Gratitude. Four hundred and two years ago last week, in 1620, 102 passengers set sail for the wilderness 3000 miles away. Faith infused them with courage. Their ship was 90 feet long, distance between bases in baseball, three first downs in football. They made it and changed the world.
Delayed by leaks, embarking into winter storms, they left Plymouth, England – ping pong ball on surf – bound for a “new world.” Aboard were Protestant separatists, three named John Howland, Elizabeth Tilley, and her father and mother, John and Joan Tilley. Their ship was the…Mayflower.
Today, we nod and imagine history as it became, not realizing it could have been wholly different. It might have been. We will think of “The Pilgrims” at Thanksgiving, then check our email, throw a football, and read a book…imagine all that America is, was destined.
But destiny is not about counting on destiny. It is about living to the moment, hearing voices from the past, knowing what is demanded. It is about overcoming fear, making something happen – with faith. Their ship might have gone down, foundered, and it almost did. They might have frozen to death on landing. We rise, work, listen, pray, pursue, and hope. So did they.
Their voyage was rough, two-and-a-half months. Their goal was to live freely and pray without persecution. Together, they affirmed rules for a new society in the “Mayflower Compact,” signed by 41 leaders on November 21, 1620, three days shy of this year’s Thanksgiving Day.
That document is reflected in our Constitution, 150 years in the future. Their Compact began: “In the name of God, Amen.” It set agreed rules. Rule of law mattered, even then. Grateful to have survived the crossing, only half survived the winter of 1620. Aiming for Virginia, they hit frozen Massachusetts.
Their voyage and that first year had a sense of destiny to them. John Howland, midway across the Atlantic, washed overboard, was miraculously rescued. A baby was born mid-ocean. The main mast was destroyed in a storm, but a passenger had a jackscrew, made the mast solid again.
Only 53 survived to celebrate their “First Thanksgiving” in November 1621, the rest perishing to cold and disease. Among those who survived were young Elizabeth Tilley and John Howland. Elizabeth’s mother and father died before March 1621, leaving her alone.
Local Indians, Nauset tribe, Wampanoag Nation, made the Pilgrims’ survival possible – a God-given mercy. At a low point, John Bradford wrote: “Friends…God works a miracle! Especially considering how scant we shall be of victuals…Where is the meek and humble spirit of Moses and of Nehemiah…I see not, in reason, how we shall escape, even the gasping of hunger-starved persons, but God can do much and his will be done!” The Pilgrims never forgot the Nauset tribe.
In time, relations strengthened between the Pilgrims and Indians, although relations among tribes deteriorated. Half a century later, violence would begin. Whether that was inevitable, is an inescapable part of the human experience, or peculiar to our experience is unclear. Clear is that – on both sides – when mercy was needed, peace aspired to, it came, and it held.
All of this is worth remembering in our time – 402 years later – when we seem adrift again, not clear where we shall land, somehow doubtful of destiny, faith, strength, and unity. Only we should not doubt. How can we doubt?
The original Pilgrims did not doubt, and their belief in the possible – in the improbable, hardly comprehensible, and physically, emotionally, and spiritually hard to bear – was rewarded. Each of us today lives by virtue of their faith, whether we came early or late, whether we stop to remember the voyage or hurry on.
Today, remembering reminds me that we are called to contribute what we can while we can. We all do it in different ways. The world we do it in is not as harsh as theirs. I am reminded to give thanks, too, for those who come before, as we owe back more than time allows.
And by way of footnote, this column would not be, nor this byline, if not for the Pilgrims’ tenacity and that 90-foot ship. After Mr. and Mrs. Tilley died in 1620, John Howland, washed overboard and rescued, married Elizabeth Tilley – and from them am I descended. Gratitude.
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