The Pilgrims were part of a greater movement — stretching back to Wycliffe and Tyndale — to place the Scriptures into the hands of the common man. Yet what they tried to do with those Scriptures is virtually unknown, even though their moving story is told year after year in America. Vivid images remain with us: fleeing persecution in England, leaving Holland, crossing the perilous sea, settling in Plymouth, suffering heroically through their first winter, receiving gracious help from the Indians.
For most of us, their story ends a few months later with the first Thanksgiving. They went on with a life we know very little about, and eventually this great and free nation was born. It is not too clear in the textbooks anymore, but somehow the two — their life and our nation — are connected. These brave but simple and humble men and women had more in their hearts than the great idea we associate with them: religious freedom.
That was part of it, but they came for more than a safe haven for their children from the worldly temptations of Holland. They actually came to recreate on the shores of America the life of the first church — what the world saw in Jerusalem in the first century. We tend to see “the Pilgrims” in a certain way that makes it hard for us to understand what their life together meant to them .
They shared all things in common, not just as a business arrangement with their financial backers, but as an expression of their fervent faith. They were out to bring the “Kingdom of God” to earth. At the least, they sought to be “stepping stones” for those who might come after them, “one small candle” that “may light a thousand.” 1 But they wanted to be stepping-stones to somewhere, a light on the path there.
In their own estimation, they failed . They didn’t become what they wanted to, but settled for something far less. This was their sorrow, their heartache, and their profound disappointment. They dreamed much more greatly than we have understood, even though the whole story is written in Bradford’s own journal, Of Plymouth Plantation. In their own words, the Pilgrim story raises profound questions about the dream, the cost, and even the possibility of bringing the Kingdom of God to earth.
That such a goal filled the hearts of a group of English countrymen is perhaps the greatest wonder of the story, which begins, in this sense, long before any of them were born. It begins with the “morning star” of the Reformation, John Wycliffe, whose work was continued a century later by William Tyndale. Tyndale’s translation remains the foundation of English translations of the Bible to this day. In them burned a fire to purify the church and to give the common man the word of God. For many centuries it had lain hidden in the hands of the clergy and in the dead languages of scholars. They thought that perhaps if the common people had the Bible, the first, pure love of the primitive church might blossom on the earth again.
In the most famous incident of his life, Tyndale insists on the necessity of the common man knowing the Scriptures and no longer being held in ignorance. When confronted by a clergyman as to what was wrong with their ignorance, since they have the Church to teach them, Tyndale cuts to the heart of the matter. What about the times when the pope is at variance with God’s laws? The priest responds that it would be better to do without God’s laws than the pope’s. In the answer that shaped his life, and secured its violent end, Tyndale vowed, “ I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that drives the plow to know more of the Scripture than you do.”
Some seventy years after his death, that plowboy — that everyman — joined a group of Separatists in Scrooby, England. They were the most radical of the Puritans who believed in complete separation from the established church.
That twelve-year-old boy was William Bradford, whose devotion to the cause cost him the loss of his family, for they disowned him. But his decision meant much more than alienating his family. It placed him at odds with the governing authorities of the English church and state, at whose hands he and the others suffered persecution.
Bradford saw this treatment as nothing less than the opposition of Satan. As he would write in his journal, the evil one was “loath his kingdom should go down, the truth prevail and the churches of God revert to their ancient purity and recover their primitive order, liberty, and beauty.” 2
The desire to see the churches restored to how they were at first, back to their “primitive order,” was the powerful motivation that sustained the Pilgrims through all their difficulties. It is why they were given the despised name of “Separatists” and known as radicals and driven out of England. It set them on a course to the “wilderness” and “strange lands” and a life filled with “weal and woe.” 3 They knew blessings and the keenest of sufferings in a way those who safely adventure less in life will never know.
It was through Bradford’s eyes that history would see the Pilgrims, as his journal, Of Plymouth Plantation, forms our chief record of their remarkable life. His poetry and history reveal the deep stream from which this spiritual movement flowed, and the rocks over which it floundered, and upon which it died.
The depth of the bond these men and women had, and the cause to which they dedicated their life, can be glimpsed in this passage from Bradford’s journal, concerning their time in Leyden, Holland:
Being thus settled (after many difficulties) they enjoyed many years in a comfortable situation, enjoying much sweet and delightful society and spiritual comfort together in the ways of God, under the able ministry and prudent government of Mr. John Robinson and Mr. William Brewster... So as they grew in knowledge and other gifts and graces of the Spirit of God, and lived together in peace and love and holiness and many came unto them from different parts of England, so as they grew a great congregation. 4
Of this great congregation, fifty or so would adventure the journey to America in 1620 after lengthy discussion of the dangers and the costs, and the rewards. Concerning the hope that filled them, Bradford wrote:
Lastly (and which was not least), a great hope and inward zeal they had of laying some good foundation, or at least to make some way thereunto, for the propagating and advancing the gospel of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world; yea, though they should be but even as stepping-stones unto others for the performing of so great a work. 5
Of all that happened to them there, many books are written and many stories are told. It is part of America’s rich heritage of freedom and courage. Many even take note of what they say was their brief flirtation with communism. Later editors even use the word to subtitle that portion of Bradford’s journal. Yet such was not their word for their way. Rather, it was their common course, which was to them the ancient purity and primitive order, liberty, and beauty of the first church, where “all who believed were together and had all things in common.” 6
After sufferings greater than most of us have known, they faced another lean year, with little prospect of supplies coming to them from England. One issue above all dominated discussion — their “common course” was not working. “ So they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery. At length, after much debate of things, the Governor [Bradford writes of himself] gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves .” 7
And this decision “had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious... and gave far better content.”
Among those who had survived those first terrible years only a few were left for whom the common good made them very industrious and gave them far better content . Bradford notes very wisely that such a “common course and condition” will not work among men, as generation after generation of utopians, socialists, and communists have learned to their hurt (And to the hurt of countless others). Bradford says they dream that the “ taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing .” Then he tellingly adds, “ as if they were wiser than God.”
For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the young men, that were most able and fit for labor and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense... And for men’s wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc., they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could many husbands well brook it... Let none object this is men’s corruption, and nothing to the course itself. I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in His wisdom saw another course fitter for them.”
No, they couldn’t live this way. They could separate from the corrupted church, cross the ocean to escape the corrupt societies, but they could not escape the corruption of man’s condition. Nor have others been able to live this way. All who try strike hard against selfish human nature. Alas, the “common course and condition” is the way of dreamers... but still, Bradford writes: charge nothing against “the course itself.” The pain he felt at giving way to the grim taskmaster of necessity he hid away. There was no time to think of it with their survival at stake. But the ache and the doubt and the sorrow never went away.
Had they abandoned the gospel way, the “primitive pattern” and settled for something much less? That it was God’s way for men today he had no doubt, for creation and the nature of mankind bore witness to it, 8 but long ago, when the church was young, in the days of their “ancient purity... order, liberty, and beauty,” they had done it. What had changed from the days of the apostles? Why couldn’t they do it now? Bradford turned away from the question, unable to face the answer.
Time, diligent labor, and the chances of history — all these brought prosperity, finally, to the little band of Pilgrims. The second decade of their existence, the 1630s, saw the Great Migration of Puritans fleeing England to establish their own theocracy in the Bay Colony just to their north. Trading with them changed everything:
And no man now thought he could live, except he had lots of cattle and a great deal of ground to keep them; all striving to increase their flocks. 9
But as the Pilgrims spread out, Bradford recorded in his sorrow:
The church also was divided, and those who had lived so long together in Christian & comfortable fellowship now parted and suffered many divisions. And thus was this poor church left, like an ancient mother, grown old, and forsaken of her children.
Sometime after 1650, historians believe, several years after his last entry, Bradford was reading over his journal. An old man then, he came upon a section he had written in 1617. As he read, his heart was pierced with sadness as it spoke of how his people had once been...
So that it is not with us as with other men whom small things can discourage or small discontentments cause to wish themselves home again. For we were a body in a most strict and sacred bond and covenant together, the violation of that bond was a serious matter. In that bond we held one another strongly tied to care for each other’s good, and for the good of the whole...
Suddenly, the compromises they had made became blindingly clear to him. He took his pen to the original manuscript and penned words in the margin that are still legible. They tell us a great deal of the deep regret of Bradford’s last days. His words ring out as a death knell through the bells of time, telling of a movement overcome by the very sins it strove to escape:
O sacred bond, whilst inviolably preserved! How sweet and precious were the fruits that flowed from the same. But when this fidelity decayed, then their ruin approached. O, that the ancient members had not died or been dissipated (if it had been the will of God) or else that this holy care and constant faithfulness had still lived, and remained with those that survived, and were in times afterwards added unto them.
But (alas) that subtle serpent, the devil, has slyly wound himself among us under fair pretenses of necessity and the like, to untwist those sacred bonds and tried, and as it were insensibly by degrees to dissolve, or in great measure, to weaken the same.
I have been happy, in my first times, to see, and with much comfort to enjoy, the blessed fruits of this sweet communion, but now it is a part of my misery in old age, to find and feel the decay and want therefore (in a great measure) and with grief and sorrow of heart I lament and bewail the same. And for others’ warning and admonition, and my own humiliation, I do here note the same. 10
Many have taken Bradford’s warning and learned his “lesson” not to share all things in common. But was he merely telling us that it doesn’t work? If this is truly what he meant, then the stepping stones the Pilgrims laid lead nowhere man has not already gone time and time again. But if the Pilgrims began to walk the way of the primitive church in purity, order, liberty, and beauty, as the believers in Acts 2 and 4 did; if they thought they were no longer natural men, bound to seek after all that the Gentiles seek after, but that by seeking first His Kingdom, God would supply all these things to them; 11 then anything less than what the Pilgrims adventured is far, far from the path of those stepping stones, in some great darkness away from the light of their one small candle.
Bradford’s humility allowed him to face the reality of why their “common course and condition” ended: the devil prevailed over them, dividing them as he has always divided men, in the fear for their own lives and prosperity. If you feel his sorrow, then perhaps you will, like we did, hold the stones of Zion “dear, and have pity on its dust,” and sense that now is the time for compassion and favor upon her.
You will arise and have compassion on Zion; for it is time to be gracious to her, for the appointed time has come. Surely Your servants find pleasure in her stones and feel pity for her dust... He has regarded the prayer of the destitute and has not despised their prayer. This will be written for the generation to come, that a people yet to be created may praise the LORD. (Psalm 102:13-14,15-18, NASB)
King David wrote this long ago. He was speaking of the spiritual nation that would yet bear the fruit of the Kingdom and become the witness of the Kingdom of God to all the earth. 12 Its beginning will be nothing less than the place the early church began, which the Pilgrims had the courage to attempt, even if they lacked what they needed to finish. 13 They will know that the belief in the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16, is realized in Acts 2:44-45:
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)
Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. (Acts 2:44-45)
And they will understand that there is a way to know they have passed from death and into life:
Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life. (John 5:24)
We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. (1 John 3:14)
Any spiritual movement not built on this foundation will see the gates of hell prevail against it, even as William Bradford saw happen to his Pilgrims.