Genesis 12.1 - 6 & Matthew 5.13 – 16
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
When American historians look back at the year 2020, they will certainly remember the coronavirus and the presidential election. Yet back in January, I thought they’d be remembering something else. November 11th marked the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Separatist Pilgrims in New England after a sea voyage of 66 days. They had intended to land near the Hudson River, but rough seas forced them to the relative safety of Cape Cod Bay, and on December 16th, they disembarked in a cove near the Wampanoag village of Patuxet, which they named Plymouth. Whether historians remember it or not, it’s an important date for us to remember as members of a church called “Plymouth,” not in a triumphal way, but in the fullness of the story. (By the way, there are 44 UCC congregations named Plymouth, 8 Mayflowers, and 51 Pilgrims.)
The story doesn’t begin in Plymouth, but rather in England around 1581 when two radical Protestant ministers, Robert Browne and Robert Harrison, concluded that the Church of England was beyond redemption, and started their own congregation in Norwich. Eventually, sensible Separatists made their way to the Netherlands, where their newfangled theology was tolerated. John Robinson, a fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and another radical minister, applied to the governors of the city of Leiden to bring 100 women and men to the city so that they could practice Reformed Christianity without persecution. In 1609 they emigrated to the Netherlands, as the first part of their pilgrimage, to what William Bradford described as a “fair and beautiful city.”
Sunday worship among the emigres consisted of extemporaneous prayers by Robinson and [their deacon, William] Brewster, the reading of several passages of scripture, psalm singing, a “preached” rather than a “read” sermon, the Lord’s Supper, and a collection for the minister’s salary and for the poor.”  There was no set liturgical practice, no reading from the Book of Common Prayer, as in the Church of England. And importantly, there was Christian liberty within the congregation to practice the faith as they felt called to do…not so much as an individual desire as a matter of communal practice of what they felt was authentic faith and worship. That desire was so strong that the Leiden Pilgrims left homes, professions, farms, family, and everything they knew in England.
They felt called in a way you and I can probably only imagine. They sensed that God was calling them, like God had called Abram, to go to a new land. We in the UCC really appreciate the phrase, “God is still speaking,” which was coined about 20 years ago. And those early Separatists definitely felt as though God was speaking to them with such clarity that they would risk their lives to follow God’s voice.
Things in the Netherlands grew a bit tiresome for the Pilgrim community, even as other Separatists from England joined them. Some did not want their children to integrate into Dutch society or to lose their English culture. So they prepared for a voyage to North America. Most of the congregation remained in Leiden, along with their pastor, John Robinson. On the day of their departure, they had a “day of solemn humiliation” that consisted of fasting, preaching, and feasting. Robinson warned those setting out against doctrinaire following of either Luther or Calvin, declaring, “the Lord had more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy Word.” There it is again…a sense of progressive revelation, that God was still speaking to us. Around July 22, their ship, The Speedwell, set off for Southampton to join with other English Separatists who would join them on a second ship, The Mayflower, for the Atlantic crossing. When the Speedwell began to take on water, they put in at Plymouth, where the Speedwell’s master declared the vessel unseaworthy, and on September 6, the Mayflower set out with only some of the Pilgrims, as well as some adventurers (as investors were called) to make the crossing alone.
Two factors distinguished this band from the English colonists who settled in Jamestown 11 years earlier. First, roughly a quarter of the Mayflower Pilgrims were women and girls. That made it clear that they were not emigrating for a temporary stay, but to forge a new settlement. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s, “The civilization of New England was like a bonfire on a hilltop, which, having spread its warmth to its immediate vicinity, tinges even the distant horizon with its glow….The founding of New England presented a novel spectacle; everything about it was singular and original. The first inhabitants of most other colonies were men with neither education nor means, men driven from the land of their birth by poverty or misconduct; or else they were greedy speculators or industrial entrepreneurs…The immigrants who settled on the shores of new England all belonged to the well-to-do classes of the mother country [except for one of my mother’s ancestors who came as a servant and turned out to be a ne’er-do-well]…Here was a society with neither great lords or commoners, indeed one might almost say they were neither rich nor poor….What distinguished them most of all from other colonizers was the very purpose of their enterprise.”  …which was their faith and the ideal of founding a settlement grounded in their Separatist theology. It was also their political ideology, expressed in the Mayflower Compact, written shipboard while they were at anchor in the Bay and signed by all the males – Pilgrims, adventurers, and servants – but not by the women.
“We, whose names follow, who, for the glory of God, the development of the Christian faith, and the honor of our fatherland have undertaken to establish the first colony on these remote shores, we agree in the present document, by mutual and solemn consent, and before God, to form ourselves into a body of political society, for the purpose of governing ourselves and working toward the accomplishment of these designs; and in virtue of this contract, we agree to promulgate laws, act, and ordinances.” There, my friends, you have the basis of congregational polity, the way we still govern our churches, and perhaps a precursor to American democracy.
When the Pilgrims arrived in Patuxet, they found a desolated Wampanoag village and even a few human skeletons. It turns out that the English and French had been traveling the New England coast for decades, fishing and trading with local tribes. The English also took captives, and Thomas Hunt kidnapped around 20 Wampanoags at Patuxet, including one man named Tisquantum, who escaped and eventually found his way back to Patuxet, only to find its inhabitants had been wiped out by exposure to an uncertain disease, perhaps smallpox or typhoid fever, to which native peoples had no immunity.
As the bitter winter was ending, Samoset, an Abenaki man, entered the village and shockingly spoke to the new arrivals in English, which he had learned from trading with the English in present-day Maine. The next day, he brought Tisquantum, whom they called Squanto, and they were led to a brook to meet Ousamequin, whom they called by his title, Massasoit, the sachem of the Pokanoket band. They quickly formed an alliance with Massasoit, agreeing that the Plymouth settlers and Massasoit’s warriors would defend one another in an attack. This was a real concern given that Massasoit’s enemies, the Naragansett people, were virtually unscathed by the pandemic that had taken so many Wampanoag lives. When Massasoit was captured by the Naragansetts, the settlers did indeed go after him, though he escaped before their intervention.
In the fall of 1621, having lost nearly half the English population in their first winter and having a good harvest thanks to their indigenous neighbors, Governor Bradford decided the settlers “might after a more special manner rejoice together” and sent out parties to shoot fowl and also to fish. The Wampanoags killed five deer for the feast, and Massasoit brought 90 people to the celebration.
A new history of the Plymouth Pilgrims records that “The Plymouth settlers and the Wampanoags did not always enjoy each other’s company, but on this occasion they did. ‘We entertain them familiarly in our houses,’ [Edward] Winslow wrote, ‘and they are friendly in bestowing venison on us.’ Such moments are reminders that conflict between Europeans and Natives was not inevitable.” 
Yet within two years, the impulsive soldier-adventurer, Miles Standish, had slain a Massachusett warrior, though relations with the Wampanoags continued to flourish for a time.
Part of the issue was that the Pilgrims saw themselves as being like Abram, being called into a new land, and though Patuxet was uninhabited when they arrived, there was a population of New England, just as the land of Canaan was populated. I never thought much about a town near where I grew up – New Canaan, Connecticut – but now it makes sense to me. The English cast themselves as the descendants of Abraham and the native tribes of New England they saw as the Canaanites.
To me, this was a tragic misreading of Genesis and the cycle of Abraham stories. We see them as mythic retellings of a distant past and not as historical guidelines to follow. I’m glad to say that we’ve made a lot of progress in biblical scholarship over the last 400 years. And yet, today we still live with the tragic consequences of both conflicts…between Jews and Palestinians in the Middle East and in this nation, where we live and worship on land that belonged to the Cheyenne and Arapahoe people.
If God does, indeed, have more light to shed, may we as the inheritors of the Pilgrim heritage have the wisdom, the courage, and the sense of justice to listen. And may we have the faith not only to confess the part our denominational ancestors played in the demise of indigenous peoples, but the courage to be advocates when we hear of oppression.
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
1. John G. Turner, They Knew They Were Pilgrims. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020) p. 33.
2. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, translated by Arthur Goldhammer. (NY: Library of America, 2004), pp.36-7.
3. John G. Turner, They Knew They Were Pilgrims. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020), p. 81.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.