By Jonathon Van Maren
“In the beginning, there was Plymouth,” Nathaniel Philbrick told me. He should know. His book Mayflower: Voyage, Community, and War was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History. It is a magnificent retelling of one of America’s origin stories. Plymouth wasn’t where America formally began, Philbrick told me. “But it is a narrative that resonates with America.”
This fall marks the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s landing at Plymouth Rock. The ship left England at 6 p.m. on September 16, 1620. It dropped anchor near the tip of Cape Cod on November 11, 1620. Before heading ashore, 41 male passengers signed a now-famous document — the Mayflower Compact.
The Compact read as follows:
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, etc.:
Having undertaken, for the Glory of God, and advancements of the Christian faith, and the honor 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 politic; for our better ordering, and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue thereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be though 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 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth, 1620.
Of the 102 passengers, a third were Puritan Separatists. For years they had been seeking a place to worship in freedom and in peace. The Church of England, they believed, was corrupt. Still, they were forbidden to start their own churches. Many fled to the Netherlands. In Leiden, they found religious liberty but a foreign culture. They also feared a siege and renewed persecution by Catholic Spain. To serve God in their own way, they decided cross the Atlantic and rebuild in the New World.
The Separatists had planned to settle in northern Virginia, but brutal storms and savage seas blew them more than 500 miles off course. Upon landing in what is now Provincetown Harbor, they hunted for a place to settle. They had arrived late, and winter was almost upon them. During the winter of 1620-21, 45 of the 102 Mayflower passengers died. Survivors suffered from scurvy and lack of shelter.
It is often assumed today that the Puritans didn’t expect the hardships they would face. This is false. The only other English settlement in America, Jamestown, had already lost hundreds to disease and starvation. This was well-known. The Puritans set out for the New World knowing they might not survive. In his memoir Of Plymouth Plantation, Governor William Bradford explains that they trusted in God for their survival. (This sadly neglected account, Philbrick told me, “is one of the greatest books ever written.”)
The settlers first met the Native Americans in March of 1621. Under Bradford’s leadership, they developed a genuinely amicable relationship. Famously, the Native Americans had much to teach the settlers about how to survive in the New World. In November 1621, the 53 surviving settlers hosted a harvest feast, inviting Chief Massasoit and 90 of his men. It lasted three days and included wild turkeys, fish, and waterfowl. Massasoit provided five deer.
This feast certainly took place — it is recorded by Bradford, Edward Winslow, and Captain Nathaniel Morton (Bradford’s nephew). It was not until the 1800s that it began to be referred to as “The First Thanksgiving.” (Similarly, the Puritans were not called “Pilgrims” until much later. Daniel Webster popularized it in 1820 at the bicentennial of Plymouth’s founding.)
It is almost impossible for most modern Americans to understand what drove these men and women across the ocean. “They believed that their relationship with God and with each other was the most important thing in their lives,” Philbrick told me. “They were trying to have a one-to-one relationship with God, to get rid of all of the man-made impurities that had entered the conversation in the 1,600 years since Jesus Christ. To get back to the Word of God.”
If you visit Plymouth today, evidence of their devotion is still everywhere. In the Pilgrim Hall Museum, which I visited in 2016, you can see William Bradford’s Bible, an original portrait of Edward Winslow, and the great chair of William Brewster, Plymouth’s spiritual leader. There is also America’s earliest sampler, embroidered by the daughter of Myles Standish. To walk through modern Plymouth is to step back in time to an era when some of the earliest Americans fled to her shores to worship God in freedom.
The 400th anniversary of the landing at Plymouth is an opportunity to remember all of this. The years before King Philip’s War in the 1670s are a beautiful example of a meeting of cultures. While Bradford lived, the settlers and the Native Americans had a largely harmonious relationship. Some, like Bradford and the Catholic Indian Squanto, had genuine friendships. “There really was a kind of bi-cultural moment there between two peoples,” Philbrick told me. It was greed and ambition, of the sort that Bradford felt to be fundamentally ungodly, that began to unravel the relationships in subsequent generations.
As progressives tear at America’s history and lie about her founding with the 1619 Project, we should revisit the Pilgrims. William Bradford is in many ways the hero we need right now. He was a devout Christian who critiqued materialism, developed genuine relationships with Native American leaders, and decried expansion for its own sake. Bradford had not come to America to get rich. He had come to America to live a simple life in service of his God. In his memoir, he mourned that so many seemed to forget in later years why they had come to the New World in the first place.
In the middle of a pool near Plymouth Rock stands a tall statue of an elegant, beautiful Puritan woman. On the base of the statue is a list of names. Each of the women who had braved the Atlantic on the Mayflower is recorded here. Beneath the names, these words are carved: “They brought up their families with sturdy virtue and a living faith in God, without which nations perish.”
Without which nations perish. These words are both a warning and a call to action. The young people marching in America’s streets today may not understand “sturdy virtue” or “a living faith in God.” But they must; we all must. More than America is at stake, after all. Because when America was built by men like William Bradford and the women of the Mayflower, she grew into the largest superpower the world had ever seen. It will only take a few generations for that inheritance to be squandered, destroyed, and then abandoned.
The 1620 Project
Instead of the 1619 Project, perhaps Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation should be taught in schools. If it was, children would read lines like this:
May not and ought not the children of these fathers rightly say: ‘Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness but they cried unto the Lord, and He heard their voice, and looked on their adversity. Let them therefore praise the Lord, because He is good, and His mercies endure forever. Yea, let them which have been redeemed of the Lord, shew how He hath delivered them from the hand of the oppressor. When they wandered in the desert wilderness out of the way, and found no city to dwell in, both hungry, and thirsty, their soul was overwhelmed in them. Let them confess before the Lord His loving kindness, and His wonderful works before the sons of men.
Imagine what a difference that would make.