They Desire A Better Country

As I reflect on the meaning of Thanksgiving and its beginnings, I cannot help but think of the heart of those faithful men and women who risked all for the love of God; many of them leaving their homes and families to endure hardship and death for many of them. What was their motivation and why was it so important that they would take such great risks? As the writer to the Hebrews puts it;

But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:16)

Although the writing was speaking of the patriarchs and not pilgrims, I want very much for God to say to me what he said about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “I am not ashamed to be called your God.”

Now consider the reason he gives: “They desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God.” The reason is their desire. They desire a better country—that is, a better country than the earthly one they live in, namely a heavenly one. This is the same as saying they desire heaven, or they desire the city God has made for them.

So two things make God unashamed to be called our God: he has prepared something great for us, and we desire it above all that is on the earth. So why is he proud to be the God of people who desire his city more than all the world? Because their desire calls attention to the superior worth of what God offers over what the world offers.

This was the strong desire and motivation of the Puritan Separatists – those pilgrims who traveled from England in search of a better place where they may worship their God. The Reformation was an age of unprecedented religious violence and martyrdom. Many who resisted the King and the established Catholic Church would face certain persecution and martyrdom by fire.

But Daniel 11:32 says, “And such as do wickedly against the covenant shall he corrupt by flatteries: but the people that do know their God shall be strong, and do exploits.”

And great were the exploits of the Puritan Separatists. William Brewster, was a founder of the Plymouth Colony in New England. He helped lead the Separatist movement in England, 1606, allowing the nonconformists to meet for worship at his home in Scrooby, England. He escaped religious persecution by fleeing with the Separatists to Holland, 1608.

William Bradford, was a Pilgrim leader who helped establish the Plymouth Colony. Sailing in the Mayflower, he was chosen as governor of the colony in 1621, and was reelected 30 times until his death. In 1650, William Bradford wrote a history Of Plymouth Plantation. In it, he traced the events which led to the Pilgrims’ departure from England, and from it is where we derive most or our information about the early pilgrims and the Plymouth Colonies:

Governor William Bradford stated: They shook off this yoke of antichristian bondage, and as the Lord’s free people, joined themselves by a covenant of the Lord into a church estate in the fellowship of the gospel, to walk in all His ways, made known unto them, according to their best endeavors, whatsoever it should cost them, the Lord assisting them.

In 1607, as a result of religious persecution upon their persons, reputations, families, and livelihood, the “Separatists,” or Pilgrims, departed from England for Holland. Governor Bradford recorded:

Being thus constrained to leave their native soyle and countrie, their lands and livings, and all their friends and famillier acquantance. … to goe into a countrie they knew not (but by hearsay) where they must learne a new language, and get their livings they knew not how, it being a dear place, and subject to the miseries of war, it was by many thought an adventure almost desperate, a case intolerable, and a miserie worse than death. …

But these things did not dismay them (though they did sometimes trouble them) for their desires were sett on ye ways of God and to enjoye His ordinances; but they rested in His providence, and knew whom they had believed.2

They lived in Holland 12 years, but little did they realize that out of the 103 Pilgrims who departed, 51 would die in the first winter in the New World. On September 6, 1620, after two attempts which were canceled due to the ship, the Speedwell, developing a leak, the Pilgrims finally set out for America in the Mayflower, just as the stormy season began in the North Atlantic. On November 11, 1620, having been blown off course by violent winds from their intended destination of Virginia, the Pilgrims landed at Cape Cod, Massachusetts. They found the area deserted, as the Patuxet tribe which lived there, one of the fiercest Indian tribes on the New England coast, had been destroyed by a great plague just two years prior. Had the Pilgrims landed there earlier, they would most likely have been massacred as the survivors of a French vessel were in 1617, as recounted by Bradford:

About three years before, a French ship was wrecked at Cape Cod, but the men got ashore and saved their lives and a large part of their provisions. When the Indians heard of it, they surrounded them and never left watching and dogging them till they got the advantage and killed them, all but three or four, whom they kept, and sent from one Sachem to another, making sport with them and using them worse than slaves.3

On November 12, 1620, the first full day in the New World, Bradford described the Pilgrims’ thankfulness:

Being thus arrived in a good harbor, and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth, their proper element.4

Later he would write;

What could now sustain them but the spirit of God and His grace? May not and ought not the children of these fathers rightly say: Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness; (Deuteronomy 26:5, 7) but they cried unto the Lord, and He heard their voice, and looked on their adversity. Let them therefore praise ye Lord, because He is good, and His mercies endure for ever. (107 Psalm: v. 1, 2, 4, 5, 8) Yea let them which have been redeemed of the Lord, show how He has delivered them from the hand of the oppressor. When they wandered in the desert wilderness out of ye way, and found no city to dwell in, both hungry, and thirsty, their soul was overwhelmed in them. Let them confess before the Lord His loving kindness, and His wonderful works before the sons of men.5

Three years after the Pilgrims’ arrival and two years after the first Thanksgiving, Governor William Bradford made an official proclamation for a Day of Thanksgiving, to all the Pilgrims he said: Last and not least, they cherished a great hope and inward zeal of laying good foundations, or at least making some ways toward it, for the propagation and advance of the gospel of the kingdom of Christ in the remote parts of the world, even though they should be but stepping stones to others in the performance of so great a work.6

Thus out of small beginnings greater things have been produced by His hand that made all things of nothing, and gives being to all things that are (Romans 4:17); and, as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many, yea in some sort to our whole nation; let the glorious name of Jehovah have all the praise.7

The great and rich spiritual heritage of those who would dare go against the powers of this world and do exploits by the grace of God because of the future hope of a promised possession – a city made by God, eternal in the heavens. And for this, the same future possession, the Lord has called you and me to as well, as the apostle Peter tells us, “To an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fades not away, reserved in heaven for you, (1 Peter 1:4).


1. Bradford, William. 1607, in his work entitled, 4 (Boston, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1856; Boston, Massachusetts: Wright and Potter Printing Company, 1898, 1901, from the Original Manuscript, Library of Congress Rare Book Collection, Washington, D.C.; rendered in Modern English, Harold Paget, 1909; NY: Russell and Russell, 1968; NY: Random House, Inc., Modern Library College edition, 1981; San Antonio, TX: American Heritage Classics, Mantle Ministries, 228 Still Ridge, Bulverde, Texas, 1988). Verna M. Hall, comp., Christian History of the Constitution of the United States of America (San Francisco: Foundation for American Christian Education, 1976), p. 186.Marshall Foster and Mary-Elaine Swanson, The American Covenant—The Untold Story (Roseburg, OR: Foundation for Christian Self-Government, 1981; Thousand Oaks, CA: The Mayflower Institute, 1983, 1992), p. 32.

2. Bradford, William. 1650, in his work entitled, 4 (Boston, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1856; Boston, Massachusetts: Wright and Potter Printing Company, 1898, 1901, from the Original Manuscript, Library of Congress Rare Book Collection, Washington, D.C.; rendered in Modern English, Harold Paget, 1909; NY: Russell and Russell, 1968; NY: Random House, Inc., Christian History of the Constitution of the United States of America (San Francisco: Foundation for American Christian Education, 1976), p. 185. Marshall Foster and Mary-Elaine Swanson, The American Covenant—The Untold Story (Roseburg, OR: Foundation for Christian Self-Government, 1981; Thousand Oaks, CA: The Mayflower Institute, 1983, 1992), p. 62.

3. Bradford, William. 1617, describing the fate of a French ship wrecked off Cape Cod. William Bradford (Governor of Plymouth Colony), 2 (Boston, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1856; Boston, Massachusetts: Wright and Potter Printing Company, 1898, from the original manuscript; rendered in Modern English, Harold Paget, 1909; NY: Russell and Russell, 1968; San Antonio, TX: American Heritage Classics, Mantle Ministries, 228 Still Ridge, Bulverde, Texas, 1988), p. 82.

4. Bradford, William. November 12, 1620, in recounting the Pilgrims’ first full day in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in his work entitled, 2 (Boston, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1856; Boston, Massachusetts: Wright and Potter Printing Company, 1898, 1901, from the Original Manuscript, Library of Congress Rare Book Collection, Washington, D.C.; rendered in Modern English, Harold Paget, 1909; NY: Russell and Russell, 1968; NY: Random House, Inc., Modern Library College edition, 1981; San Antonio, TX: American Heritage Classics, Mantle Ministries, 228 Still Ridge, Bulverde, Texas, 1988), ch. 9, p. 64. John Bartlett, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1855, 1980), p. 265.

5. Bradford, William. November 11, 1620, in his record of the Pilgrims’ landing at Cape Cod, Massachusetts. William Bradford (Governor of Plymouth Colony), 2 (Boston, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1856; Boston, Massachusetts: Wright and Potter Printing Company, 1898, 1901, from the Original Manuscript, Library of Congress Rare Book Collection, Washington, D.C.; rendered in Modern English, Harold Paget, 1909; NY: Russell and Russell, 1968; NY: Random House, Inc., Modern Library College edition, 1981; San Antonio, TX: American Heritage Classics, Mantle Ministries, 228 Still Ridge, Bulverde, Texas, 1988), p. 66. Sacvan Bercovitch, ed., Typology and Early American Literature (Cambridge: University of Massachusetts Press, 1972), p. 104. Peter Marshall and David Manuel, The Glory of America (Bloomington, MN: Garborg’s Heart’N Home, Inc., 1991), 11.28. (note: reference to these first settlers as “pilgrims” is owed to this passage.)

6. Bradford, William. 1650, in his work entitled, 6 (Boston, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1856; Boston, Massachusetts: Wright and Potter Printing Company, 1898, 1901, from the Original Manuscript, Library of Congress Rare Book Collection, Washington, D.C.; rendered in Modern English, Harold Paget, 1909; NY: Russell and Russell, 1968; NY: Random House, Inc., Modern Library College edition, 1981; San Antonio, TX: American Heritage Classics, Mantle Ministries, 228 Still Ridge, Bulverde, Texas, 1988), p. 21. Jordan D. Fiore, ed., Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims of Plymouth (Plymouth, MA: Plymouth Rock Foundation, 1841, 1865, 1985), pp. 10-11. William T. Davis, ed., History of Plymouth Plantation (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1908), p. 46. The Annals of America  20 vols. (Chicago, IL: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1968), Vol. 1, p. 66. Verna M. Hall, comp., Christian History of the Constitution of the United States of America (San Francisco: Foundation for American Christian Education, 1976), p. 193. Marshall Foster and Mary-Elaine Swanson, The American Covenant—The Untold Story (Roseburg, OR: Foundation for Christian Self-Government, 1981; Thousand Oaks, CA: The Mayflower Institute, 1983, 1992), p. 11. Gary DeMar, America’s Christian History: The Untold Story (Atlanta, GA: American Vision Publishers, Inc., 1993), pp. 34-35.,

7. Bradford, William. 1650, in his work entitled, 2 (Boston, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1856; Boston, Massachusetts: Wright and Potter Printing Company, 1898, 1901, from the Original Manuscript, Library of Congress Rare Book Collection, Washington, D.C.; rendered in Modern English, Harold Paget, 1909; NY: Russell and Russell, 1968; NY: Random House, Inc., Modern Library College edition, 1981; San Antonio, TX: American Heritage Classics, Mantle Ministries, 228 Still Ridge, Bulverde, Texas, 1988), p. 236. John Bartlett, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1855, 1980), p. 265. Fleming, One Small Candle: The Pilgrim’s First Year in America, p. 218. Peter Marshall and David Manuel, The Glory of America (Bloomington, MN: Garborg’s Heart’N Home, Inc., 1991), 11.25. D.P. Diffine, Ph.D., One Nation Under God—How Close a Separation? (Searcy, Arkansas: Harding University, Belden Center for Private Enterprise Education, 6th edition, 1992), p. 4.

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