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Remembering the Pilgrim Fathers

On 6 September 1620 the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth to America, the New World, carrying 102 passengers and 25 crew. Most of the passengers were Christians who have come to be known as the “Pilgrim Fathers.” It was not an easy trip with cramped living quarters for a journey taking 2 months. The first half of the voyage was smooth and pleasant but then the weather changed to continuous North-easterly storms. One passenger died, a baby was born, and for several days they could not use their sails and simply drifted until the storm subsided. On 11 November 1620 they set anchor at Cape Cod and thanked the God of heaven who “had brought them safely over the vast and furious ocean.” During the bitter winter, the passengers remained on board Mayflower, suffering scurvy, pneumonia and tuberculosis, which killed half the passengers and crew.

Why did the Pilgrim Fathers leave England for the New World? The “Pilgrims” were Christians who based their faith and life on the Bible and wished to be free to organise religious congregations separate from the English State Church. At the time this was illegal. They were known as “Separatists” because they believed they should be free to establish true churches which were voluntary, democratic communities, separate from the State. They experienced fierce persecution and some of their leaders were imprisoned and executed on charges of sedition. Some had fled to Holland before travelling to America.

The “Pilgrims” had a significant influence on the history of America. In July 1776 The Declaration of Independence stated, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The First Amendment, ratified in 1791, states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Today the Pledge of Allegiance states that the republic of the United States of America is “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

The “Pilgrims” knew that true liberty is found in knowing God and being guided by the truths he has revealed in the Bible. In submitting to God’s authority, we find real freedom. When we cast off all restraints in an attempt to be “free” it leads only to being enslaved. Jesus came “to proclaim liberty to the captives and to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” He said, “If the Son sets you free, you are truly free.”

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Loving the strangers among us

When he boarded a Wizz Air flight from Romania to Luton Victor Spiersau had no idea that he would be front page news in Britain. Victor comes from Transylvania, a very poor region in Romania which itself is not a wealthy country. He left his 19 year old fiancée Catalina Curcean in the dilapidated home they have bought in the remote village of Pelisor. Victor, who is a construction worker, has come to Britain to work and earn money to enable him to return to Pelisor to renovate his home and marry Catalina. Within 24 hours of arriving in Britain Victor started work in a car wash.

Migration has always been part of our human experience. It is often a response to problems in our home country and a desire to find a better life. My mother’s grandmother came from Tramore in Ireland to Wales during the Irish famine in the mid 19th century. It is estimated that as many as a million people in Ireland, nearly an eighth of the population, died of starvation and epidemic diseases between 1846 and 1851 and 2 million people emigrated. The Pilgrim Fathers left Britain in 1620 for America seeking freedom to worship God. They played a significant part in the development of that great country. Today the American national anthem rejoices that it is “the land of the free and the home of the brave!”

The Bible teaches us to exercise special care for strangers and foreigners. During a time of famine the Israelites went to Egypt where they later became slaves. When God brought them out of Egypt he commanded them, “Do not oppress the foreigners living among you. You know what it is like to be a foreigner. They should be treated like everyone else, and you must love them as you love yourself. Remember your experience in the land of Egypt.”

Jesus spoke about the final judgement when all people will stand before God. The King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home.” Then the King will explain how they had cared for him, “When you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!”

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Love your neighbour as yourself

Does it really matter what we believe about God? Is there a link between what we believe and how we live? Can private morality and public morality be separated? These are important questions in our increasingly secular society. Recent events have raised the question of integrity in the BBC and in the lives of public figures in politics and entertainment. There is an understandable expectation that those who influence the lives of so many people should act with integrity both in their public and private lives. Sadly, it seems, this has not always been the case.

Yet this raises an important question. What is the foundation for integrity in both our public and private lives? Is it based on our sense of duty to society or to our fellow human beings? Is it something we can teach children in our schools and so ensure that they become good citizens? There are countries in the world which seek to inculcate a spirit of obedience and duty in their citizens, but this is usually imposed by a regime of strict laws and very little personal freedom.

The history of the USA has been shaped by Christians who believed the Bible. Their faith in God and in Jesus Christ provided the framework for both their private and public lives. Whilst they held their own beliefs firmly they did not seek to impose these beliefs on others. They maintained the freedom of all people to practice their religion. The Pilgrim Fathers left England and established a new colony in North America because they were seeking religious freedom. Their convictions have shaped the history and values of the USA.

Jesus taught that there are two great commandments which cannot be separated. They are the essential basis for both moral integrity and personal freedom. The first is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” The second is, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Because he loved God William Wilberforce fought for the abolition of slavery. Lord Shaftesbury fought for better working conditions and schools for children from poorer homes. Elizabeth Fry campaigned for better conditions for women in prison. Florence Nightingale, out of her experience in the Crimea War, became the founder of modern nursing. For each of these people their experience of God’s love in Jesus inspired in them a love for those around them and a determination to do them good.