Rev. Dr. D.ana L. Goodnough​.

Fix Your Eyes On Jesus     



A Paper Presented to

the Buffalo Colony

of the

Society of Mayflower Descendants

in the State of New York



Rev. Dana L. Goodnough

37 Cullens Run

Pittsford, NY 14534

April 18, 1998

"Providence Isn't Just in Rhode Island"

    Only God could orchestrate the unique events that provided for the success of the Pilgrim fathers in America.  Purely human efforts  coupled with chance circumstances would have  most  certainly  ended in disaster.  The Pilgrims, however, trusted  in  a power  beyond  their own.  They were convinced  that  their  very existence  as a viable colony was nothing less than a divine  act of grace.  They would have called such provisions "divine  providence,"  and  so it was.  

    One  twentieth century theologian has defined providence  as "the  execution in all its details of the divine program  of  the ages"  and reminds us that "History is His Story", the  story  of how  God  has been working out His perfect  plan  throughout  the ages.(1)  To the Pilgrims, providence would have been defined  in terms of God's daily care.  Let's review several aspects of God's providence  in the Pilgrim story.  In doing so, we may come  away with  a fresh appreciation for the God who orchestrates  the  affairs of life.

1. Off Course but On Target

    What  may have appeared to be an accident of navigation  was in  reality  a boon for the Pilgrims and  for  American  history.  Instead  of  establishing  their little  colony  in Virginia  as planned,  New England became the home of this new  experiment  in democracy.

a. The Ocean Crossing

    The Pilgrims, though considerably delayed from their  original  departure  date, met with fair winds in the  early  days  of their voyage.  Foul weather was soon to come.  But in those first days  the Pilgrims became only too well aware of the opinions  of the Mayflower's crew.  The seamen cared little for these  passengers.   In  his journal, William Bradford  noted  one  particular sailor  who taunted the Pilgrims most maliciously.   This  "proud and  very profane young man" declared incessantly his  desire to cast half of these travelers into the sea before the journey  was over.  Bradford noted that before the journey was half over, this strong  young man contracted a "grievous disease" and soon  died, being the first to be buried at sea.  The Pilgrims saw this event as "a special work of God's providence."(2)  The other sailors on board  took note of this event, and no doubt treated the  Pigrims more graciously for the remainder of the journey.

    The fair winds eventually turned to fierce storms.  So harsh were these storms that one of the ships main beams cracked.   But again, divine providence was at work.  Though some of the sailors were  ready to return to England due to this structural  failure, the Pilgrims found another solution.  They had brought with  them on  their  journey a large iron screw.  The intended  purpose  of this tool is uncertain.  Morison suggests that this was a  device for  raising  houses,  a  necessary  implement  for  planting   a colony.(3)  Others suggest this screw was a part of  a  printing press  brought  from Leyden.(4)  Whatever its  intended  purpose, God's purpose was evident.  Without this screw, the entire voyage may have been aborted.

    Another  example of God's providential care involves a  Pilgrim by the name of John Howland.  During one storm, Howland made his  way to the ship's deck and, when the Mayflower  pitched,  he was  thrown into the sea.  "But it pleased God," in the words of

Bradford, "that he caught hold of the topsail halyards which hung overboard."(5)   He was thereby rescued and, though ill from  the experience, lived a long and prosperous life.  

    It was obvious to the Pilgrim fathers, and should be equally obvious  to the present day reader, that God providentially  protected this little band of Christians in their voyage to the  New World.   "Being thus arrived in a good harbour, 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 . . . ."(6)

b. A Windfall of a Landfall

    The  Pilgrims  did not land at their  intended  destination.  But  what  may have seemed "off course" to some  was  really  "on target" when it comes to evaluating the success of the Pilgrims.

    Bradford  states  that the Pilgrims held a  legal  right  to settle  in  Virginia(7),  and were headed for the  mouth  of  the Hudson River.(8)  Morison explains that at that time, the Virginia  Company  claimed ownership up to and including  the  area  of Manhatten Island.(9)  This northernmost territory of  "Virginia" would have been ideal for the Pilgrims, who would have wanted  to avoid  the more established colonies where the Church of  England would have been predominant.

    Willison denies that the Pilgrims intended to go to Virginia at  all.  He proposes that the Pilgrims fully intended  to  avoid the lands of the Virginia Company and settle in New England.   He also makes reference to a possible bribe given to the captain  of the  Mayflower  by the Dutch to keep the Pilgrims away  from  the Hudson  River  area.(10)  As convincing as his  arguments  sound, Willison  does  not  adequately account for the  efforts  of  the Mayflower's captain to navigate away from Cape Cod and toward the Hudson  River.  Neither does he account for the sudden  need  for writing the Mayflower Compact.  In contrast, Morison upholds  the traditional  view  that the Pilgrims intended to  settle  in  the Virginia  Company's  lands and were prevented from  doing  so  by timing, weather conditions, and the dangers of navigation  around Cape Cod.(11)

    An  even better explanation for the arrival of the  Pilgrims in New England rather than in Virginia is the providence of  God.  New England provided a safe, untapped region for the  spread  of freedom  and  Christian thought.  Only there could  the  Pilgrims freely develop their own society based on biblical ideals.   The ideals  of democracy and an elected rulership are evident in  the Mayflower  Compact  itself.  God was building a nation,  and  the landing  of the Pilgrims in New England was a vital part of  that purpose.

2. A Foothold in the New World

    Having sailed across the Atlantic and arriving at Cape  Cod, the Pilgrims were just beginning to see the providential work  of God among them.  Now the Pilgrims had to find the right  location to  establish their colony.  Time was at a premium.  A  cold  New England winter was already setting in.  

a. Location is Everything

    Originally  the  Mayflower was anchored off  what is today Provincetown,  inside  the tip of Cape Cod.   From  that  vantage point,  the Pilgrims began their explorations.  It was  not  long before they came upon a group of Native Americans.  Although they could not establish contact immediately, the Pilgrims did discover  some stores of grain.  Bradford, in his famous  journal,  attributed this discovery to God's providence.  "And here is to  be noted a special providence of God, and a great mercy to this poor people, that here they got seed to plant them corn the next year, or else they might have starved . . . ."(12)

    Upon  further  exploration  of Cape  Cod,  and  antagonistic contact with its Native American inhabitants, the Pilgrim fathers decided  to explore further west along the shoreline.  Again,  it was  divine providence that provided the explanation why none  of the  explorers was wounded, or even hit, by arrows  during  these early adventures.(13)

    Sailing  along the coastline in the Mayflower's  shallop,  a group of explorers came to what would become New Plymouth.  After some  deliberation  on board the Mayflower, the  Pilgrim  Fathers settled on this location to plant their new colony.  The external features that made this location attractive included a harbor and a hillside that could be easily defended.  Mourt's_Relations also identifies  "a very sweet brook" with a good supply of fish,  and cleared land that had been "planted with corn three or four years ago."(14)  With limited time and resources, it is remarkable that these explorers located such a place in time to begin building  a settlement.  Such was God's providential care.  But there is more to the story.

b. Later Discoveries Regarding New Plymouth

    It  was  not until several months later  that  the  Pilgrims discovered  another providential aspect of their settling at  New Plymouth.  Nearly any other location would have been  complicated  by the presence of Native American settlements.  But New Plymouth was at that time unclaimed territory.  

    After the first tragic winter in New Plymouth, the  Pilgrims learned through a Native American named Samoset that their  location was indeed providential.  "He told us the place where we now live  is  called Patuxet, and that about four years ago  all  the inhabitants died of an extraordinary plague, and there is neither man, woman, nor child remaining, as indeed we have found none, so as  there is none to hinder our possession, or to lay claim  unto it."(15)   

    Here we must proceed with caution as we consider the  providence  of God.  While the "plague" was indeed a tragedy of  human existence,  God's  providence was such that He turned  evil  into good.   Indeed, the Bible says, "And we know that in  all  things God  works  for  the good of those who love him,  who  have  been called  according to his purpose."(16)  Although we do  not  view the  death of the Native American population as a  blessing  from God,  we do see God providentially using these things to  further the success of the Pilgrim fathers.  Indeed, many of the Pilgrims themselves lost their lives in that first tragic winter.   Providence  refers  to God's ability to turn evil  circumstances  into divine blessings.

    Obviously  the  Pilgrims saw the ready availability  of  the land as a part of God's providential care.  "The Pilgrims accepted  this  tragedy philosophically, saying that the Lord  in  His mercy had not forgotten 'His owne' in thus 'opening up a way  for them.'"(17)   Even King James acknowledged divine  providence  in these  same circumstances.(18)   God was truly  caring  for  His people in New Plymouth.

3. An Interpreter and a Friend

    God  displayed  His providence in the Pilgrim story  by  the arrival of two significant Native Americans, Samoset and Squanto.

a. The Arrival of Samoset

    It  was obvious to the Pilgrims that Native  Americans  were living around them.  But imagine their fascination when an  individual  Native American entered their settlement one day  and  in broken  English said to them, "Welcome."  This was  Samoset.   He had  learned  some  English from the fishermen who  came  to  New England.  Originally from what is today the state of Maine, Samoset  had  recently  sailed with an English  sea  captain,  Thomas Dermer,  from  his northern homeland to New Plymouth.   In  fact, Samoset  had  just  arrived in the Cape Cod Bay  area  "just  six months  before the Pilgrims arrived."(19)  After  much  conversation,  Samoset  lodged  in the home of Stephen  Hopkins  for  the night.

    Samoset was responsible for introducing the Pilgrims to  the local  Native American chief, Massassoit.  It was through Massasoit that the Pilgrims established peaceful relations  with  the Native  Americans in that region.  They were even able  to  repay these  newfound  friends  for the corn they  had  retrieved  upon arrival  at Cape Cod.  In God's providence, He provided  an  English-speaking  interpreter  to help the Pilgrims form  a  lasting peace  with the local Native Americans.  But Samoset also  introduced the Pilgrims to another remarkable man, Squanto.

b. The Remarkable Story of Squanto

    Squanto was the only surviving member of the Patuxet  tribe, the  previous residents of New Plymouth.  His survival was  truly providential.  

    In  1605 Captain George Waymouth persuaded Squanto to  willingly  accompany  him back to England, where  Squanto  lived  for almost  ten  years.  He then sailed back to New England  in  1614 with Captain John Smith.  However, after Smith left the waters of Cape  Cod one of his fellow captains, Thomas Hunt, forcibly  captured  a number of Native Americans to sell as slaves  in  Spain.  Squanto  was among those captives.  In Spain, Squanto came  under the care of certain Christian friars, and he eventually was  able to return to England.  In 1619 Squanto sailed back to New England with  Captain Thomas Dermer.  Samoset came aboard ship in  Maine, and  both disembarked at what was to become New  Plymouth.   Upon his arrival "back home", Squanto found that his entire tribe  had died in a plague.  He was the last of the Patuxet tribe.  When he met  the Pilgrims  a few months later,  Squanto  found  his  new home.(20)

    Without  Squanto,  the survival of the Pilgrims  would  have been doubtful.  "He directed them how to set their corn, where to take  fish, and to procure other commodities, and was also  their pilot to bring them to unknown places for their profit, and never left  them  till he died."(21)  It is no wonder  Bradford  called Squanto  "a special instrument sent of God for their good  beyond their expectation."(22)


    One historical coincidence might be the work of chance.  Two might  be  written off as fate.  But to see  so  many  remarkable details  blend together to write just one chapter of  history  is beyond the natural.  The supernatural power of God must have been at work in the Pilgrim story.  That aspect of God's work  called "providence"  reveals that God has a purpose for  human  history.  The  Pilgrims  saw  themselves as a people of God.   God  indeed blesses His people.  He is at work in history.  He is at work  in human lives, individual histories of people like you and me.


1 Chafer, Lewis Sperry.  Systematic_Theology.  Dallas, Texas:

       Dallas Seminary Press, 1947.  Vol.1, p.54, 55.

2 Bradford, William.  Of_Plymouth_Plantation.  Edited by Samuel

       Eliot Morison.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.  Chapter  9, p.58.

3 Morison, Samuel Eliot.  The_Story_of_the_"Old_Colony"_of_New

       Plymouth.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956.  p.38.

4 Gill, Crispin.  Mayflower_Remembered:_A_History_of_the_Ply-

       mouth_Pilgrims.  New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1970.  p.69.

5 Bradford.  Chapter 9, p.59.

6 Bradford.  Chapter 9, p. 61.

7 Bradford.  Chapter 11, p. 75.

8 Bradford.  Chapter 9, p. 60.

9 Bradford.  Chapter 9, p. 60 (Morison's footnote 6).

10 Willison, George F.  Saints_and_Strangers.  New York: Reynal &

       Hitchcock, 1945.  pp.145-146.

11 Bradford, Chapter 9, p.60 (Morison's footnote 6).

12 Bradford, Chapter 10, p.66.

13 Bradford, Chapter 10, p.70.

14 Mourt's_Relations:_A_Journal_of_the_Pilgrims_at_Plymouth

       (1622).  Edited by Dwight B. Heath.  New York: Corinth

       Books, 1963.  p.41.

15 Mourt's Relations, p.51.

16 Romans 8:28

17 Willison, p.131 (footnote).

18 Willison, pp.131-132 (footnote).  

19 Willison, George F.  The_Pilgrim_Reader.  New York: Doubleday

       & Company, Inc., 1953.  p.131 (footnote).

20 Willison, The_Pilgrim_Reader, pp.144-145.

21 Bradford, Chapter 11, p.81.

22 Bradford, Chapter 11, p.81.


February 1999

Providence  isn't  just in Rhode Island

The Rev. Dana L. Goodnough

Buffalo Colony of Society of Mayflower Descendents in the State of New York