Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven
and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.

—Hebrews 11:12


Let’s start this sermon with a quiz. What do these folks have in common: George Bush, Bing Crosby, Clint Eastwood, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Richard Gere, Hugh Hefner, Marilyn Monroe, Sarah Palin, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt?

They’re all descendants of Mayflower passengers.

So are at least ten million, and maybe as many as 30 million, other Americans, or somewhere between two and ten percent of us. Which is remarkable when you stop to think that only 51 of those original Pilgrims had any children at all. It almost didn’t happen.

John Howland was the servant of one of the Pilgrim families and at some point during the Transatlantic passage in the middle of a turbulent storm, Mr. Howland must have been bored or claustrophobic in the common living quarters below deck and went up to get some fresh air.

When a muscular wave pitched the Mayflower steeply down its trough, Mr. Howland went over the rail, but managed to grab a trailing topsail halyard on his way into the ocean, and though the ship, under full sail, dragged him several feet below the surface for many yards traveling west, he managed to hang on until the Mayflower crew could snatch him out of the deep with a fishing hook.

The Pilgrims thought it was a miracle, and a sign from God that John Howland was destined for great things, and I guess they were right, because once he finally got to New Plymouth in the New World; John Howland fathered ten children and had 88 grandchildren. Today, more than one million Americans are his grandchildren many ‘greats’ removed.

So at its most fundamental level, perhaps the Plymouth stone in our Cloister Walk is a rudimentary lesson in the prodigious prolificity of procreation. If you have two children, and your children have two children, and your grandchildren have two children, and each of them has two children, there will be 16 of you by the fourth generation; 20 million today from 51 originals.

But also of course a lesson in faith and courage. A couple of weeks ago I quoted David McCullough. Someone asked David McCullough why it was so important to study history, and the great historian replied, “To remember how hard it was to get here.” Yes?

The Mayflower was 15 years old when it was chartered for the Pilgrims in 1620, which means she was positively geriatric in ship years in those days, near the end of her useful life, but she was extremely reliable.

About 100 feet long with a capacity of 180 tons, which means she could carry 180 tuns, or casks, of wine, each holding a hundred gallons; 102 people made the journey, 104 if you count the dogs, plus a crew of 25–30.

One passenger died in route, but another was born—they called him Oceanus—so the census was 102 at departure and 102 at arrival.

It took them 65 days to reach Cape Cod—two months, ten weeks. Ships like the Mayflower were called sweet ships because they carried all that wine and smelled so good, but that was at the beginning of the journey, not the end, because there was no privy on the Mayflower, just buckets, and almost everybody was seasick.

There was no drinking water, but the daily ration of beer was one gallon per person, including toddlers just weaned, who went straight from breast to beer mug.

William Bradford, a young leader of the Pilgrim congregation in Scrooby and Leyden and later governor of Plymouth Colony for 30 years, left his three-year-old son John in Leyden for his minister to raise.

William’s wife Dorothy survived the crossing, but while the Mayflower was still at anchor off Cape Cod and the Pilgrims were waiting on board ship for shelter to be built on land, Dorothy fell, or jumped, over the side of the boat, and drowned. No one saw or knows what happened, but maybe Dorothy missed her son.

So there they are, perched on a narrow strip of beach between the deep blue sea and a dense, vast, untouched forest that they don’t know stretches a thousand miles to the Great Plains, and they start to build their houses, first a big common meeting house where they all live together at first, and then the plan is to build 19 20′ x 20′ foot wattle-and-daub-and-thatch cottages where as many as eight of them will live together, but they immediately have to turn the meeting house into a hospital because everybody gets sick, and I mean everybody.

They have been three months now without Vitamin C and they all have scurvy, which compromises the immune system, and this is a New England winter, very different from an Old England winter, and it’s cold, and they catch colds, and then pneumonia, and this is 300 years before penicillin, and sometimes there are only six or seven of them healthy enough to tend to scores of sick people.

When winter is over in March, over half are dead. Thirteen of eighteen wives are dead; nine of nineteen husbands; only three married couples are left intact; everyone else lost a spouse. The plan when they landed at Plymouth was to build 19 houses for about 100 of them; in the spring they needed only seven houses. Four hundred years later, this pitiful tribe has 20 million grandchildren many ‘greats’ removed.   It’s a miracle.

Well, not for the Native Americans, who, by the way, made their survival possible. Did you know that when the Pilgrims arrived in the New World, there were about 2,000 Europeans in North America and 50 million Indians? You probably knew that, but I didn’t know that. That’s a vast and sophisticated civilization.

How many of you remember the week before Thanksgiving in your kindergarten or first-grade year at any public elementary school in America, where every one of us learned about Squanto? Do you still have a mental image from a pictograph or an overhead projector or a film strip of Squanto teaching the English how to plant corn, by building a little dirt hill and dropping five kernels of corn and three fish for fertilizer into the little volcano?

Squanto was a Patuxet Indian who spoke fluent English because he’d been to Spain and London. While Squanto was in Europe, disease had wiped out his entire tribe in the New World; he had no family and he had no friends when he returned, so he befriended the Pilgrims and made himself one of them. The Pilgrims were certain he’d been placed there by God just for them. He was a miracle. By the end of the summer of 1621, Plymouth finally looks more like a town than like a refugee camp.[1]

Plymouth Colony will grow from its original 43 survivors to a high of 300, but never any further. The land isn’t very rich and the harbor isn’t very good.

All through the rest of the seventeenth century, more Puritans fleeing Anglican repression in Old England will arrive seeking religious freedom in New England, but these Puritans will settle not at Plymouth but 40 miles north at Boston, where the land is richer and the harbor is better. By the end of the seventeenth century, Boston, half the age but five times the size of Plymouth, will swallow up the older, smaller colony.

By any measure, Plymouth Colony was never an unqualified success, yet that’s the birth-of-a-nation story our public elementary schools keep telling us, and that’s the story our Cloister Walk keeps telling us, partly because their story is so technicolor and rollicking and irresistible, but also because the Plymouth model of congregational, not episcopal, church government is what gave definitive shape and unique voice to American Christianity. Partly because Plymouth was the first English colony to survive, American Christianity is very different from European Christianity, because it is intensely egalitarian, and you can draw a straight line from William Brewster and William Bradford at Plymouth to Thomas Jefferson in Philadelphia.

Isn’t it funny how God keeps throwing these Cloister Walk stones at us? It’s so timely it’s a little spooky, isn’t it? Almost providential, because this year alone, 380,000 pilgrims will board their own rubber-dinghy Mayflowers, a little smaller but just as leaky and just as scary and just as dangerous, and try to cross an ocean, the Mediterranean this time, to flee persecution in the home they have known for freedom in the home they hope to find.

They will face dust storms and thirst and kidnappers in the African desert, shipwreck and drowning in the Mediterranean, police batons in Croatia, water cannons in Hungary, and cold shoulders almost everywhere. But they go nonetheless, because “even dying at sea is better than staying in the hell that home has become.”[2] Putting it that way reminded me of the Pilgrims who spent ten weeks enduring Atlantic storms to find freedom.

If you have family or friends who are Jewish, you know by heart that passage from Deuteronomy I read a moment ago, because it is one of the most important pillars of Jewish faith. It is an ancient creed that lies at the beginning of Jewish identity. When you boil away all the Levitical laws and all bickering brothers and all the misbehaving kings and all the wise Proverbs and lovely Songs in the Hebrew Scripture, this is the distillation you’re left with at the bottom of the pot: “A wandering Aramean was my father; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, the God of our ancestors heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and God brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

We American Christians could paraphrase that ancient Jewish confession and make it our own, if we wanted: A wandering Englishman was my father, and he felt like a stranger in his own home, and when he cried out to the Lord, the Lord heard his cry, and with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, God brought us into this place, a land flowing with milk and honey.

Or we could apply that resonant text to our own situation in an entirely different way. “A wandering Aramean was my father,” say the Jews. They’re talking about the founders of their faith, Abraham and Jacob, both of whom wandered far and wide seeking home and prosperity.

But what is a wandering Aramean? Abraham and Jacob both lived in the ancient land of Aram, and today Aram is called Syria. “A wandering Syrian was my father” is a perfectly acceptable translation of this ancient Jewish creed.

Eleven million Syrians are wandering around looking for a home just now. They are Pilgrims too, and when they go to a place looking for a home, they are met with both extravagant kindness and cruel malice. One reporter put it like this: “Syria’s refugees, stripped of their homes, families, and possessions, will continue to expose the values of the societies to which they flee.”[3] Yes?

“All great and honorable actions,” said Governor Bradford, “all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and must be met and overcome with answerable courages.” I love that phrase: answerable courages.

Perhaps that Plymouth stone is in our Cloister Walk so that we will always reach up and out beyond our ability to a courage we couldn’t even imagine were it not for their example.



                [1]Gary Schmidt, William Bradford: Plymouth’s Faithful Pilgrim (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999), p. 104.

                [2]Adapted from Scott Anderson, “Desperate Crossing,” The New York Times Magazine, September 6, 2015.

                [3]Massimo Calabresi, “A Wave of the World’s Displaced Crashes on Europe’s Shores,” Time, September 21, 2015, p. 16.