". . . and having done all . . . stand firm." Eph. 6:13


Who Were the Pilgrims, Really?

November 22, 2023

My guess is less than 5% of Americans have an accurate understanding of the Pilgrims. Religious freedom is often given as their reason for coming in 1620. However, that is misleading for two reasons. First, their purpose in coming was to extend the gospel to a land where it had never been preached. They believed themselves to be stepping stones for others to follow in the gospel’s expansion. In a lot of children’s textbooks, there is no mention of religious freedom in our contemporary understanding of that term.

When they left Holland, they had already spent 12 years together. Their absolute commitment to the above-stated purpose is demonstrated by one fact. When the Mayflower sailed back in April, 1621, half of the people were dead. Yet only the sailors returned to England.

Prior to the Pilgrims’ departure, they discussed the dangers of the trip. They understood the land was wild and uncivilized. They knew they would be risking their lives because pirates and storms always posed threats to those sailing. In November, they arrived at Cape Cod and signed what became known as the Mayflower Compact. The Compact reveals why they came. It states: “Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith.”

Thirteen years before, they escaped from England to live in Holland. They wanted to practice their faith freely and live productive lives. When it became evident Holland would not allow them to do this, they left. They came to America to live in freedom, untrammeled by what they saw as faulty civic and ecclesiastic conventions.

The second and equally important part was their commitment to civic government. Arriving in America, they would live together in a body politic. They would script their laws, elect their leaders, and submit to both. Today, Lincoln’s words, “Of the people, by the people, and for the people,” are what the Pilgrims gave us. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were indebted to them.

Someone might ask, “Is this what they intended?”

My answer, “Absolutely.”

Look at the Compact’s wording: We “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.”

The Compact was not a rushed, emergency document as has been alleged by some historians. Other historians don’t even mention it in their treatment of America’s founding. What we know is their pastor, John Robinson, had been preparing them for at least three years. They made their decision to leave by 1617 and then arranged terms of agreement with the English authorities. When they departed, Robinson wrote two notes — one to their elected leader John Carver, who was also a deacon in the congregation. The other he wrote to the congregation itself. The letters spelled out their obligations in spiritual and civil matters. These were given to everyone when they left Holland, four months before the Compact was signed. 

Finally, all men agreed to and signed the Compact, including the indentured servants and those not of Robinson’s congregation. At the end of their first year, they had established their colony, Plymouth Plantation; and they had a peace treaty with the natives. Their treaty was so successful they celebrated together — Thanksgiving. Their newly-elected governor, William Bradford, later recorded that this peace had lasted over 20 years. It was to last another 25 years after Bradford. 

Today, any church that doesn’t instruct its congregation accurately helps to destroy the foundations of America. Liberty to the Pilgrims meant they were free to worship God as they believed God intended, and they were free moral agents who should script just laws for the good of their society. They should elect representatives and obey their government. All were expected to be involved. Had the Pilgrims not come over, Americans might still be under a monarchy. The words “land of the free” would not apply to America.

Happy Thanksgiving. And, thank you, Pilgrims!

Jay Sabatino was a high school teacher, principal, and superintendent in Illinois public schools for more than 30 years. Upon his retirement, the Illinois legislature recognized him for his contribution to education. Currently, he is working as an adjunct professor for Trinity International University.