One hundred fifty-five years before the first shots of the Revolutionary War were sounded on Bunker Hill, a group of weary, faithful, sea-soaked travelers stepped out of their boats on the shore of what came to be Plymouth, Massachusetts. They were English but had arrived from Holland where they had been living in exile for a dozen years. Half of them would die that first year of1620 – disease, hunger, injuries, and conflicts with Native Americans the harsh realities of their determination to settle in a foreign land.
But these were particular—we might say, peculiar—travelers, not your garden variety tourists or adventure seekers. They were pilgrims. Sojourners on a mission. Christians on a God-directed endeavor.
William Bradford, the early governor turned historian of the Plymouth enterprise, writes in his recollection, Of Plimoth Plantation,
So they lefte ye goodly & pleasante citie, which had been their resting place nere 12 years, but they knew they were pilgrims, & looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to ye heavens, their dearest cuntrie, and quieted their spirits.
Before the revolution and the celebration of Independence Day, there was a pilgrimage. We owe our national Independence to those brave patriots in the latter half of the 18th century who fixed their eyes on the prize of liberty. But if we turn back the pages of time, we find that we owe our greater debt to those men and woman a century before who fixed their eyes on God in their pilgrimage toward their final, heavenly home.
The great debate over the Christian identity and formation of our nation typically begins with a discussion about the Founding Fathers and their religious or non-religious leanings. But I would argue the debate should start with the pilgrims. As Bradford summarizes in his history,
Lastly (and which was not least) a great hope, & inward zeall they had of laying some good foundation (or at least to make some way therunto) for ye propagating & advancing ye gospell of ye kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of ye world, yea, though they should be but even as stepping stones, unto others for ye performing of so great a work.
Without question, the chief aim of the pilgrims was to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the New World. (Likewise, unearthed recently—and much to historians’ surprise—was the foundation of a church in Jamestown, perhaps the first building constructed there, putting to the lie that Jamestown was only a secular endeavor for commercial purposes.) For that reason alone, it can be claimed that the seeds of our beloved country were planted by Christians inspired, guided, and motivated by faith.
But this is good news to everyone! Intrinsic to Christian mission is liberty and freedom. True Christianity does not coerce; it only invites. So it provides the only reliable basis to the democratic process and liberty for all. (In those unfortunate periods in Christian history when authorities forced faith on their subjects, that was a false Christian expression.) So America is the land of the free not in spite but because of its Christian founding.
This Fourth of July, let us give thanks to those who won our freedom on the hard battles of the Revolution. But let us also remember back to the time before and give thanks too for those who began it all not with a revolution but a pilgrimage.
Mark Graham is the Senior Pastor at St, John’s Lutheran Church located at 4608 Brambleton Ave. Visit them on the web at: www.stjohnlutheran.org