Detail of Edgar Parker's Embarkation of the Pilgrims
"They knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lifted up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country." -- William Bradford
The Pilgrim saga began with a group of religious dissidents who believed it was necessary to separate from the Church of England. Persecuted in England, these "Separatists" moved to Holland in 1607/1608.
The group, joined by other colonists recruited by the venture's financial backers, began the move to America in 1620.
Bacon's Landing of the Pilgrims
Early Plymouth records refer to all passengers from the first four ships as "First Comers." These ships were the Mayflower (1620), the Fortune (1621), the Anne and the Little James (1623). The term "Pilgrim" was not generally used until the early 1800s.
There is no single definition of "Pilgrim." Many families, Separatists and non-Separatists and Separatist sympathizers alike, traveled to America in several ships in the 1620s.
However defined, the story of these Pilgrims has provided inspiration for centuries. There are those today who are rewriting the history books to assert these people either had no religion or were so diverse as to be indifferent to religion. However, religious freedom and the right to worship as they pleased were central to their departure from England.
The Church of England seems to be an adaptation of the Roman Catholic Church. The roots of the Church of England go back to the time of the Roman Empire when a Christian church came into existence in what was then the Roman province of Britain. The early Christian writers Tertullian and Origen mention the existence of a British church in the third century AD, and in the fourth century British bishops attended a number of the great councils of the Church such as the Council of Arles in 314 and the Council of Rimini in 359. The first member of the British church whom we know by name is St. Alban, who, tradition tells us, was martyred for his faith on the spot where St. Albans Abbey now stands.
The British church was a missionary church with figures such as St. Illtud, St. Ninian and St. Patrick evangelizing in Wales, Scotland and Ireland, but the invasions by the pagan Angles, Saxons and Jutes in the fifth century seem to have destroyed the organization of the church in much of what is now England. In 597 a mission sent by Pope Gregory the Great and led by St. Augustine of Canterbury landed in Kent to begin the work of converting these pagan peoples. What eventually became known as the Church of England (the Ecclesia Anglicana - or the English Church) was the result of a combination of three streams of Christianity, the Roman tradition of St. Augustine and his successors, the remnants of the old Romano-British church and the Celtic tradition coming down from Scotland and associated with people like St. Aidan and St. Cuthbert. Until the Reformation in the 16th century, the Church of England acknowledged the authority of the Pope.
When the Church of England became so dominant that it made unreasonable demands on the citizenry, the Separatists were forced to flee in search of the freedom to practice their religion elsewhere. That fact is at the core of the founding of America.
At the Reformation, the Western Church became divided between those who continued to accept Papal authority and the various Protestant churches that repudiated it. The Church of England was among the churches that broke with Rome. The catalyst for this decision was the refusal of the Pope to annul the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, but underlying this was a Tudor nationalist belief that authority over the English Church properly belonged to the English monarchy.
In the reign of Henry’s son Edward VI the Church of England underwent further reformation, driven by the conviction that the theology being developed by the theologians of the Protestant Reformation was more faithful to the teaching of the Bible and the Early Church than the teaching of those who continued to support the Pope.
In the reign of Mary Tudor the Church of England once again submitted to Papal authority. However, this policy was reversed when Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558.
The religious settlement that eventually emerged in the reign of Elizabeth gave the Church of England the distinctive identity that it has retained to this day. It resulted in a Church that consciously retained a large amount of continuity with the Church of the Patristic and Medieval periods in terms of its use of the Catholic creeds, its pattern of ministry, its buildings and aspects of its liturgy, but which also embodied Protestant insights in its theology and in the overall shape of its liturgical practice. The way that this is often expressed is by saying that the Church of England is both "Catholic and reformed."
At the end of the 16th century Richard Hooker produced the classic defense of the Elizabethan settlement in his Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, a work which sought to defend the Church of England against its Puritan critics who wanted further changes to make the Church of England more like the churches of Geneva or Scotland.
John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence, showing the five-man committee in charge of drafting the Declaration in 1776 as it presents its work to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia
There is a reason we celebrate July 4th in this country. It is the day the Declaration of Independence was ratified and signed in 1776. It is Independence Day. Over a hundred years would go by after England claimed her "colonies" in the New World. All of that history is the preamble for the final break with England that culminated in the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the subsequent Revolutionary War.
The revolutionary era began in 1763, when the French military threat to British North American colonies ended.
Adopting the policy that the colonies should pay an increased proportion of the costs associated with keeping them in the Empire, Britain imposed a series of direct taxes followed by other laws intended to demonstrate British authority, all of which proved extremely unpopular in America. Because the colonies lacked elected representation in the governing British Parliament, many colonists considered the laws to be illegitimate and a violation of their rights as Englishmen.
In 1772, groups of colonists began to create committees of correspondence, which would lead to their own Provincial Congresses in most of the colonies. In the course of two years, the Provincial Congresses or their equivalents rejected the Parliament and effectively replaced the British ruling apparatus in the former colonies, culminating in 1774 with the coordinating First Continental Congress.
In response to protests in Boston over Parliament's attempts to assert authority, the British sent combat troops, dissolved local governments, and imposed direct rule by Royal officials. Consequently, the Colonies mobilized their militias, and fighting broke out in 1775.
First ostensibly loyal to King George III, the repeated pleas by the First Continental Congress for royal intervention on their behalf with Parliament resulted in the declaration by the King that the states were "in rebellion", and Congress traitors.
The Dunlap broadside was the first published version of the Declaration.
In 1776, representatives from each of the original thirteen states voted unanimously in the Second Continental Congress to adopt a Declaration of Independence, which now rejected the British monarchy in addition to its Parliament. The Declaration established the United States, which was originally governed as a loose confederation through a representative government selected by state legislatures (see Second Continental Congress and Congress of the Confederation).
The opening words of the Declaration of Independence are perhaps the most inspiring in human language:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
The next section, the Preamble, sets forth the ideals of America:
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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
Note: They believed they were "endowed" (an interesting word choice) with their rights as free people by their Creator. There is no doubt in the language of that heavenly banner that God is the source of its inspiration. The founders were not indifferent to religion; they were patriots because of it.The balance of the document is a specific recitation of the abuses of King George and the British government upon the colonies and a description of the failed attempts at reconciliation with the throne. Their signatures at the bottom of the document were a knowing admission of treason and a certain death sentence for the signers if they were apprehended and brought to justice.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
John Hancock's now-iconic signature on the Declaration is nearly 5 inches (13 cm) long.
Eventually there were fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence. John Hancock was the president of Congress and his signature, it is said, was the largest "so King George would not have to use his spectacles to read my name."
The Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom in the National Archives building, which houses the originals of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
One has the sense when viewing these documents in their current setting that America was no mere accident. Rather, it was the willful act of determined free men that brought her into existence. The oppression described by the signers brought about the improbable outcome of victory under General George Washington in the Revolutionary War. On paper and in the field against the might and muscle of the largest army and navy on earth, the little band of patriots prevailed in its struggle to be free men and America was born.
There is an inspiring recounting of the miraculous outcome of the Revolutionary War in Seven Miracles that Saved America. I recommend the book.
God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, appeared to the fourteen-year-old boy prophet Joseph Smith in what would later become known as the Sacred Grove in Palmyra, New York, to usher in the dispensation of the fulness of times.
From his own written history of that spring day, we learn:
While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.
Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.
At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs, that is, ask of God. I at length came to the determination to "ask of God," concluding that if he gave wisdom to them that lacked wisdom, and would give liberally, and not upbraid, I might venture.
So, in accordance with this, my determination to ask of God, I retired to the woods to make the attempt. It was on the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty. It was the first time in my life that I had made such an attempt, for amidst all my anxieties I had never as yet made the attempt to pray vocally.
After I had retired to the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me, and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God. I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction.
But, exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me, and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction — not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being — just at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me.
It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other — This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!
My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong) — and which I should join.
I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: "they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof."
He again forbade me to join with any of them; and many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time. When I came to myself again, I found myself lying on my back, looking up into heaven. When the light had departed, I had no strength; but soon recovering in some degree, I went home. And as I leaned up to the fireplace, mother inquired what the matter was. I replied, "Never mind, all is well — I am well enough off." I then said to my mother, "I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true." It seems as though the adversary was aware, at a very early period of my life, that I was destined to prove a disturber and an annoyer of his kingdom; else why should the powers of darkness combine against me? Why the opposition and persecution that arose against me, almost in my infancy?
And thus was ushered in the final dispensation of the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Without the pilgrims, without the patriots, there would have been no prophets. It was upon the shoulders of pilgrims and patriots in their blood, sweat and agony to organize a free country that Joseph Smith could stand to establish forever until the end of time the Restored (not reformed) true religion originally introduced to Adam and Eve. Now at last the truth could take root and flourish.
The scriptures, the priesthood keys, the ordinances of salvation, the knowledge of the saving tenets of the gospel of Jesus Christ are now available.
But the struggle for our ongoing freedom as a country continues. The history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is inextricably linked to the history of the United States of America. Our freedoms were purchased with the blood and tears of our ancestors. Those freedoms are under assault again, as they have been from the earliest revealed history in the pre-existence before this world was organized. (See Moses 4:1-4).
The political arguments abroad in the land today are no different than they were in the pre-existence. Shall we have freedom to choose our own path of self-expression (to win or to lose), or shall we guarantee success for all without regard to individual choice? Nothing has changed since Satan declared: "I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it."
It is a worthy ambition to provide for the poor, but the Lord reminds us "it must needs be done in mine own way." (See D&C 104:11-18). One political philosophy would offer cradle to grave security and safety from failure by redistributing the wealth of others to attempt to equalize our social existence. Today, the expression of this philosophy is best embodied in China and other parts of the world where dictatorships and their central governments still hold power over the masses. In other places socialism and communisim have been tried and failed. The world will remain in chaos until the Savior's return.
In America, the ideal we hold inviolate since our founding is freedom -- the freedom to succeed and the freedom to fail. We hold that we are all children of the same God, that all have an equal opportunity to access His divine will and blessings in our lives. "We claim the privilege [freedom] of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may." (11th Article of Faith).
I testify of my gratitude for pilgrims, patriots and prophets in former days. In their space and time they were inspired of God in their various roles. We will live to see mighty deeds among our children and grandchildren to match theirs in these last days as freedom's struggle continues unabated.