Just over 400 years ago, on April 27, 1607, three small ships arrived off the coast of the “New World.” Captain Edward Wingfield selected a small island about 40 miles up a river as the most defensible location for the new colony. The new colony was given the name of Jamestown. The three ships which had crossed an ocean to bring these first settlers were named the Constant, the Discovery, and the Godspeed. These ships not only brought settlers to the new world, they also brought the name of God.
Captain John Smith recorded that the first church services were held “under an awning (which was an old saile) fastened to three or four trees.” Shortly thereafter the settlers built the first church. This church was the first permanent building erected on American soil. Smith said it was “a homely thing like a barn set on crachetts, covered with rafts, sedge and earth.” This church burned in January, 1608 and was replaced by a second church, similar to the first. An Indian princess named Pocahontas and a man named John Rolfe were married in the second church.
The Third Church was built between 1617 and 1619. Governor Samuel Argall had the inhabitants of Jamestown build a new church “50 foot long and twenty foot broad.” In 1619 the first representative assembly in America convened in this church “to establish one equal and unified government over all Virginia” which would provide “Just laws for the happy guiding and governing of the people there inhabiting.” By colonial times that first governing body had become the Virginia House of Burgesses.
A year later, another ship arrived on the shores of America. Originally bound for Virginia, it was blown off course by a storm and landed instead off Cape Cod. It was named the Mayflower and carried 120 “pilgrims” to the New World. The ship arrived on November 21, 1620 but the passengers decided to remain on the ship through the winter. On March 21, 1621 the first pilgrims stepped ashore at Plymouth Rock.
When the pilgrims arrived off the coast of Cape Cod, they quickly realized that they were about to set foot in a territory where the “king’s horsemen would not be available to restrain lawlessness,” and no existing government “had the power to command them.” How then would they be governed? Who would insure law and order? To address this problem they drew up the first governing document for the new colony. It was The Mayflower Compact.
“In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are under-written…Having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith... a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one of another, covenant and combine our selves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.”
For those colonists, not only did the government have its foundation in the consent of the governed, it also represented the Christian ideal. Perry Miller, a 20th century historian wrote:
“The Puritans maintained that government originated in the consent of the people…because they did not believe that any society, civil or ecclesiastical, into which men did not enter of themselves was worthy of the name. Consequently, the social theory of Puritanism, based upon the law of God, was posited also upon the voluntary submission of the citizens.”
Nine years later, in 1630, a group of four ships landed at Salem, Mass. The Arbella arrived on the 12th of June, the Jewell on the 13th, the Ambrose on the 18th, and the Talbot on July 2nd. These were part of a fleet of seventeen ships which crossed from Yarmouth, England to Salem, Mass. In the years to follow thousands of pilgrims would land on the shores of America.
What brought those people here? Why would they leave the security of England and the families they loved to sail 3,000 miles on small ships with nothing to eat for weeks except salt pork? Many did not survive the voyage while others died soon after arriving. They arrived in a wilderness with little except a few tools and the clothes they were able to bring.
Some were very religious while others were reprobates. Some came seeking riches while others came to escape from the authorities. Some brought large sums of money while others signed on as indentured servants just to cover the cost of their passage. So what was their reason? Was it religion, potential wealth, a sense of adventure, or refuge from the authorities? The answer is, all of the above.
Yet there was something else. Something often described as, “better felt than spoken.” It was a yearning that lives deep in the soul of every human; a burning desire that cannot be quenched. All have felt it, many have proclaimed it, and some have fought and died for it. It began at the dawn of time and survives even as I type this letter. It can be boiled down to a single word. A word which can make the heart beat faster and bring a lump to the throat. The word is FREEDOM! They risk all to gain it, and one hundred and forty-six years later their descendents pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to defend and preserve it.
To be continued…
This is the first of several installments. It comes from a pamphlet entitled “Once Upon a Time There was A Land Called America. The entire pamphlet can be read at www.alandcalledamerica.com.