As the dreadful winter of 1621 neared its end, the first soft breezes eased from the south, and the Pilgrims gratefully anticipated the blessed warmth of spring. They had lost half their company during the “starving,” freezing winter and now those surviving focused on gathering their strength to plant their first crops. Yet April was to bring two more severe losses.
On April fifth the Mayflower, their last English home, left for England, breaking the final tie between the Pilgrims had their homeland. The remnant of colonists gathered on the shore to bid goodbye to the crew who had carried them safely to their new home, surely a poignant parting after so much shared misery. The colonists watched the ship fade away on the horizon, some hearts no doubt aching to return with her, yet not one colonist accepted Captain Jones’ invitation to return with the ship.
And why not? They had forsaken everything to commit to this voyage to the New World. Only estranged families, poverty and persecution waited them in England. Their future must have seemed more hopeful here in Plimoth.
Then as the colonists busied themselves in the warm April weather clearing, hoeing, digging, and hauling, Governor Carver working with the others, suddenly collapsed with a searing headache. Dr. Fuller diagnosed a heat stroke and prescribed rest and cooling. But beloved John Carver did not awaken and passed on within a few days. This was a stunning loss. Not only this good man’s death, but who could take his place? What more severe pain would the Lord demand of this community?
Then, the big decision: As their spiritual leader Elder Brewster was ineligible, for they kept strict separation of church and state, they looked for suitable candidates for a new governor. Several of the other younger men could serve admirably. After much prayer and discussion they chose William Bradford whose spiritual devotion and practical good sense displayed the special qualities the colony needed. It would be a significant change for the infant colony.
Probably the worst trial of the Mayflower’s voyage was the terrifying break in a main beam during a storm which threatened the Mayflower with foundering. The crew dragged a spare beam up from the ship’s hold and placed it under the broken beam but could not keep it in place.
In his History William Bradford says only that “for the buckling of the main beam, there was a great iron screw that the passengers brought out of Holland, which would raise the bream into his place.” Historians assumed that the screw was part of their printing press. Yet lately they suggest it was a housebuilding tool which the colonists would use to build their village in the New World.
Perhaps Bradford did not mention the “great iron screw” as part of a printing press because the activities of William Brewster, his fellow pilgrim and renegade printer in Holland, had put Brewster in jeopardy with King James. The King’s men searched for Brewster in Holland while he hid in England until the Mayflower’s departure from Southampton in 1620.
Living in poverty, the Pilgrims had to be practical. The wilderness offered unlimited building materials to anyone willing to start from scratch. If the screw was part of their printing press it might have served two purposes: one, as it had been in Holland, a means of advancing their biblical Christianity to the world, and two, in the wilderness, a tool for building houses.
One thing is for sure. Without the screw, in all likelihood, the Mayflower may never have been heard from again, lost at sea, and with it the crew and passengers. No Mayflower Compact. No Plimoth Plantation. Throughout the endless ordeals of the Pilgrims, the Hand of Providence always seemed to intervene and get them through, if even by the skin of their teeth. [Edited Nov. 22, 2021]
Susan J. Matt’s new book, Homesickness: An American History, coincides very nicely with my memory of tasting the Pilgrims’ own yearning for home even as they were on the verge of their Atlantic voyage:
Early in September of 1985 I joined a group of Mayflower descendants touring England. We visited Dartmouth on the south coast to see a monument to the American Pilgrims who were delayed at Dartmouth for repairs to their ship, the Speedwell. The weather was glorious with whispering breezes and brilliant sunshine, ideal for the late summer season. We stood by the monument at the edge of the harbor surrounded by high intensely green hills dotted with white sheep with black noses. Townspeople strolled along the walkways enjoying the gentle weather, soon to be chilled by autumn winds.
Unexpectedly, I found myself feeling a strange emotion, which seemed to be a keen appreciation of the scene, yet tinged with profound sadness. What had come over me?
I had nothing to feel sad about. The tour so far had been an adventure, including my brief separation from my group at Windsor Castle before I was “found” by my anxious busload of fellow tourists. I had no word for this disturbing emotion.
Then as I stood absorbing this tranquil scene, the word “nostalgia” stole into my mind. Not being English, I could not account for that word. I was an American tourist enjoying the tranquil English landscape and its charming natives, not someone visiting familiar ground from the past.
Then gradually the significance of the word dawned on me. I was feeling the deep nostalgia the Pilgrims felt as they lingered at Dartmouth before crossing the vast Atlantic to a terrifying new world. The Pilgrims had always yearned to return to their homeland. To preserve their English heritage, they had chosen to accept help from English adventurers rather than generous Dutch sponsors who offered them more favorable terms. Now while they awaited still more repairs to their ship, they were touched by these incandescent days at home just as they must leave it forever. For they had no illusions about returning to England. To cross three thousand miles of ocean to a stark wilderness at the beginning of winter offered little hope of return to the homeland they loved.
This was a gift to me, to feel so keenly the emotions these colonists suffered. Later, while writing One Candle’s Light I recalled this poignant, piercing emotion vividly. It was a prophetic insight to the courageous mission these pilgrims undertook in obedience to their God.
In the spring of the year 1610, 401 years ago, the congregation of Englishmen from Scrooby left Amsterdam to take up residence at Leiden after a contentious few months with the Ancient Brethren. It was a heart-wrenching move to leave the Brethren who had helped them survive in Holland, but the Scrooby people feared that constant bickering among the Brethren would poison their own risky venture before it had been firmly established.
Their pastor, Richard Clyfton, did not make the move to Leiden, believing that the Brethren were sincerely trying to follow their faith. John Robinson and William Brewster became Pastor and Elder of the Scrooby congregation facing a difficult adjustment for English yeomen (farmers) to an urban society speaking a strange language. How would these countrymen fare in a culture so different from their own?