By Rev. Dr. Robert Merrill Bartlett
Memorial Address at the Sarcophagus, Cole's Hill, Plymouth, Massachusetts, September 11, 1966 by the Rev. Dr. Robert Merrill Bartlett, Elder, Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants. Published in the February 1967 issue of The Mayflower Quarterly. We are grateful to Lois B. Masterson, coincidentally, the 1999 recipient of this State Society's Most Distinguished Pilgrim Award, an award of which Dr. Bartlett was the first recipient in 1990, for suggesting that the article be included on our website, and to Alice C. Teal, Mayflower Quarterly Editor, for permission to do so. Dr. Bartlett died in 1995.
Once again we stand on Cole's Hill and look out at the eternal sea. As we meet on this sacred spot of earth, our minds meditate upon our Pilgrim heritage.
First, we think of the enlightened mind which was always searching for "more truth and light." The key leaders in Plimoth Plantation were students and thinkers: Brewster, Bradford and Fuller all had good libraries. John Robinson set the pattern for liberality and tolerance. He was the author of a dozen books. For some fourteen years he was the mental and spiritual leader who trained Brewster, Bradford, Winslow, Carver, Fuller, Cushman, Allerton, Cooke and others who crossed from Leyden. He led his flock to the university center of Leyden. He lectured there and was at home with the scholars of the continent. He and his followers became bilinguists and part of another nation and culture. They identified themselves with continental Christianity. Professor Robinson loved the Church of England, saw good in the Roman Catholic Church and believed in church unity. Seven different national groups were in his Leyden Church: Welsh, Anglican, Scottish, Walloon, French, Huguenot, and Dutch.Robinson gathered seekers for freedom from England and Europe during the sixteen years he was in Leyden. Winslow wrote of him: "His study was peace and union; and for schism and division, there was nothing more hateful to him." When invited to Amsterdam to arbitrate among quibbling sects there, he was shocked at their divisiveness and cried, "I had rather walk in peace with five godly persons than live with 500 or 5,000 such unquiet persons as these."
Robinson was ever dissatisfied with the truth as he saw it and was ever seeking new light. His brilliant pupil, Bradford, shared this outlook and wrote: "It is too great arrogancy for any man or church to think that he or they have so sounded the word of God to the bottom as precisely to set down the church's discipline without error in substance or circumstance, as that no other without blame may digress or differ anything from the same."
Robinson taught his fellowship: (1) The necessity for an enlightened, scholarly ministry who lived with their people and served as their teacher. (2) The central importance of an educated laity who could read, study the Bible, and think for themselves. (3) Independence of the local church from king and bishops. The people were the church. The people had the right to run their churches, choose their ministers and lay leaders. Their aim was a free church where men could speak their minds and seek new truth. (4) Reform of the church from control by crown and bishops, and reform from corruption and superstition.
The irenic spirit of his famous Farewell at Delfshaven helped make Plimoth Plantation the most liberal and tolerant church in the New World: "I Charge you before God and his blessed angels that you follow me no further than you have seen me follow Christ. If God reveal anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as you were to receive any truth from my ministry, for I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from His holy word.
"The Lutherans cannot be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw. Whatever part of His will our God has revealed to Calvin, they (Lutherans) will rather die than embrace it; and the Calvinists, you see, stick fast where they were left by that great man of God, who yet saw not all things. This is a misery much to be lamented.
"For though they were precious shining lights in their time, yet God has not revealed his whole will to them. And were they now living, they would be as ready and willing to embrace further light, as they had received."
Many of these Cambridge-educated men, who helped launch the Pilgrim movement, were imprisoned and martyred because they pioneered in championing the enlightened mind. Dean Robinson of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, was one of the greatest of this company. His followers in Plimoth Plantation carried on this search for new truth.
A second feature of our Pilgrim heritage is the democratic spirit. Plimoth Plantation created a free church and a free state. James I disliked the Pilgrims. He reasoned, "If they apply democracy in church they will want to practice it in government." He said, "I will make them conform or harry them out of the land." But a pattern of self-government was established. The church was the community of free people responsible to God alone. The sovereignty of individual conscience was promoted and the inherent right of all believers.
These Pilgrim Fathers were adventurous Pilgrim youth. When they landed, Howland was 21, Soule 21, Doty 21, Gilbert Winslow 21, Alden 22, Edward Winslow 25, Eaton 25, Bradford 31, Carver 34, Allerton 34, Fuller 35, Hopkins 35, Warren 38, Cooke 38, Fuller 39, and 34 Mayflower passengers were children.
Plimoth Plantation created a church and community broader and more democratic than contemporaries in the Old World. The pattern of the Plymouth church was copied throughout New England and so was the town meeting that was held in the Fort Meeting House. Plymouth eloped government by the people. Its founders believed that citizens could be trusted, that through discussion and reason, problems could be resolved by the people.
The Pilgrims gathered in the Fort Meeting House to talk things over, to take a vote, and so make decisions. They worked things out for themselves. They did not depend on orders from king, lords, or bishops. In contrast with other colonies, they drew up their Compact based on Robinsons Farewell Letter. They came ashore as the first independent American community with a covenant of mutual agreement.
Brewster and others wrote: "We are inured to the difficulties of a strange and hard land." The people are, for the body of them, industrious and frugal, we think we may safely say, as any company of people in the world.
"We are knit together as a body in a most strict and sacred bond and covenant of the Lord, of the violation whereof we make great conscience, and by virtue whereof we do hold ourselves straitly tied to care of each other's good and of the whole by every one and so mutually.
"Lastly, it is not with us as with other men, whom small things can discourage or small discontentments cause to wish themselves at home again."
Plimoth Plantation was more democratic than the Puritan communities. The Pilgrims were different. They loved bright colored clothes. The enjoyed food, drink and their pipes. They did not engage in witch hunts. They were not unkind to Roger Williams, the Baptist. He spent over two years at the Plantation as their teacher. Bradford writes in a friendly way about him, and Winslow journeyed to Rhode Island to give the exile money. The Quakers received more just treatment here than in some spots. Isaac Robinson, the son of Professor John Robinson, became their friend and champion.
A third aspect of our heritage is the Pilgrim capacity to work with God in the effort to build a better world. The Pilgrims all worked with their hands. They did not depend on slaves. They worked in free enterprise, not depending on orders from abroad to search for gold or plant tobacco. They assumed the debt they owed the London Merchant Adventurers and paid it in full in 1645 with an admirable sense of honor and duty. As far as we know, they are the only group that paid their own way.
They were aggressive workers. They did well in cattle, corn, and furs. They reached out boldly and bought land, venturing to new frontiers in Kingston, Duxbury, Manomet, Cape Cod. The believed they could work the will of God into the fabric of human society. They changed the course of history because of this faith.
It was trust in God's leadership that sustained them when they laid one-half of their company to rest beneath the cold winter earth of this very hill. They upheld the Scrooby covenant of 1606: "As ye Lords free people joined themselves by a covenant of the Lord into a church estate, in ye fellowship of ye gospel, to walk in all his ways, made known or to be made known to them according to their best endeavor, whatever it should cost them, the Lord assisting them."
These Pilgrims emphasized the sovereignty of God, but instead of deriving the concept of man's insignificance before God they stressed man's supreme importance as the agent through whom God's will was expressed in the world. They asserted that men were the agents of the divine will with an authority that set them above kings and lords. This bred bold independence.
This is part of the heritage we reaffirm here at this resting place of fifty-one of the Pilgrim band. Divine Providence has worked through these forefathers to create this great land of ours, a notion of enlightenment, freedom and progress unparalleled in history. Let us ponder the words from Deuteronomy which must have been considered many times by Robinson and the Mayflower company: "I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse, therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and cleaving unto him; for that means life to you and length of day."
As Mayflower Descendants we face crisis and change, but whatever may come, let us assert with Robinson: "I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from His holy word."