Rev. Dr. D.ana L. Goodnough.
Fix Your Eyes On Jesus
PROVIDENCE ISN'T JUST IN RHODE ISLAND
A Paper Presented to
the Buffalo Colony
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.
(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.
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