As the Mayflower edged towards the coast of Massachusetts the bedraggled group of pilgrims was probably jubilant at the prospect of stepping onto terra firma after months of seasickness and storms. As they took in the vast and unfamiliar landscape in front of them so many thoughts would have run through their minds.
They were a mixed bunch; some from England and some from the Netherlands but a single vision for the future united them; a free church in a free state. Their minds probably turned over the events of the past few years, rummaging through the fraying memories to finger the ones that most prominently stood out.
James I ascending the throne of England in the wake of the death of Elizabeth I.The fervent hope of many Puritans that King James would be the monarch to bring true reform to the church of England. The bitter disappointment they encountered as they realized that his primary concern was not the spiritual advancement of the church but rather the political advancement of his own crown.
Then there were the factions among their own number. Those who believed that a political solution was the only way forward. Those who vied for positions in Parliament in the hope that they could bring about much needed social and religious change through the mechanisms of government. And pitted against them were those who believed that legislation could never bring about spiritual revival. Those who held fast to the ideal of freedom of conscience.
Puritans were never popular; not in Elizabethan England and probably even less so during the reign of James I. They were persecuted, mocked and maligned for their faith but none of these things could move them and they pressed forward with a single-minded desire for true spiritual revival. But when things came to a head and they realized there was no way forward in Europe they decided to band together and set out in search of a new world. Not just a new world of opportunity but a new world that would offer them the freedom they so desperately longed for.
Looking back on those final frantic weeks leading up to their departure, many of them would have remembered the parting words of their beloved pastor John Robinson, who urged them to follow wherever God would lead, even if that was into new and unfamiliar spiritual paths. “Brethren” he had said “If God should reveal anything to you by any other instruments of His, be as ready to receive it as ever you were to receive any truth of my ministry; for am very confident the Lord has more truth and light yet to break forth out of His Holy Word”
America represented freedom from the tyranny and oppression they had experienced in Europe. The absolute control that the monarchs and Popes exercised over the consciences of the people. The Pilgrim fathers were determined to carve out the utopian republic they had envisioned when they set sail from Europe and to a great extent they succeeded.
They embraced the values of freedom, representative government and the rule of law in the shaping of their nation but perhaps the single most definitive thing that marked their efforts was their desire to secure religious freedom at all costs.
These beliefs formed the bedrock of the fledgling nation that would emerge from the crucible of those early years of embattlement. From the signing of the Mayflower compact in 1620 to the signing of the declaration of independence in 1776 and beyond America became an incubator that nurtured the spirit of freedom, equality and religious liberty in a way that no other nation had attempted before.
As William E. Griffis notes in his article in the North American Review “The Pilgrims showed how, under the bond and sanction of great ideas, a company of men of various nationalities, differing minds, social grades, and hereditary tastes and temperaments could hold and work together for the common good.” They forged the prototype of a government that was for the people, of the people and by the people.
They were the originators of the eudring archetype Ron Chernow speaks of in his biography of Alexander Hamilton; “the obscure immigrant(s) who come(s) to America, recreates himself and succeeds”
But there was a more definitive element than this sense of equal opportunity. That of freedom of worship. This meant more to them than anything else. The freedom to worship God individually without the pressure of a monarch presiding over the direction of their conscience.
This is perhaps what made America great; liberty of conscience and the truth that all men are created equal, before God and before the law. This freedom, diversity, and equality created the perfect environment to foster new ideas and to nurture independent thought. And it was this environment that would incubate the great spiritual awakenings that would soon follow.