Our story begins in in the year 1600 A.D., in the approximate middle of England, where a small group of devout Protestant Englishman, living in or near the small town of Scrooby, refused to roll over to the demands of the new Church of England. They decided they would go to the required Sunday service, but would later gather for a proper meeting in secret. When the Church discovered they were meeting secretly, they forbad them from continuing and began arresting the leaders of this small church. Eventually the danger and tension began to transmit itself to the children, and the leaders of the small secret church concluded that they could no longer live in England. They decided they would move to Holland where they could worship freely.
The Separatists (as they came to be called) were risking their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to follow the laws of their Lord, rather than the statutes of the political Church of England. They wanted to worship God as they believed would be pleasing to Him. They were not looking for a fight. They sought in every way they could to avoid strife between themselves and the Church of England, while remaining obedient to what they believed to be their Creator’s laws. It was hard for them to realize the religious and political leaders of England were not going to let them worship as they thought best.
Not knowing much about smuggling, the leaders of the Separatists made contact with an English sea captain to smuggle them out of England. At last, word came down from the captain to pack up and be ready to depart that night. When the Separatists were all aboard the ship, the crew lifted the hatch covers, and the Sheriff and his men scrambled up from below onto the deck and arrested every man, woman, and child. Despite having been betrayed by the captain, and despite having failed to escape England, the Separatists kept trying. Again and again they failed, but they never lost faith. They had tremendous strength and belief in their cause, and this strength allowed them to withstand distorting pressure and not be distorted by it.
They had to take the distorting pressure of being betrayed in their first escape attempt and the ill treatment they received at the hands of the authorities as they were led through town to prison. “Lift up your heads, children,” the mothers told their sons and daughters as they walked, “Your father is right, and this profane multitude is wrong.”
They had to take the distorting pressure of another failed escape, and when they finally did make it out of England and into Holland, they had to leave their homes and shops to live in a flat dismal country where they were forced to take the lowest paying jobs and face the unhappiness of watching their sons and daughters being overworked by employers to the point of stunted physical development.
Facing this, they decided they must migrate again, to some place better, to some place where they could worship in peace while being able to care for their families. Some place like the new world, all the way on the other side of the ocean. This meant “building the foundation of a better world” for themselves would now require far more money than these, now destitute, English immigrants had.
They entered into an agreement with a group of English investors who would provide them with a ship, food, tools, and extra clothing in exchange for the lumber, furs, and perhaps gold they would find. Once the financial challenges were overcome, frustrating delays and navigation problems kept them from arriving in “Virginia” in time to plant and harvest the garden they would need in order to survive. Far north of their original destination, they waded ashore in Cape Cod in December, where, in freezing temperatures, they attempted to build shelter and survive the winter. By March, half of the original 100 men, women, and children had died, and the survivors, now exhausted and barely able to take care of themselves, had to overcome the tremendous temptation to return with Captain Jones to Holland, who, out of compassion, had offered them free passage.
But the final challenge they had to overcome was how to feed themselves. In spite of the warmer weather, this group of craftsman and farmers failed to cultivate enough land in their communal gardens to plant and harvest enough food to survive. Their leader, William Bradford, determined that the families would work harder and be more successful if they were working for themselves. The communal property was divided into individual plots, and the responsibility for cultivating, planting, and harvesting was given to each family separately.
It was this realization that allowed the Separatists to survive and allowed Plymouth Colony to grow. The story of how Squanto and his tribe saved them during the period of their starvation is the story of Thanksgiving, but the story of the Separatists is more than that. It is a story of facing and overcoming unimaginable hardship while remaining true to their beliefs.