It is hard for me to imagine -- in this era of connectivity when we seem never to be by ourselves, I find it hard to imagine how the Pilgrims must have felt. Perhaps the TV show Lost, about a band of castaways struggling to survive on a remote Pacific island, captures the sheer enormity of the situation most.
They left the comforts and securities of familiar territory; they abandoned the known struggles of civilization; they ventured across a hostile and dangerous ocean during the last throes of autumn before winter grumbled in. They arrived facing a vast expanse of untamed wilderness, fearing a harsh welcome from the natives (who were justifiably suspicious because of their previous encounters with English slavers). When they arrived, they were isolated and huddled together, ready to face the harshness of the New England winter.
And yet, somehow God sustained them. In spite of the death of half their number in the first winter, God held them up. Even though their first encounters with the Native Americans fared poorly, God sent friendly help through Samoset and Squanto, the Native Americans who brought about a peace agreement that held up for decades. Governor William Bradford, when looking back at that moment of first arrival, writes in his history: land “What then could sustain them but the spirit of God and His grace? Ought not the children of their fathers rightly to say: Our fathers were Englishmen who came over the 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 that have been redeemed of the Lord, show how He hath delivered them from the hand of the oppressor. When they wandered forth into 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!” (66, Vision Forum edition of Plyouth Plantation).
Their courage was memorialized in the Bas Relief sculpture shown above -- a part of the US capital building rotunda. A brief visit to the website of the Architect of the Capitol will show other homages to the courage of the Pilgrims. Take for instance this painting of the Pilgrims in prayer prior to their departure from Delft Haven Holland. The commentary on this 19th century Robert Weir painting states "Protestant pilgrims are shown on the deck of the ship Speedwell before their departure for the New World from Delft Haven, Holland, on July 22, 1620. William Brewster, holding the Bible, and pastor John Robinson lead Governor Carver, William Bradford, Miles Standish, and their families in prayer. The prominence of women and children suggests the importance of the family in the community. At the left side of the painting is a rainbow, which symbolizes hope and divine protection." It was placed in the Capitol Building in 1844.
The pilgrim memorials in the Capitol complex remind us that their story is a part of our story -- a part of why we celebrate Thanksgiving this Thursday. May we pause and remember and give thanks to God for Providential care.
Soli Deo Gloria