I'm reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s award-winning new book, Mayflower

I'm reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s award-winning new book, Mayflower, an “electrifying new history” of America’s “most sacred national myth”—the voyage of the Mayflower and the settlement of the Plymouth Colony. Blending the dispassion of an historian with the dramatic flair of a story-teller, this account is the most detailed and gripping Pilgrim chronicle I have read.

After their torturous voyage across the gale-whipped Atlantic on the “tween” deck (the space between the topside deck above and the cargo hold below), the Mayflower’s human cargo of 102 passengers, half of them Puritan the other half adventurers and crew, landed on Cape Cod in frigid November weather (the “small ice age” of North America still gripping the continent). Philbrick’s account of their ill-prepared splashing ashore the mainland in wet and frozen clothing on December 23, the subsequent two harrowing weeks to construct their first building (a twenty-foot square “common house),” the deadly onslaught of a winter even more bitter with so many falling ill or dying that only six of the decimated colony were strong enough to care for the sick, the late night and unmarked burials to hide from any native spies the dwindling of the Pilgrim band—you cannot help but read this narrative with an almost sacred awe. By spring fifty-two of the 102 Mayflower passengers were dead.

“We think of the Pilgrims as resilient adventurers upheld by unwavering religious faith, but they were also human beings in the midst of what was, and continues to be, one of the most difficult emotional challenges a person can face: immigration and exile” (p 76).

Three hundred eighty-seven years later, here we are, sons and daughters of immigrants from the world-over, ourselves on a voyage this Thanksgiving weekend, occupying the “tween” deck between the past and the future, exiles in a foreign land, “strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13).

And what shall be our spirit? Gratitude and thanksgiving have been the lessons perennially drawn from the Pilgrim story (even though, in fact, the “first” harvest celebration the autumn of 1621 was more akin to an English fall festival than an Anglican or Separatist worship service). But as I read their story again what strikes me most is the dogged determination to be faithful to the vision that launched their movement. No matter the contrary odds, the devastating price, these were a people not unlike the heroes of Hebrews 11, who “having seen [the promises] from afar off were assured of them.” They did not turn back.

And neither must we. “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1 NIV). For in Christ the Promised Land is assured.

The Pilgrims lived with that sense of “the chosen.” Three hundred eighty-seven years later, so must we. After all, it may not be long now to “crossing over.”

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