In 1534, Henry VIII passed “The Act of Supremacy,” which declared that the king was “the only Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England (or Anglican Church).” At the same time, he passed “The Treasons Act,” which made it high treason, punishable by death, to refuse the Oath of Supremacy acknowledging the king as such. Many protestant reformers celebrated the resulting break with the Catholic Church; however, it soon became clear that submission to the pope and the Roman Catholic Church was simply being replaced with required obedience to the king and his newly formed Church of England. This did not sit well with a number of pastors and parishioners who believed Jesus Christ was the only head of the church on earth or anywhere else. These believers became known as “dissenters” or “non-conformists.” They were regularly mistreated, imprisoned, and on occasion even executed for the crime of refusing to worship in the Anglican way.
Finally, during the reign of King James I, when several members of a congregation in Scrooby were imprisoned, they had had enough, and fled to Holland in order to freely practice their faith. They stayed in Holland for twelve years but got tired of the menial jobs they were restricted to and the influence Dutch culture was having on their children. They weren’t even using English as their first language any more. The truth was, they were Englishmen, and longed to live on English soil. Since they could not return to England, they decided to make a pilgrimage (from where we get the name “The Pilgrims”) to the new world.
They searched for a ship to carry them and settled on a commercial vessel that had transported wine from France, Spain, and Portugal, as well as hats, hemp, Spanish salt, hops, and even a load of vinegar to Norway. In September 1620, 102 people set sail on this ship – The Mayflower. It was an arduous 66-day journey across a stormy Atlantic. They landed in Cape Cod on November 21. Four hundred years ago. Half of the company died during the first winter, and without the help of the native Wampanoag tribe, everyone may have perished.
These “Pilgrims” were the first Congregationalists to reach what would one day become the United States of America. As modern-day Congregationalists (religious descendants of these brave sojourners), we are thankful for their faith and courage. These brothers and sisters-in-Christ were willing to stand strong against a church, a pope, a king, an ocean, and a wilderness here in the new world in order to freely worship the Lord. In the midst of trial and tribulation, it is difficult to stay strong, but remember, as the Pilgrims did, what God said to Joshua, “Be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid and do not panic. For the Lord your God will personally go ahead of you. He will neither fail you nor abandon you” (Deuteronomy 31:6).
So, as you celebrate Thanksgiving tomorrow, remember to give thanks to the Lord for the faith of the Pilgrims, and, remember God’s promise even during times of struggle – like during a pandemic – He will never fail you or abandon you.
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