From the earliest centuries of Christianity, a ship bearing a cross-shaped masthead has been a symbol of the Church. The imagery of a vessel being tossed about on stormy seas, yet reaching its destination, is descriptive of the Church being carried to glory, even as it is opposed by disbelief, persecution and heresy. No one is promised safety and comfort during the passage, but they are assured of the Lord’s presence through times of testing, trial and tribulation.
(Image: "One," Paul Myhill, 2001)
In September, 1620, The Mayflower set out on a perilous voyage across the Atlantic, carrying families of faith to the New World. On board were four orphans who were "apprenticed" to various families undertaking the journey. Puritans strongly subscribed to a social order dictating that all should be placed into families, often coercing widows, orphans, and even single adults into family relationships. Under God, family was everything.
Despite raging storms and disease, the Mayflower completed the crossing with only the loss of two lives, one a loathed sailor who often tormented the passengers. Most of the men then disembarked in order to make crude shelters for their families. The women and sick stayed aboard the anchored Mayflower for a few months more. The close proximity, plus a harsh winter, then took its deadly toll.
The ship’s journal entry for March 24th, 1621 reads:
"Dies Elizabeth, the wife of Mr. Edward Winslow. This month thirteen of our number die. And in three months past dies half our company. Of a hundred persons, scarcely fifty remain, the living scarcely able to bury the dead."
Concerning this time, Mandakini Hiremath wrote the following words in a newsletter article entitled, Be Thankful For What This Thanksgiving?:
"That winter more than half of the heads of the household perished. Aboard the ship, only five of the eighteen wives lived through the ravages of scurvy, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. Only a few can imagine the terror this group went through. Those who weren’t sick were doubtlessly tending whimpering children, preparing food for stricken mothers and comforting the increasing number of orphans aboard the Mayflower."
During the first six months at New Plimoth, over 50% of the Mayflower’s 102 passengers died, including 14 of the 18 wives and 13 of the 24 husbands. At the time of the storied "First Thanksgiving," four women were left to look after the upstart colony’s composition of 21 men and 26 children, mostly widowers and orphans.
They sailed with orphans. They took in each other’s orphans. They were the Church to each other, to those losing parents and spouses.
A remarkable eight U.S. Presidents are descendants of Mayflower survivors (John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, James A. Garfield, Franklin D. Roosevelt, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush). The first American in space, Alan B. Shepard, Jr., as well as the famous poets, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and William Cullen Bryant, all have Mayflower pilgrims as ancestors. Noah Webster (Webster’s Dictionary) and inventor George Eastman (Eastman-Kodak) both count Mayflower passenger, William Bradford, as part of their family tree.
That rugged band of orphans and widowers, taken in by the church, has literally gone on to change the world.
Our country was borne, in great part, on the backs of such widows and orphans. Let us not forget those roots and the impact that other nations – and the world – will receive if millions upon millions of widows and orphans are likewise rescued by the Church.