William Bradford Institute
for Study of the
Early Settlement of America

Who Were The Pilgrims?

by Dr. Charles H. Wolfe, President,
Plymouth Rock Foundation

"Thus, out of small beginnings... as one small candle may light a
thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many, yea in some
sort to our whole nation, let the glorious name of Jehovah have all the
praise" - William Bradford

Three of the most memorable years of my life were spent working alongside
a distinguished New England gentleman named John G. Talcott, Jr., chairman
of the committee that celebrated the 350th anniversary of the landing of
the Pilgrims in Plymouth.

I recall the day in 1969 when I first drove from my home in New York to
Plymouth via Providence after I had been named the committee’s Executive
Director. Passing through one small town after another on a long, winding
road, I wondered whether I was lost, and stopped to ask a country boy
walking alongside the road, "Young man, am I on the road to Plymouth?"

"Yes sir," he said, "are you going to see the Rock?" I nodded
affirmatively, and he shot back, "Mister, it ain’t worth it!" To this not
very sophisticated lad, the Pilgrims were significant mainly because they
had stepped ashore on a reputedly enormous boulder, which he had
personally found not as big as his imagination had led him to believe.
The famous rock had been cracked and chipped over the years, but of course
its size was never indicative of the Pilgrims’ importance, which once
loomed much larger in the American consciousness than it does today.

Tragically, in my view, most Americans, even most academic historians, now
seem to have decided, concerning any serious recollection, study or
contemplation of these brave pioneers who stepped ashore on a cold
December day in 1620, "it ain’t worth it!"

Once Remembered and Esteemed

But for at least three centuries after that celebrated event, Americans
held a contrary opinion Of all the thousands of brave men and women who
sailed across the stormy Atlantic to escape religious persecution and
build a new life in the American wilderness, it is fair to say that the
ones who most captured the imagination, won the hearts, and gained the
respect of the American people were the Pilgrim Fathers and Mothers.
To most Americans, it seemed that the Pilgrims especially made America
"the sweet land of liberty." Certainly they prompted millions upon
millions of Americans and their children and grandchildren to sing "land
where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrims’ pride, from every mountain
side, let freedom ring!" And as we lifted our voices in America the
Beautiful, we ever came to believe that the Pilgrims’ feet might be

"O beautiful for pilgrim feet
whose stern impassioned stress;
A thoroughfare for freedom
beat across the wilderness!"

And that was not just an artful lyric. From 1854 to 1857, more than two
thousand Pilgrim and Puritan descendants left their New England homes and
trekked cross-country to settle in the Territory of Kansas, hoping to
infuse in it the Pilgrim spirit of freedom. As the Song of the Kansas
Immigrant put it,

We cross the prairie as of old
the Pilgrims crossed the sea,
to make the West as they the East,
the homestead of the free.
The homestead of free, my boys,
the homestead of the free,
to make the West as they the East
the homestead of the free!

More than thirty years before they headed for Kansas, America’s most
famous orator, Daniel Webster, headed for Plymouth Rock, and on December
22nd, 1820, on the 200th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing declared
"Let us rejoice that we behold this day!

We have come to this Rock to record here our homage to our Pilgrim

A century later, on December 21st, 1920 the town launched a great two year
celebration marked by a salute from President Warren G. Harding who
arrived in Plymouth harbor in his presidential yacht, and reminded his
audience that, unlike some contemporary Americans, the Pilgrims were not
concerned with what a nation could do for them, but with what they could
do to build a nation.

Senator Daniel Webster, President Warren Harding, and all the other
celebrated Americans who saluted the Pilgrims, also admired the Puritans,
the much larger band of devout believers who began to arrive at Salem and
Boston ten years later, and continued to pour in for an entire decade,
some 21,000 strong.

But unlike the Pilgrims, the Puritans earnestly believed that to form a
righteous and coherent nation, there must be just one national church.
This church whose tenets and rituals should be centrally controlled, and
to which every citizen should belong, must be reformed. It was only when
they had failed to reform the Church of England, and the Archbishop of
Canterbury had laid plans for the execution of the Puritans leaders, that
they fled to America in the 1630s.

Most Americans have preferred the philosophy of the Pilgrims, the little
band of a few hundred earnest, spiritually intense, independent thinking
Bible believing Reformed English men and women who never tried to form or
re-form a national church.

The Pilgrims were a humble, honest, stout-hearted people who simply
believed that human beings have the right to worship God according the
dictates of conscience, as they perceive the Bible’s direction and
Christ’s leading.

While still in England, they claimed the right to religious freedom, the
right to separate from a national church and take responsibility for
forming and governing their own local institution of worship. In time,
this Pilgrim view became pretty much the universal American view, and one
reason we link the Pilgrims to American liberty.

At first, in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteen centuries, Americans
displayed an almost universal affection and respect for the Pilgrims,
preached about them in churches, studied their history and principles in
homes, schools and colleges, and saw them as highly instructive, inspiring
and relevant to a study of government, economics and various other

But after the 1920s, America began to change. In the 1930s there was a
great depression, an immense spread of Freudian and Marxist pseudo
intellectualism, and a consequent disillusionment with America, the
Constitution, the Founding Fathers, and America’s Pilgrim roots.
A New Cynicism and Secularism

There was a new spirit of skepticism, of cynicism, secularism and a new
leaning toward socialism. Historians began to disparage capitalism and the
United States Constitution and say things like (and this is a quote from
the book Coming to America by historian Roger Daniels),
Even among the seventeenth-century religious settlers in New England,
the Pilgrims were a minority… Like most utopian attempts, Plymouth did
not last too long, being absorbed into Massachusetts before the end of
the century, and its historical significance is much, much smaller than
its place in the American imagination.

Sad to say, such cynical views are widely held in certain academic
circles, but as we shall see, they are shown to be merely arrogant
opinions held by biased authors once one is exposed to sound scholars with
clear historical vision, and a sound perception of the real role the
Pilgrims played.

Certainly the Pilgrims became a minority of the seventeenth century New
England population, but they were the bold pioneering minority that came
first, when no one else apparently had the vision or courage to come, and
it was the surprising, unexpected, undeniable success of the Pilgrims’
pioneering settlement in Plymouth that impelled the hesitant Puritan
majority, some 21,000 strong, to pour into New England ten years later!
As for the "utopian" smear, by definition anything utopian is
"impracticable," but the original Pilgrim Republic (the second permanent
English settlement in America) in contrast to Jamestown (the first),
proved to be eminently practical; it opened the door and set the pattern
for the vastly larger Puritan migration, and in due time became a
highly-esteemed, self-governing part of colonial New England, after
demonstrating a whole series of principles for religious, political and
economic freedom — and success.

Setting the Pilgrims in Perspective

To set the Pilgrims’ role in the founding of New England in historic
perspective, bear in mind that in 1620, when the Pilgrims left their
temporary refuge in Holland, and set out to build an enduring settlement
in the American wilderness, every attempt to do that had failed, none had
actually succeeded, some like Sir Walter Raleigh’s attempted settlement of
Roanoke Island had been decimated, totally lost, and the only one that
remained was Jamestown in Virginia.

Jamestown had already been abandoned once, and it endured not because of
any inherent strength of its own , not because of demonstrated
self-sufficiency, but only because the English King, the English church,
the English business community, and the English people were all determined
to maintain an English presence in the American wilderness, and were
willing to subsidize year after year even a stumbling, faltering English
colony until it got on its feet.

But in 1620, when the Pilgrims sailed off on the Mayflower, there was
little sign that Jamestown would ever get on its feet, would ever succeed.
The Jamestown colony got off to a terrible start. The leaders fought among
themselves, and the settlers were a pathetic mixture of English
"gentlemen" who by tradition were too upper-class to work with their
hands, and poorly-trained lower-class workers who had come to expect
either prolonged unemployment or virtually a year’s guaranteed wage, no
matter how little they produced.

They failed to plant crops, and instead loaded two ships with shining but
worthless mica — thinking it was gold! Near starvation, they stole food
from and then fought with the Indians, and in return suffered Indian

In Jamestown’s first seventeen years, some 4000 out of 5,500 people who
settled there had died. As the esteemed Yale historian Edmund S. Morgan
summarizes, the [Jamestown] colony, despite receiving supplies from a
dozen relief ships, just did not work out. I quote Dr. Morgan:

The adventurers who ventured their capital lost it. Most of the settlers
who ventured their lives lost them. And so did most of the Indians who
came near them. Measured by any of the objectives announced for it, the
colony failed…

No One Dared But the Pilgrims

And so for many years after the settling of Jamestown, no other English or
European group was willing to even try to build a colony in the North
American wilderness. Then on September 6th, 1620, when the little band of
Pilgrims and a compatible set of "strangers" (who came out of respect for
the Pilgrims, and because the Pilgrims needed their practical skills, in
such things as building houses, grinding grain and the military arts) set
off from England on the good ship Mayflower.

They had a very difficult Atlantic crossing. The Mayflower nearly cracked
in two and sank when the main beam broke in a storm. But the ingenious,
cool-headed Pilgrims not only prayed but took quick, effective action,
propped the beam up with a big screw from their printing press, and after
two months of rough sailing, on November 9th, 1620, with a great sigh of
relief, the Pilgrims sighted the beautiful grass-covered sand dunes of
Cape Cod.

As Governor William Bradford wrote in his book Of Plymouth Plantation,
"Being thus arrived in a good harbor, 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, and delivered them from all the perils and
miseries thereof, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth,
their proper element."

For the Pilgrims the first few years in Plymouth were extremely hard. At
first, while still aboard the Mayflower anchored at Cape Cod, there was a
threat of mutiny, but they all agreed to govern themselves under a compact
which they framed in a cooperative undertaking, and after that, worked
well together.

On their first exploring party, the Pilgrims suffered an unprovoked attack
from a band of Indians, but the well trained Pilgrims seized their muskets
and fired back with deadly accuracy. The natives instantly discovered that
these white men were cracks shots, and were not to be messed around with.
They also learned the Pilgrims could be trustworthy friends, and might
even nurse a sick Indian back to health after his fellow Indians had
deserted him for fear of catching a deadly contagious disease. In due time
they signed a peace treaty with the Indians that lasted fifty years, their
entire remaining lifetimes.

So many Pilgrims died the first winter, they might all have given up. The
Pilgrims faced freezing cold, extremely severe disease, acute hunger, a
prolonged "starving time." That first winter, half the Pilgrims died, more
women than men. Many tears were shed and hearts broken over the wives who
were buried and the mothers wbo were lost. But the living were
strengthened by their sense of mission, uplifted by their faith in God and
consoled by their love for one another. When the Mayflower was set to
return to England, and the captain offered to take back anyone who wished,
not one went back.

Evidence of the Pilgrims’ Victory

After 1623, the Pilgrims began to have things pretty much under control.
They had a well-built fort meeting house mounted with a canon on top of
the hill, a sturdy palisade around their village, roofs over their heads,
coats on their backs, and enough food to eat.

They owned and read their own Bibles (still against the law in England and
Europe). They sang out of their own hymnals (written and published while
they were still in Holland, where they first found a refuge). They
worshipped according to the dictates of conscience, without interference
from any authority, something virtually unknown in any other part of the
civilized world, and they lived at peace with God, the Indians and each

In fact, to a remarkable degree, they had won the friendship and trust of
the native people. Once, a wild young Englishman in the village murdered
an Indian. He was given a fair trial, found guilty, and hanged. As a
serious student of history for the past forty years, I sincerely believe
that in all probability the Plymouth of the Pilgrims was one of the most
peaceful, orderly and free communities on the face of the earth.

In the 1620s, for the first time, anywhere on the American East Coast —
while the Jamestown settlers who had arrived more than thirteen years
earlier, were still suffering acute hunger, fighting with, stealing from
and being scalped by the Indians (and dying in droves) — the Pilgrims were
demonstrating that Europeans in general and the English in particular
could live in peace and freedom in the new world.

It may have seemed that they were all alone, but much of England was
watching, and reassured by the Pilgrims’ success, in the 1630s thousands
of exceptionally devout, highly educated Puritans, including a
remarkably high percentage of Cambridge University graduates, followed
in the Pilgrims footsteps, as ship after ship sailed into Boston harbor.
The potential foreshadowed by the Pilgrims was becoming an American
actuality. The building of a deeply moral, Biblically principled,
exceptionally well educated colonial American population was well on its

A Question Worth Asking

All that raises this question:

Was the ardent affection and deep respect for the Pilgrims that was once
widespread, almost universal in this country, merely an emotional whim, or
was it really justified by a sober evaluation of the facts?

We answer that best, I think, when we make a realistic appraisal of the
Pilgrim contribution to America. I believe it was considerable, a
contribution generally under estimated, and well in excess of the
appraisal given by academics.

To sum it up, I would say the Pilgrims were the first people to not merely
verbalize but actually realize, to demonstrate over a span of decades, in
their own lives as individuals and as a whole community, the unique
American identity as an exceptionally free, orderly, and essentially
devout people.

In forming the Pilgrim Republic, and framing not only the Mayflower
Compact (1620) but America’s first constitution (1636), they formed a
prototype of the American Republic, and an inspiration and example for a
succession of compact and constitution makers, right up to the framers of
the United States Constitution.

To do that, they had to live out step by step the various aspects of the
principle of Christian self-government that allowed them to experience, in
an orderly, logical sequence the basic constituents of a comprehensive,
genuine human freedom — first spiritual liberty, then religious liberty,
then in turn political, economic and Constitutional liberty.

As you’ll see when you think about it, each of these aspects of liberty
requires a corresponding degree of individual and community self -
government, which is a key component in the price that must be paid for
freedom. And each of these stages had to appear essentially in the
sequence that it did, to prepare the way for the next stage of liberty.
Consider each of these six interrelated states of liberty as manifested,
one after the other, apparently orchestrated by the hand of God, in the
lives of the Pilgrims.

1. Spiritual liberty — 1600

Encouraged and inspired by the gifted Reformed pastors Richard Clyfton and
John Robinson, to get and read their own Bibles (then against the law of
England) and to receive Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Saviour (then no
part of the teaching of the Church of England), the Pilgrims experienced a
considerable degree of spiritual liberty (a measure of freedom from
bondage to sin) and thus learned how to practice Christian
self-government. As William Bradford wrote,

"by the travail of some godly and zealous preachers, and God’s blessings
on their labors… many became enlightened by the Word of God and had
their ignorance and sins discovered unto them, and began by His grace to
reform their lives and make conscience of their ways…"

2. Religious Liberty — 1603-1607

When English officials removed both the Pilgrims’ own pastor, Richard
Clyfton, and their brilliant younger minister, John Robinson, for
denouncing the empty ritualism of the Church of England, the Pilgrims
joined with them in forming a secret underground church in the splendid
manor house, once virtually a mini-castle, belonging to their Elder,
William Brewster.

There they practiced church self-government under a written covenant
formed on the ancient Biblical pattern, which they all signed. As Governor
Bradford later explained,

"So many… whose hearts the Lord had touched with heavenly zeal for his
truth, shook off this yoke of antichristian bondage, and as the Lord’s
free people, joined themselves (by a covenant of the Lord) into a church
estate, in the fellowship of the gospel, to walk in all His ways made
known, or to be made known, according to their best endeavors,
whatsoever it should cost them , the Lord assisting them. And that it
cost them something this ensuring history will declare."

Soon they were arrested by the Church police for worshipping apart from
the Church of England. Apprehended and jailed, tried and found guilty, and
finally released, they saw it was no longer feasible for them to live in
their beloved England. With great difficulty (still pursued by the police,
who insisted they stay in England) they escaped to Holland, where they
found plenty of freedom.

But it was freedom to do your own thing, freedom run wild, and after a
decade they found this materialistic, anti-Christian freedom was
corrupting their children, and they decided they had to make a fresh start
in the New World. What they claimed next was:

3. Political liberty — 1620

As we’ve already briefly explained, while still aboard the Mayflower,
anchored in Provincetown harbor, before they ever went ashore, the
Pilgrims took their Biblical type covenant which they had framed for their
church self-government in England and transmuted it into the Mayflower
Compact, the world’s first written charter for local civil
self-government. It was "democracy" with a spiritual undergirding,
acknowledging the sovereignty of God and the primacy of His laws.

As political scientists Willmoore Kendall and George Carey observe, the
colony is being planted first, for "the glory of God," second for "the
Advancement of the Christian faith," third for "the honor of King and
country," and fourth, "for our better ordering," — that is, not just to
form a free society, but an orderly, just and good society.

4. Economic liberty — 1623

While still in Holland, the Pilgrims sold all they owned, and still didn’t
have nearly enough to finance their expedition. They turned to the private
investors who demanded that in the New World the Pilgrims own and farm the
land in common, put the fruits of their labors each day in a common
storehouse, each taking out the same amount, no matter how much — or
little — they put in.

The Pilgrims objected on the grounds that it was a mistaken socialist,
collectivist arrangement, against God’s principles of private property and
economic justice , based on "as ye sow, so shall you reap." But the
investors, while not philosophical socialists but pragmatic business men,
insisted, on the grounds that it would provide a convenient arrangement
for the dividing of the expected profits.

But the first year under communal agriculture, the Pilgrims planted just
26 acres and nearly starved to death. As Governor Bradford reported, "they
gathered in the small harvest that they had." They shared what they could
with the Indians, and the Indians shared the deer they had slain for the
occasion with the Pilgrims, but it was no huge Thanksgiving feast, and
they soon were acutely hungry.

The second year, knowing they had to go all out, but still under the
obligation to practice communal agriculture, they doubled their first
year’s production, and planted 60 acres. But that was no by means enough,
they still were near starvation.

And so the third year, they switched to private agriculture, assigned each
family its own property, made each responsible for itself. They planted
184 acres, tripled their best previous effort, and never went hungry
again. William Bradford wrote:

"Thus out of small beginnings greater things have been produced by His
hand that made all things of nothing, and gives being to all things that
are; and as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here
kindled hath shone unto many, yea in some sort to our whole nation; let
the glorious name of Jehovah have all the praise."

5. Constitutional liberty — 1636

The Mayflower Compact was an inspired document, but not a specific
constitution, defining the form of their government, its functions and
basic laws. Thus in 1636, not working only from theory, no matter how
sound, but drawing also on some fifteen years of experience in
self-government in the new world, the Pilgrims held a kind of
mini-constitutional convention, which framed the Laws of the Pilgrims,
also known as The Laws of Plymouth, a basic constitution that was revised
from time to time but never abandoned.

The preamble to the 1671 version, introduced "with grace and peace in our
Lord Jesus Christ," began:

"It was the great privilege of Israel of old, and so acknowledged by
them (Nehemiah 9:13) that God gave them right judgments and true laws,
which are so far good and wholesome as by how much they are derived from
and agreeable to, the ancient platform of God’s law."

Two distinguished political science professors, one at Georgetown
University and the other at the University of Dallas, authors of the book,
The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition, say (and I think,
wisely), if we want to understand our heritage and tradition, and what
made America such a uniquely free, orderly and prosperous nation, we need
to be familiar with the United States Constitution, which defines and
limits our federal government.

Next, these professors maintain, we need to go back to the Declaration of
Independence which defines some of the basic spiritual principles, such as
the concept that we are endowed by our divine Creator with inalienable
rights, and then go back still further in time, to the American political
beginning, they say, lest we mistake for America’s original precepts some
later variations on these root concepts from which this once uniquely
free, orderly and righteous nation began.

And to go back to the beginning, they tell us, means to go back to a ship
called the Mayflower, to the people called the Pilgrims, and to the
Mayflower Compact itself.

As Governor Bradford wrote in his book Of Plimoth Plantation,
"Thus, out of small beginnings greater things have been produced by His
hand that made all things of nothing, and gives being to all things that
are; and as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here
kindled hath shone unto many, yea in some sort to our whole nation; let
the glorious name of Jehovah have all the praise."

As the Euro-American Cultural Exchange put it,

"The Pilgrims’ courage, and ultimately, their success at overcoming
their difficulties, encouraged thousands of others to follow them to New
England, and their pattern of civilization became enshrined in the
Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States."


Promoting a Greater Understanding of the Pilgrims and Puritans