George English tells the Mayflower Story – 1 March ’22

We were treated to a fascinating historical rollercoaster journey by George English, current secretary of Kilmarnock Rotary Club, at our Tuesday evening meeting. His topic was the Pilgrim Fathers’ Mayflower expedition to America. Europe, said George, had experienced religious turmoil instigated by the Protestant Reformation which had swept many countries. The Reformation (alternatively named the Protestant Reformation or the European Reformation) was a major movement within Western Christianity in 16th-century Europe that posed a religious and political challenge to the Catholic church and in particular to papal authority, arising from what were perceived to be errors and abuses by the Catholic Church. The Reformation was the start of Protestantism and the split of the Western Church into Protestantism and what is now the Roman Catholic Church. It is also considered to be one of the events that signify the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the early modern period in Europe.

George then explained further that prior to Martin Luther, there were many earlier Reform movements.  Although the Reformation is usually considered to have started with the publication of the Ninety-five theses by Martin Luther in 1517, he was not excommunicated until January 1521 by Pope Leo XI. The Edict of Worms of May 1521 condemned Luther and officially banned citizens of the Holy Roman Empire from defending or propagating his ideas. The spread of Gutenberg’s printing press provided the means for the rapid dissemination of religious materials in the vernacular. Luther survived after being declared an outlaw due to the protection of Elector Frederick the Wise. The initial movement in Germany diversified, and other reformers such as John Calvin arose. The Counter-Reformation, also called the Catholic Reformation or the Catholic Revival, was the period of Catholic reforms initiated in response to the Protestant Reformation.

Using many effective slides to illustrate his talk, George continued by clarifying differing from their contemporaries, the Puritans (who sought to reform and purify the Curch of England), the Pilgrims chose to separate themselves from the Church of England because they believed it was beyond redemption due to its Roman Catholic past and the church’s resistance to reform, which forced them to pray in private. Starting 1608, a group of English families left England for the Netherlands, where they could worship freely. By 1620, the community determined to cross the Atlantic for America, which they considered a ” New Promised Land,” where they would establish a Plymouth colony. Their desire to travel to America was considered audacious and risky, as previous attempts to settle in North America had failed. Jamestown, founded in 1607, saw most of its settlers die within the first year. 440 of the 500 new arrivals died of starvation during the first six months of winter.] The Puritan separatists also learned of the constant threat of attacks by indigenous peoples. But despite all the arguments against traveling to this new land, their conviction that God wanted them to go held sway.

Full of faith said George, the Pilgrims had originally hoped to reach America by early October using two ships, but delays and complications meant they could use only one, Mayflower. Arriving in November, they had to survive unprepared through a harsh winter. As a result, only half of the original Pilgrims survived the first winter at Plymouth. Without the help of local Indigenous peoples to teach them food gathering and other survival skills, all of the colonists might have perished. The following year, those 53 who survived, celebrated the colony’s first autumn harvest along with 90 Wampanoag Native American people, an occasion declared in centuries later the first American Thanksgiving.

Before disembarking the Mayflower, the Pilgrims wrote and signed the Mayflower Compact, an agreement that established a rudimentary government, in which each member would contribute to the safety and welfare of the planned settlement. As one of the earliest colonial vessels, the ship has become a cultural icon in the history of the United States. Celebrations for the 400th Anniversary of the landing were planned during 2020 in the U.S., United Kingdom and the Netherlands, but the covid 19 pandemic put some of those plans on hold. The U.S. Postal Service issued a new Mayflower stamp which went on sale September 17, 2020.