Of the band of pilgrims who on this day four hundred years ago stepped onto the shores of what would become Plymouth, Massachusetts, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote:
The emigrants were about 150 in number, including the women and the children. Their object was to plant a colony on the shores of the Hudson; but after having been driven about for some time in the Atlantic Ocean, they were forced to land on that arid coast of New England which is now the site of the town of Plymouth. The rock is still shown on which the pilgrims disembarked. This rock is become an object of veneration in the United States. I have seen bits of it carefully preserved in several towns of the Union. … Does not this sufficiently show how entirely all human power and greatness is in the soul of man? Here is a stone which the feet of a few outcasts pressed for an instant, and this stone becomes famous; it is treasured by a great nation, its very dust is shared as a relic: and what is become of the gateways of a thousand palaces?
What started in Plymouth changed the world — and changed it for the better. It was an audacious effort — a group of zealous religious men and women who put all their resources behind the creation of a new community in a new land, foreign to them in every way. They had more in common with the first Americans to step foot on Mars than they did with the colonization efforts in other places around the world.
Yet even just half a century later, those same communities they founded worried that they had lost the same spirit that animated their parents and grandparents. As Samuel Danforth would preach in Boston in 1670, in a sermon titled “A Brief Recognition of New England’s Errand into the Wilderness”:
You have solemnly professed before God, Angels and Men, that the Cause of your leaving your Country, Kindred and Fathers houses and transporting your selves with your Wives, Little Ones and Substance over the vast Ocean into this waste and howling Wilderness, was your Liberty to walk in the Faith of the Gospel with all good Conscience according to the order of the Gospel, and your enjoyment of the pure Worship of God according to his Institution, without humane Mixtures and Impositions. … Now let us sadly consider whether our ancient and primitive affections to the Lord Jesus, his glorious Gospel, his pure and Spiritual Worship and the Order of his House, remain, abide and continue firm, constant, entire and inviolate. Our Saviour’s reiteration of this Question, What went ye out into the Wilderness to see? is no idle repetition, but a sad conviction of our dullness and backwardness to this great duty, and a clear demonstration of the weight and necessity thereof.
Danforth’s sermon reads as a conviction of those who have forgotten the faces of their fathers and the purpose of the call to all believers, a sentiment that he was not alone in advancing at the time. Even then, in 1670, there was concern the Pilgrim spirit was being lost.
It’s incumbent upon us as Americans to renew this spirit in every generation — not to sit back on what prior generations built, but to strive out into the wilderness ourselves — the areas of life on this corner of God’s creation still undiscovered.
“Amid the solitude they set up hearthstone and altar; the home and the church. With arms in their hands they wrung from the soil their bread,” Calvin Coolidge said in his remarks on the 300th Anniversary of Plymouth Rock. “With arms they gathered in the congregation to worship Almighty God. But they were armed, that in peace they might seek divine guidance in righteousness; not that they might prevail by force, but that they might do right though they perished.”
My mother has a little wooden chair that has been passed down in her family for generations. It was clearly originally a tall chair, a child’s high chair, but was cut down and used as a tool to help a little child learn to walk. Its back is flat from wear.
The likeliest user of the chair was Jedediah Strong, born on May 7th, 1637, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, to Abigail and John Strong, of Dorset and Somerset England respectively, who married in Massachusetts after crossing the Atlantic. John had arrived in 1630 on the Mary and John, a 400-ton ship bearing 130 colonists to bolster the Massachusetts colony. Jedediah, born under the governorship of William Bradford, would go on to marry Freedom Woodward, bear a daughter they named Thankful, and begin a line of Americans who would fight and serve through all our wars — French and Indian, Revolutionary, Civil, and on to Iraq and Afghanistan — all the way up until today.
What a wondrous thing it is to see the world that, thanks to their courage and faith, the pilgrims made. For all its flaws, as humanity itself is flawed, it is a testament to their resolve and daring, without which the country and people we love so much would not exist. For this, we can be thankful.