Six Things We Can Learn from the Pilgrims

By   •   November 19, 2009   •   Topics:

It is appropriate at this season that we honor a few stout and earnest Englishmen—the Pilgrims—who left their native land in search of freedom to worship God.

The Mayflower’s voyage to the new world was a “survival test” on a huge scale. The passengers had sold their possessions and had to work for years to pay for their passage. The ship had no heat or plumbing. Storms raged, and a main beam cracked in mid-ocean.

But after more than two months on the Atlantic Ocean, this band of 102 people arrived before Christmas, 1620. William Bradford wrote in his journal, “Being thus arrived at a good harbor, and brought safely to land, they fell on their knees and blessed the God of heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof.” What a celebration that must have been!

But just after Christmas a serious sickness broke out, and in the next three months nearly half the Pilgrims died. Hunger and illness stalked them, but they never wavered in their purpose.

Today, if these Pilgrims could observe our troubled world with its disillusioned outlook, its rebelliousness and its erosion of traditional values, they would be not only dismayed but also shocked. However, since their time, certain things have not changed. There is still lust, greed, hatred and prejudice in the human heart. There is still persecution and war in the world.

With all of the world’s churches and universities, we would do well to go back to the church and the school of early Plymouth to see what those pioneers can teach us.

(1.) Be Strong in Your Faith
First, the Pilgrims have left us an example of their deep, unwavering religious convictions. What were these convictions? They believed in Christ and in His Kingdom. They found fulfillment in Him. They had purpose in their lives. They had encountered the living Christ and they knew it. They feared neither monarch nor people, only God.

Because they belonged to God, they had a deep faith and confidence in themselves. They believed in their own dignity, were confident that their cause was just, and walked with an uprightness that only fearless and free people can display.

In our day agnosticism, anxiety, emptiness, meaninglessness, have gripped much of our world—and even the Church. People are broad but shallow. Our youth are desperately searching for purpose and meaning and fulfillment in their lives.

By contrast, these Pilgrim forebears stand as shining examples of people who were narrow but deep, certain of what they believed, unswerving in their loyalty, and passionately dedicated to God whom they trusted and for whom they willingly would have died. I sincerely believe that a return to biblical faith and conviction would have a great impact at this hour.

(2.) Practice Discipline
Second, the Pilgrims left us an example of disciplined living. They were Puritans who were ready to order everything—personal life, worship, the church, business affairs, political views, and even recreation—according to the commandments of God. The word “Puritan” itself in the contemporary mind identifies those who followed a strict and closely regulated life.

The ethic of self-mastery and spiritual discipline falls strangely on the ears of today’s generation. What a contrast between the conduct of the Pilgrims and the permissiveness and hedonism of today!

(3.) Enjoy Freedom Under the Law
Third, the Pilgrims have left us the example of freedom under law. The Mayflower Compact forged before the Pilgrims left the ship was the wedge that opened the door to a government controlled by the people, a government that has endured in the United States for centuries. Most historians agree that the Mayflower Compact was the forerunner of the Constitution of the United States.

This little band of people searched for an equitable manner of earning a living and for a way of survival. They tried living a communal lifestyle, but, according to Governor Bradford: “This communal system conceived by Plato was found to breed much confusion.” When communal living failed, they assigned a parcel of land to every family; with individual enterprise, prosperity came to the colony.

In some parts of the world rebellious young people live, enjoying what they call “absolute freedom.” They are free to take narcotics, free to experiment with sex, free to go unwashed, free to dress as they please and do what they like.

They remind me of a man in a hospital who had to be fed through a tube. Having tired of the tube with its discomfort, the man tore the tube from his body and declared that he was free. Free? He was free only to die, because he had removed himself from his hope of life.

The freedom exercised by the Pilgrims didn’t degenerate into license. Theirs was a liberty under law. The lawbreakers, malcontents, dissidents and criminals of our day would have been rejected by the Pilgrims. To them freedom under the law meant judgment for the lawless.

(4.) Care about Others
Fourth, the Pilgrims left us an example of a people who had keen social concern. They believed that every person was made in the image of God, that each one was of infinite value and worth in the sight of God. They lived with Native Americans who had a different religion, a different skin color and a different culture.

In March of 1621 Chief Samoset visited the Pilgrims’ village and signed a peace treaty that lasted for many years. It was a treaty with high social and ethical content, showing a deep concern for the social, political and spiritual needs of neighbors.

Though the Pilgrims knew that they were citizens of another world, they sought to improve the world they were passing through. The Pilgrims made their new world better, not by tearing down the old, but by constructive toil and fair dealings with their neighbors.

(5.) Share Your Faith
Fifth, the Pilgrims were evangelists who set us an example in sharing their spiritual and material blessings with others. In the Mayflower Compact the Pilgrims committed themselves to the “advancement of the Christian faith.”

The Pilgrims at Plymouth were followed by the Puritans at Massachusetts Bay. Together they built churches and schools. In 1636 Harvard College was founded to train men for the ministry. By 1663 the first Bible was printed (the Algonquin Bible) for the Native Americans in their own tongue.

These settlers came to the new world not only to find freedom for themselves but also to tell others of their faith.

(6.) Dream Great Dreams
For “where there is no vision, the people perish,” says the Bible. The Pilgrims dreamed great dreams. They dreamed of a haven for themselves and for their children. They dreamed of religious freedom. They dreamed of a world where God would rule the hearts of men.

They lived and died with these hopes. The Pilgrims’ strength of spirit was forged by a personal faith in Christ, by tough discipline and by regular habits of devotion.

Today it seems that many of us have neither vision nor hope. But if we so chose, we too could become like the Pilgrims. We could regain hope. We could recover the spiritual and the moral strength that we have lost.

But we would have to be willing to take up the same cross of Christ that they bore. We would have to put our faith in the same Christ that they did. We would have to make the same kind of lifetime commitments that they made. We would have to discipline ourselves as they did.

And, like the Pilgrims, we need to dream great dreams, embrace great principles, renew our hope, and above all, believe in the Christ who alone can give total meaning and an ultimate goal to our lives: “For in him we live, and move, and have our being.”