“Being thus arrived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven, who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof, againe to set their feete on the firme and stable earth … Having undertaken, for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honor of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the First Colony.” —William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation
In the earliest days in this land, when Christians experienced hard times, their desperation caused them to rely on God. Conversely, when things are going well, we often choose to rely on ourselves. Throughout history, the Lord often allowed persecution in order to turn people back to Him. Men came to these shores hoping to establish a God-fearing settlement that would flourish on faith and freedom.
Devout Christian, Mayflower Pilgrim, and Plymouth Colony Governor of thirty-one years, William Bradford died in 1656. Near the end of his life, an entry in Bradford’s chronicle of the colony reveals evidence of how difficult it can be to avoid subtle moral erosion in a society. He saw similarities in the material success achieved at the Plymouth Plantation and the wealth enjoyed by England, both of which came at the price of spiritual decline.
Historians disagree about the reasons for Bradford’s disdain over prosperity and sin, but here is one of the final entries in his journal lamenting the dispersal of the original church community:
O sacred bond, whilst inviolably preserved! How sweet and precious were the fruits that flowed from the same! But when this fidelity decayed, then their ruin approached. O that these ancient members had not died or been dissipated (if it had been the will of God) or else that this holy care and constant faithfulness had still lived, and remained with those that survived … But (alas) that subtle serpent hath slyly wound himself under fair pretenses of necessity and the like, to untwist these sacred bonds and ties . . . I have been happy, in my first times, to see, and with much comfort to enjoy, the blessed fruits of this sweet communion, but it is now a part of my misery in old age, to find and feel the decay and want thereof (in a great measure) and with grief and sorrow of heart to lament and bewail the same. And for others’ warning and admonition, and my own humiliation, do I here note the same.
Bradford was grieved about their apparent failure to meet or live by the high biblical standards expected of them because in the early days, Christians took their faith seriously and were committed in their pursuit of holiness as individuals and as a community. Do we experience that kind of grief, sorrow, and heartache over our own sins and the spiritual condition of our culture?
On April 8, 1630, nearly ten years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, a fleet of eleven ships left England from the Isle of Wight. Carrying more than 700 Puritans, plus livestock and provisions, they hoped to begin a new colony in Massachusetts Bay, free from religious persecution by the Church of England. Understanding the dangers of such a journey and aware that half of the Pilgrims who settled in Plymouth had died, many Puritan leaders were so concerned England was declining spiritually they believed the chance for religious freedom in the New World outweighed potential hardships, including death!
Sailing west on the ship Arbella, an English Puritan lawyer by the name of John Winthrop was part of the first large wave of immigrants and a leading founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the first major settlement in New England. Winthrop would serve as governor for the first twelve years, settling in the Shawmut Peninsula and founding what is now Boston. An estimated 200 people died from disease and a variety of other causes in the first several months, including Winthrop’s son Henry. Encouraging other colonists to trust in God and work hard, Winthrop is said to have joined workers and servants in manual labor to set an example so that “there was not an idle person to be found in the whole plantation.”
It’s interesting to note years earlier in England, Winthrop was first tutored at home and was regularly exposed to religious discussions between his father and clergymen, resulting in his knowledge of spiritual things at a very young age. This led to his admission to Trinity College when he was just fifteen years old. His strong religious upbringing and education would help set the tone for America for many generations.
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house (Matthew 5:14-15).
During the journey to America, Winthrop wrote and delivered a lay sermon to the people based on the above Scriptures. Entitled “A Model of Christian Charity,” he envisioned a unified new colony ordained to build “a City upon a Hill” dedicated to God. This famous work originally inspired the idea of American exceptionalism. With an emphasis on individual responsibility, integrity, and group discipline, his writing described how to keep the colony strong in faith and committed to God in the endeavor of creating a holy community…
Though Winthrop’s godly influence can be seen in the first couple hundred years in America, we now know it is much easier to slide down to the world’s ways than to stay close to God and pursue holiness.
Millions of religious people today have not had in-depth teachings on the Bible and spiritual things. How many can name all Ten Commandments or perhaps books and authors of the Bible? How many can share the whole gospel including the need for redemption through the blood of Christ? What we have is increasing ignorance of the Word of God and American history, as well as a disinterest in Christianity and spiritual things.
For many decades, the truth about our Christian heritage has been downplayed or worse, forgotten. Moreover, how can we avoid repeating the most disappointing parts of our history if cautions from our founders and warnings from Christian leaders are no longer taught and remembered?
Resolution One: I will live for God. Resolution Two: If no one else does, I still will. Jonathan Edwards
One of America’s greatest theologians was Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), a Congregational preacher and missionary in New England and grandfather of Aaron Burr, the third Vice President of the United States. Edwards was a man of hard preaching with a heart for God’s glory above all things, which is what drove him. This led him to compose a set of resolutions to guide his conduct in all areas, from his battle against sin to the use of his time.
Edward’s famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” is credited for starting the First Great Awakening in America. He wrote about the previous decade, saying it represented a far more “degenerate time” than ever before. Preaching in Northampton, Massachusetts, and Enfield, Connecticut, in 1741, Edwards delivered strong words to the Puritans at that time by saying:
Yea, God is a great deal more angry with great numbers that are now on earth: yea, doubtless, with many that are now in this congregation, who it may be are at ease, than he is with many of those who are now in the flames of hell … The wrath of God burns against them, their damnation does not slumber; the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage and glow … and the pit hath opened its mouth under them.
…It is indisputable men of God established this nation on biblical truth as they pursued freedom from religious persecution and “the advancement of the Christian Faith,” as William Bradford stated. But since our foundations are eroding, perhaps persecution is exactly what needs to happen in order to shake us up and bring us back to God.
(This is a portion of chapter 1 from the book, The Cost of Our Silence.)