2159) “Earnest People” (part one of two)

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The Arrival of the Pilgrims, 1864, by Antonio Gisbert  (1835-1901)


A Thanksgiving meditation by Billy Graham, first published in Decision magazine, July 1971


     Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that “all history resolves itself into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons.”  It is appropriate at this season that we honor “a few stout and earnest” Englishmen—the Pilgrims—who left their native land in search of freedom to worship God.

     Our time is a time of cynicism, yet no amount of cynicism or ridicule can take away what the Pilgrims did more than 380 years ago.  The Mayflower’s voyage to the new world was a “survival  test” on a huge scale.  The passengers had sold their possessions and had to work for years to pay for their passage.  The ship had no heat or plumbing.  Storms raged, and a main beam cracked in mid-ocean.

     But after more than two months on the Atlantic Ocean, this band 102 people arrived before Christmas, 1620.  William Bradford wrote in his journal, “Being thus arrived at a good harbor, and brought safely to land, they fell on 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.”  What a celebration that must have been!

     But just after Christmas a serious sickness broke out, and in the next three months nearly half the Pilgrims died.  Hunger and illness stalked them, but they never wavered in their purpose.

     Today, if these pilgrims could observe our troubled world with its disillusioned outlook, its rebelliousness and its erosion of traditional values, they would be not only dismayed but also shocked.  However, since their time, certain things have not changed.  There is still lust, greed, hatred, and prejudice in the human heart.  There is still persecution and war in the world.  With all of the world’s churches and universities, we would do well to go back to the church and the school of early Plymouth to see what those pioneers can teach us.

First, the Pilgrims have left us an example of their deep, unwavering religious convictions.

     What were these convictions?  They believed in Christ and in His Kingdom.  They found fulfillment in Him.  They had purpose in their lives.  They had encountered the living Christ and they knew it.  They feared neither monarch nor people, only God.  Because they belonged to God, they had a deep faith and confidence in themselves.  They believed in their own dignity, were confident that their cause was just, and walked with an uprightness that only fearless and free people can display.

     In our day agnosticism, anxiety, emptiness, meaninglessness, have gripped much of our world– and even the Church.  People are broad but shallow.  Our youth are desperately searching for purpose and meaning and fulfillment in their lives.  By contrast, these Pilgrim forebears stand as shining examples of people who were narrow but deep, certain of what they believed, unswerving in their loyalty, and passionately dedicated to God whom they trusted and for whom they willingly would have died.  I sincerely believe that a return to biblical faith and conviction would have a great impact at this hour.

Second, the Pilgrims left us an example of disciplined living.

     They were Puritans who were ready to order everything– personal life, worship, the church, business affairs, political views, and even recreation– according to the commandments of God.  The word “Puritan” itself in the contemporary mind identifies those who followed a strict and closely regulated life.  Their lives were marked by characteristics that, according to Jonathan Edwards, need to distinguish the life of every Christian: “This practice of religion is not only to be his business at certain seasons, but the business of his life.”

     They did not mind being called narrow by the religious and civil establishment of the day.  They remembered that their Lord Jesus had said, “Straight is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Matthew 7:14).  The ethic of self-mastery and spiritual discipline falls strangely on the ears of today’s generation.  What a contrast between the conduct of the Pilgrims and the permissiveness and hedonism of today.

     Third, the Pilgrims have left us the example of freedom under law.

     The Mayflower Compact forged before the Pilgrims left the ship was the wedge that opened the door to a government controlled by the people, a government that has endured in the United States for centuries.  Most historians agree that the Mayflower Compact was the forerunner of the Constitution of the United States.

     This little band of people searched for an equitable manner of earning a living and for a way of survival.  They tried living a communal lifestyle, but, according to Governor Bradford: “This communal system conceived by Plato was found to breed much confusion.”  When communal living failed, they assigned a parcel of land to every family; with individual enterprise, prosperity came to the colony.

     The freedom exercised by the Pilgrims didn’t degenerate into license to do whatever one wanted to do.  Theirs was a liberty under law.   To them freedom under the law meant judgment for the lawless.  To them, retribution was not only a tenet of their faith but also it was the practice of their commonwealth.  They made laws in keeping with biblical convictions.  They not only feared those laws and their judges but they also obeyed them.   (continued…)