaching without a license, their members’ homes and farms seized, and some even branded on their face to mark them as heretics.
In 1607, after years of persecution, the Separatists fled to Holland where they could have some degree of religious freedom. Even though they didn’t know the language, they struggled to build a community there, but met with limited success.
After 12 years, they were faced with the decision of moving their community or seeing their children assimilated into the Dutch culture. They considered Guyana, but decided against it, based on the tropical diseases and the close proximity to the Caribbean Spanish Main, where Spaniards murdered attempted colonies. The Separatists chose to join Jamestown Colony, though they had heard frightening reports of Indian massacres, starvation, disease-carrying mosquitoes, desolate terrain and cannibalism.
However, that would pale in comparison to the faith and courage it would take to face a risky sea voyage and the terrifying unknowns of the New World. By the time the Pilgrims had left England, they had already been living onboard the ships for nearly a month and a half. The voyage itself across the Atlantic Ocean took 66 days.
In July of 1620, they departed from Leyden, Holland, to Southampton, England, and from there to America. Little did they know that of the 103 Pilgrims who departed, only 51 would survive the first winter.
Upon making their first reconnaissance, the Mayflower passengers, not being accustomed to the bitter winter weather, ill-clad in below-freezing temperatures with wet shoes and stockings that became frozen, were forced to spend the night ashore due to the bad weather.
During the winter, the passengers remained on board the Mayflower, suffering an outbreak of a contagious disease described as a mixture of scurvy, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. When it ended, only 53 passengers remained—just over half; half of the crew died, as well. In the spring, they built huts ashore, and the passengers disembarked from the Mayflower on March 21, 1621.
The English colonists known today as Pilgrims celebrated days of thanksgiving as part of their religion. But these were days of prayer, not days of feasting.
The American national holiday really stems from the feast held in the autumn of 1621 by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag to celebrate the colony’s first successful harvest.
From my years young in days of youth,
God did make known to me his truth,
And call’d me from my native place
For to enjoy the means of grace.
In wilderness he did me guide,
And in strange lands for me provide.
In fears and wants, through weal and woe,
A pilgrim, past I to and fro.