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Why the Mayflower Matters 400 Years Later

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Why the Mayflower Matters 400 Years Later

The voyage of the Mayflower 400 years ago began a nation that would change the course of world history. The story is told every year, but the real purpose of the journey has remained hidden.

Learn the why behind the headlines.

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Every November in the United States, schoolchildren make pilgrim hats out of black construction paper and draw hand turkeys as part of a lesson about Thanksgiving.

They are taught that the pilgrims who sailed to America on the Mayflower fled religious persecution and that the first winter was hard. The local native population helped them survive, and they had held a banquet to celebrate the end of a bountiful harvest with their native friends.

Americans have continued this traditional celebration to this day—so every year families come together to carve turkey meat and share a sumptuous meal.

Turkey, ‘taters and tales of survival. This is all most have ever known of the meaning behind the autumn holiday. But the real story of those men and women who traversed the Atlantic has much more significance on modern society than the tradition reveals.

Genealogists estimate that one out of every 10 people in the U.S. today is a descendant of those who crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower, survived their first winter in America, and then went on to have children. That means 35 million Americans today came from 132 colonists who landed in Cape Cod in November 1620.

But the full story of that tiny group carries an even greater significance to all Americans and the nation as a whole. The nation’s identity—and future—is locked inside the tale of these handful of people.

Fleeing Persecution

The persecution facing the Pilgrims began with England’s religious breakaway from the Catholic Church. The Protestantization of England was completed with the Act of Uniformity 1558, which put fines on those who did not attend required services at the Church of England every week.

This was not enough for some who felt Church of England was not Protestant enough. These dissenters sought to “purify” the new English church of all Roman Catholic traditions they considered unbiblical—such as making the sign of the cross at baptism or bowing on hearing the name of Jesus.

Members of these so-called Puritan groups were arrested and imprisoned. Others’ homes were under constant watch from the community. Many saw the only option to escape intense scrutiny was to set sail for Holland.

Yet the trouble continued even after the move to continental Europe. In 1619, Holland forbade any organization from collecting money to support ministers, orphans or the elderly except the Dutch Reformed Church. Again, the Puritans faced the decision of assimilation or departure.

Seeing nowhere fruitful to go in Europe, they began to look west toward the New World.

At the time, a move to North America was especially risky. The Puritans would have heard of the colony in Jamestown, where in the winter of 1607, 440 of the 500 new settlers died of starvation. Also, the threat of attacks from indigenous peoples was constant.

But a sense of divine purpose—a kind of 17th century Manifest Destiny—overpowered these potential threats. “We verily believe and trust the Lord is with us,” they wrote, “and that He will graciously prosper our endeavors according to the simplicity of our hearts therein” (Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War).

The Pilgrims in Holland bought a 43-year-old boat named the Speedwell to take them back to Southampton, England, and rendezvous with the Mayflower. Future governor of Plymouth Colony, William Bradford, described their emotional departure on July 22, 1620: “So they left that goodly and pleasant city which had been their resting place near twelve years; but they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.” They called themselves “strangers and pilgrims” (Heb. 11:13) who would “declare plainly that they seek a country…But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly” (vs. 14, 16).

Twice on their journey to Southampton, the Speedwell sprung a leak, forcing it to dock. This delayed the trip enough that some of the passengers became disillusioned and returned to Holland.

Those who made it to the Mayflower were already running low on provisions. They had been on board for six weeks, nearly the length of time they had planned to be at sea.

Bradford worried whether there would be enough to survive: “Our victuals will be half eaten up, I think, before we go from the coast of England; and, if our voyage last long, we shall not have a month’s victuals when we come in the country.”

Finally, favorable winds on September 16 allowed the crossing of the Atlantic with 102 passengers on board.

Perilous Journey

The first month at sea was calm, but conditions were at best uncomfortable for passengers. Since the Mayflower was a cargo ship, it was not designed to carry as many people as it had. Most passengers had to stay in an area where the ceiling was five feet high.

The second month brought the dreaded north Atlantic storms, “with which the ship was thoroughly shaken, and her upper works made very leaky,” Bradford recorded. Waves would sweep the top deck as the raging seas buffeted the ship’s hull.

The storms broke one of the main beams in the middle of the ship. The leaders of the passengers met with the captain and his officers to discuss returning to England. But the ship’s officers decided that the boat was strong enough below the waterline to keep going and that the buckled beam could be raised with an iron screw.

Though weakened, it was assured that the boat would make it.

Finally, after 66 days at sea, land was sighted on November 9 at Cape Cod. One of the passengers, William Brewster, led the Pilgrims to read Psalm 100 to give thanks for the successful crossing.

But the story of survival was far from over.

The First Winter

Weeks of waves brought the ship several hundred miles off course, and the worsening winter weather made following the coastline to the mouth of the Hudson River impossible.

So they had no choice but to find a site and winter in. As the men sought suitable land to begin construction, most of the passengers and crew stayed on board the Mayflower for another four months.

The tight quarters and cold weather helped spread disease, and 45 passengers died by winter’s end. Another six died over the summer.

Only 51 of the 102 passengers survived to that famous first Thanksgiving.

The Pilgrims chose an abandoned settlement that was easy to defend, and since the land was already cleared it would be suitable for spring planting. They named their colony Plymouth after the port in England from which they had departed.

New Israel

Beating overwhelming odds while crossing the Atlantic and surviving in the harsh new world, the Pilgrims clung to the belief that they were a kind of Old Testament Israel being guided out of Egypt into the Promised Land.

In his journal The History of Plymouth Settlement, William Bradford made the comparison clear: “Our fathers were Englishmen who came over the great ocean and were ready to perish in the wilderness, but they cried to the Lord, and He heard their voice and looked on their adversity…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.”

Yet this is not the last time ancient Israel would be tied to the budding nation.

Over 100 years later, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams proposed a seal for the new nation of the United States. It was to be an image of the ancient Israelites crossing the Red Sea with pharaoh chasing them and Moses standing on the other side. It would have included the motto, “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”

The Liberty Bell also bears an inscription from Moses’ book of Leviticus: “Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof” (25:10).

Moses, the human leader of the Israelites as they exited Egypt, is depicted on the eastern pediment of the U.S. Supreme Court building holding two tablets. He also appears inside the courtroom, holding the Ten Commandments.

Connections to Old Testament Israel are laced throughout America’s political system, partially in a nod to our ancestors’ tendency to identify with it. But this fascination with an event nearly 3,500 years ago says a lot about America’s true identity—and its future.

Ancient History

To understand, we must realize that the Bible is so much more than a book of antiquity. It contains two kinds of history.

One is details of past events such as the Exodus story in which Pilgrims found so much meaning. But another kind of history—that is, history written in advance—comprises one-third of the book.

Much of this future history, aka prophecy, is recorded of ancient Israel and has a lot to do with the nation that came from the Pilgrims.

Chapter 49 of the first book of the Bible, Genesis, reveals what would become of Israel’s 12 tribes in the “last days” or the far future (vs. 1). Each of them were to eventually grow into separate nations or set of nations.

The most extensive description belongs to the tribes of Joseph. The Bible states that his descendants would grow and spread beyond the territory allotted to them. “Joseph is a fruitful bough, even a fruitful bough by a well; whose branches run over the wall” (Gen. 49:22).

In addition, Joseph would become powerful and unstoppable in war: “The archers have sorely grieved him, and shot at him, and hated him, but his bow abode in strength, and the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the mighty God of Jacob” (vs. 23-24).

It would also become the wealthiest nations the world had ever seen, given “blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lies under, blessings of the breasts, and of the womb. The blessings of your father have prevailed above the blessings of my progenitors unto the utmost bound of the everlasting hills: they shall be on the head of Joseph…” (vs. 25-26).

These blessings that were pronounced on Joseph were then passed on to his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. Each were given a unique promise that would make them distinct on the world scene millennia later.

Fulfilling a Promise

Nations are families grown large. Many modern nations can trace their lineage back to one of the 12 tribes of Israel, each tribe coming from one of the sons of the patriarch Jacob (also named Israel).

The Bible provides clues as to where these nations exist today.

David Pack, editor-in-chief of The Real Truth magazine, explained which countries these tribes of Israel eventually became in his book America and Britain in Prophecy.

Mr. Pack explained Genesis 49 is “an absolutely astounding prophecy, carrying truly staggering implications for all the nations of the world.”

Mr. Pack further explained the identity of Joseph’s sons: “the great, wealthy, dominant single ‘nation,’ of Genesis 35:11, would descend and grow from Manasseh. The even greater, wealthier, more dominant ‘company of nations,’ here called a ‘multitude of nations,’ would spring from Ephraim.”

The greatest nation and company of nations or empire—what do these sound like? History reveals there is only one answer!

The British Empire is the greatest empire the world has ever seen. Britain explored, conquered, and colonized every continent, including Antarctica. The British Empire, at its peak in 1920, covered over a quarter of the entire planet. For a time, the sun did not set on the globe-spanning empire.

The United States is undoubtedly the most powerful single nation in history. It rose as a new country in 1776 to become so powerful that it unilaterally brought the “Pax Americana” to the world after 1945. The U.S. was instrumental in turning the tide of war in both world wars. The current period of general worldwide peace and prosperity traces directly to the United States’ military and diplomatic strength over the last 75 years.

The U.S. and Britain clearly show that God finally gave the promised blessings of Abraham to his descendants.

The Pilgrims had believed they were establishing a New Israel. What they did not realize is they had established a colony of the tribe of Manasseh—foretold to explode in riches, power and fame!

America and Britain are just two of the tribes of Israel. Read America and Britain in Prophecy to learn the identity of the others and what God has planned for them.

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