The Mayflower, a small wooden ship with billowing sails, was the vessel God used to bring a group of Christian believers to an unseen land far over the Atlantic. These Christian men and women, called Pilgrims (people who journey to a destination usually because of their religious beliefs), believed that God was leading them to establish a new community where they could worship freely.


As Americans, we celebrate Thanksgiving every year because of the profound faith and uncommon courage of these English men and women. They had no idea how God was going to use them to begin a new nation. They only knew God wanted them to go.


So in September of 1620, after enduring many delays and difficulties, these Pilgrims finally said their last good-byes, boarded the Mayflower, and set sail for the New World.


The roots of our Thanksgiving heritage are entwined with the history of England, growing deep into the rolling hills of the English countryside. Nestled in those hills was a little village named Austerfield. And in that village in 1590, a child named William Bradford was born.


William’s childhood was unhappy. While still a boy, he was orphaned, his father dying when he was a baby, his mother when he was seven. He was placed in the home of two uncles in Austerfield. Not long after his mother died, William suffered a prolonged illness that left him unable to work in the fields. As a result, he was allowed to be educated, and he learned to read the Bible on his own.


As a teenager, he walked every week to a nearby village called Scrooby to learn more of the Christian faith and to worship God secretly in a personal and pure way with a small group of like-minded believers. Increasingly, William grew dissatisfied with the state-sponsored religion of the Church of England. Its worship seemed stale and cold compared to what he experienced with the believers in Scrooby.


Like many people of his time, William concluded that there wasn’t much hope for spiritual life to return to the state church. Those who felt this way were called “Separatists,” individuals willing to risk the consequences of “separating” from the official church. There was another group of people in the English church who became known as “Puritans.” The Puritans also disagreed with the state church, but they wanted to stay in the church and try to purify or change it from within.


The authorities in the Church of England felt threatened by both of these growing movements toward religious freedom. They especially feared the Separatists who were forming their own churches. So the governing House of Bishops sent spies and informers to many of these secret congregations, including the one at Scrooby. Many Separatist church leaders and some Puritans were fined, pressured, persecuted, arrested or thrown in prison. Some were even executed with the approval of Queen Elizabeth I and later King James I in hopes of squelching these rebellious believers. After years of mounting stress caused by this harassment and persecution, many families in the Separatist church – including William who was not yet twenty – left their English homeland for exile in Leyden, Holland.


The Separatists enjoyed their new religious freedom in Holland, but life again became increasingly difficult for them. In England many of them had been landowners. In Holland, because they were foreigners, the men had to take whatever work was available.