We Pilgrims

When I was a boy my teachers would tape those cardboard cut-outs of a Thanksgiving scene to the classroom windows.  Indians were always seen harvesting corn, the women were always setting a table, and the men always had a musket in one hand, a dead turkey in the other.  The holiday was whitewashed a bit from the original scene.

We were not privy to the horrendous living conditions.  We were not told that half the inhabitants died that first winter.  The Thanksgiving holiday,[1] wholly passed over in our rush to Christmas consumption, was, in part, to remember these hearty souls, anxious for religious freedom at great physical cost.[2] Pilgrims, a term first used by William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Colony, was given to the first group of Christian separatists traveling on The Mayflower, coming from religious persecution in England.[3]

Pilgrims, whether disenfranchised believers seeking freedom from religious tyranny or displaced from their original homeland, have never walked an easy path.  The word “pilgrimage” gives us the idea of a sojourn or residency in a land not one’s own.[4] A pilgrim is what Scripture calls an “alien” or a “stranger”.[5] For the original American Pilgrims, the concept of “covenant,” the need to work together for the good of all, was essential for their future longevity.[6]

The Pilgrim’s Progress captures the essence of Christian pilgrimage.  No other book, apart from the Bible, has been so continuously published and read than John Bunyan’s classic.  Bunyan lived an early volatile, vile life, rescued by Jesus, retold by the autobiographical Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.  The line that haunts Christian, and so each Christian, is stated by Evangelist, “Your sin is very great.  It involves two evils: you forsook the right way, and you walked in a forbidden path.”  No one wants to be on the wrong path.

The Song of Ascents (Psalms 120-134) reminds the believer that there is one road; that the pilgrimage is toward one place, for one reason.  These Psalms were chanted or sung by religious pilgrims as they made their way up to Jerusalem (or Zion) celebrating Levitical festivals three times a year.[7] In the Old Testament economy getting from place to place, was a highway formed by people “treading or trampling” a path, worn by constant walking[8].  People would be “on the way” to someplace to complete a mission[9].

The pilgrimage took great effort for one purpose.  Walter Brueggemann in his pioneering book The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith says that “Place is space that has historical meanings, where some things have happened that are now remembered and that provide continuity and identity across generations.  Place is space in which important words have been spoken that have established identity, defined vocation, and envisioned destiny.”  So “a yearning for a place is a decision to enter history with an identifiable people in an identifiable pilgrimage.”[10]

The Pilgrims that landed at Plymouth on Cape Cod were no different than Old Testament pilgrims visiting Jerusalem.  Each group of believers was dedicated to a way of life.  As The Pilgrim’s Progress reminds us still, this sojourn is not easy.  But Christians are pilgrims together.  We walk the path holding hands with others: in both celebration and lamentation.  We are from another place but we are in this place, for this time.  Perhaps the day will come when a teacher somewhere tapes cut-outs of us on a classroom window.  Can’t you hear it now?  “Children, these were the 21st century pilgrims.”

Dr. Eckel hangs different pictures in his classrooms now; lots of cartoons at Crossroads Bible College.

[1] Washington first declared a national day of “thanksgiving and prayer” while Lincoln officially made Thanksgiving a national holiday.

[2] The tale is well told in John Adair’s Founding Fathers: The Puritans in England and America (Baker, 1982), pp. 105-126.  Of course, the primary source Of Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford is a moving account of God’s providence overseeing the (humanly speaking) good and bad of the original English Cap Cod Colony.

[3] The Oxford Companion to United States History, ed. Paul S. Boyer, (Oxford, 2001), 598-99

[4] “Foreigner” in Tyndale Bible Dictionary ( p 493) offers a fine overview of how Scripture addresses the issue of the alien living in one’s homeland and how to act when a believer finds himself in another country.

[5] Hebrews 11:13 suggests that believers in general only see their true home at a distance.  See also 1 Peter 2:11, 12

[6] Mark Noll. 2002. The Old Religion in a New World (Eerdmans), pp. 38-39. The Mayflower Compact (1620) should still be studied today for the necessity of social cohesion.

[7] Walton, et al . 2000. The Old Testament Background Commentary (IVP) pp. 103, 186-87, 518.  Exodus 23:17 and Deuteronomy 16:9-16 discuss the annual Israelite pilgrimages.  Not uncommon in the ancient world, pilgrims were paying subservience (vassal) to The King (suzerain), reaffirming one’s loyalty as an individual or nation.

[8] Genesis 3:24

[9] Genesis 38:21; 45:23; Exodus 4:24; Genesis 24:21.

[10]. Walter Brueggemann, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith, 2nd edition, Fortress, pp. 3, 5.

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