In 1602, a 30-year-old lawyer and privateer, Bartholomew Gosnold, set sail from Falmouth, England, on a course due west from the Azores. His ship, Concord, had a keel length of 39 feet and a breadth of 17-1/2 feet, and it leaked. In May, Concord reached landfall: the coast of New England. Gosnold’s shipmate Gabriel Archer wrote:

This main is the goodliest continent that ever we saw, promising more by far than we any way did expect; for it is replenished with fair fields, and in them fragrant flowers, also meadows, and hedged in with stately groves, being furnished also with pleasant brooks, and beautified with two main rivers that, (as we judge) may haply become good harbors, and conduct us to the hopes men so greedily do thirst after. . . .[1]

Gosnold’s Concord carried 32 people: a crew of 8, 12 potential settlers, and 12 other passengers. When they encountered Natives, the Englishmen seemed most impressed by the copper disks that hung from their necks and were used as ear decorations. They described the men’s long hair as tied in a knot at the back of the head, and decorated with feathers.

By all accounts, relations between these new arrivals and the natives were friendly, even though each engaged in petty thievery from the other. This part of the journey is well-documented.

Much less is known about two of the passengers who might be of particular interest to us. First, there was John Brereton[2],  a graduate of Cambridge, ordained in the Church of England ate age 26. He was thirty years old at the time of sailing.

Then there was James Rosier, son of an English cleric, born in 1573, also a graduate of Cambridge, who converted to Catholicism at age 29, in 1602--the same year as the voyage.

An Anglican clergyman and a Catholic scholar were highly unlikely shipmates. These were not easy times in Christendom. The parents or grandparents of each of these young men would be able to recall – and might even have witnessed -- the persecution and execution of Protestants under Queen Mary. In the five year period between 1553 and 1558, nearly 300 people died for their faith: clergy, laymen, married couples, some with their children.

Doubtless members of Brereton and Rosier’s families also could recall the two hundred or so Roman Catholics who were martyred in the four decades between 1561 and 1602, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth: priests, monks, Jesuits, an Archbishop, 28 laymen, and three women, one of whom was hanged for helping a priest escape from prison.

The sixteenth and 17th centuries were stained, even shattered, by religious violence. Any suspicion of heresy – however heresy might be defined at the time – could be fatal.

The phrase religious freedom is bandied about in relation to this country’s earliest years and highest ideals, yet, to paraphrase one of our recent presidents, “depends on what you mean by ‘religious freedom.’” Differences did not cease upon arrival in the Colonies; theological debates rang out from pulpits; people were expelled from congregations; dissatisfied clerics left one denomination for another. Even the architecture of a church – or a “house of worship” – was weighted with its congregation’s ecclesial leanings.

Consider Anthony Fisher – a relative of Bishop John Fisher, martyred in 1535 under Henry VIII for his unyielding defense of Henry’s marriage to Catharine of Aragon. Just over a century later, in 1637, Anthony came to New England with his wife, Mary, and their children on the ship Rose, sailing from Yarmouth, England. Mary joined the Dedham Church on March 27, 1642, but Anthony was not “comfortably received into ye church…on account of his proud and haughty spirit.” Something must have changed, for he was finally allowed to join the church three years later.[3]

But it wasn’t all about Sundays. Thomas Burgess Junior of Sandwich married Elizabeth Bassett on November 8, 1648. Although the couple stayed married 12-1/2 years, there is no record of any children. Then, on June 10, 1661, Elizabeth was granted what was reputedly the first divorce allowed in Plymouth Colony. Adultery was the only grounds for divorce at the time, and Thomas was found guilty of the act. He was punished by being whipped and forced to give up 1/3 of his net worth.[4]

Just over two hundred years later, in his genealogy of the family, Ebenezer Burgess wrote “There is some reason to believe that the family, which Thomas Senior was called to leave behind in England, remained in the shackles of the Romish church – with no Bible in the vernacular tongue, with no worldly prosperity, with no expansion of mind, with no spiritual consolation. If this be true, what child of Thomas will not bow down in reverential worship before the God of his father, and acknowledge the sovereign hand which led him into this western wilderness.”[5]

Some of the challenges faced by early colonists in this “western wilderness” are described in this journal entry from 1631.

“As the winter came on provisions are very scarce [in the Massachusetts Bay] and the people necessitated to feed on clams and muscles [sic], and ground nuts and acorns; and these got with much difficulty in the winter season. Upon which people grew much tired and discouraged, especially when they hear that the governor himself has his last batch of bread in the oven. …Upon this a day of fasting and prayer to God for relief is appointed. But God, who delights to appear in the greatest straits, works marvelously at this time; for on February 5, the very day before the appointed fast, in came the ship Lyon… laden with provisions. Upon which joyful occasion the day is changed, and ordered to be kept as a day of thanksgiving.”[6]

Like life, birth and death in the colonies were permeated with belief that God’s hand was at work. Often infants were baptized the day they were born, or shortly thereafter. At the other end of the spectrum, the will of Stephen Hopkins, age 63, reflects his conviction that “if we live, we live unto the Lord and if we die, we die unto the Lord. He wrote:

I Stephen Hopkins of Plymouth in New England, being weak yet in good and perfect memory blessed be God, yet considering the frail estate of all men…do commits [sic] my body to the earth from whence it was taken, and my soul to the Lord who gave it.

Hopkins wrote his will on June 6, 1644, and died the next month. [7]

You may have noticed there’s little mention of the mothers, daughters, wives, and sisters who were part of this great adventure. Their given or baptized names, however, reveal the values of the times, and, in many cases, the role they were expected to play or the virtue it was hoped they would exemplify: Constance, Experience, Patience, Mercy, Remember, Silence, Temperance, Thankful. Common biblical names included Mary, Hannah, Elizabeth, Lydia, Sarah, Ruth, Deborah, Martha, Susanna, Rebecca, Phoebe, and the less common Damaris.[8]

Many women’s names were drawn from Hebrew. Jerusha[9] - meaning married. Abiah – my Father is Yahweh. Mehitable - God rejoices. Bethiah - daughter of God.  Zerviah[10] - “perfumed or balmed.”

Perhaps your ancestors came on the Mayflower, or on a slave trade ship, or on a steamer by way of Ellis Island, San Francisco or another port. Perhaps they came on foot, or by airplane. Perhaps they were standing on the shore when one of the valiant ships pierced the horizon.  Perhaps you do not know their names or their history at all.

But whatever your origins, these stories are part of your heritage. These snapshots give glimpses of the land where, like the Israelites in the desert, the faithful sought that sweet thing called liberty.

The most appropriate way to celebrate our liberation is not fireworks or parades or picnics – although these are all fine and enjoyable events. The best way to celebrate our liberation is to offer it to others. This is not a time to boast of past military victories, nor is it a time to bemoan the passing of our innocence. Neither force of arms nor historical naivete is the true source of American greatness. Rather it is these: “I was a stranger and you took me in…I was hungry and you fed me, sick and you healed me, naked and you clothed me.”

To send relief to stricken Japan, Haiti, our own Gulf Coast. To dispatch the hospital ships, USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort, to the Caribbean and the Pacific. To support medical missions in Africa that combat HIV and AIDS and provide immunizations for children and clean water for villages. To bring food and water to the 2.5 million Somalis living in refugee camps. To provide a warm meal for a child living just blocks away, who otherwise would go hungry.

There is an honor and a dignity here for all Americans. Unless whatever greatness we are to achieve as a people results from a continuing warmth and compassion for the stranger and the enemy, at home and abroad, we shall fall far short of the destiny the wise men who wrote the Declaration of Independence learned from the Bible and gave to us. Our country’s true greatness will be found in the manner in which we behave as “children of the Father.”

[1] Bartholomew Gosnold’s Discovery of Cape Cod, Gabriel Archer

[2] also spelled Brierton

[3] The Fisher Genealogy: A Record of the Descendants of Anthony and Cornelius Fisher of Dedham, by Philip A. Fisher

[4] Burgess Genealogy: A Memorial of the Family of Thomas and Dorothy Burgess, who were settled at Sandwich in the Plymouth Colony in 1637, by Ebenezer Burgess, 1865

[5] ibid.

[6] Prince’s Annals of New England, Vol 1, p 341

[7] Stephen Hopkins’ Will, literally transcribed from the original records by George Ernest Bowman; see also Plymouth Colony Records VI: Wills and Inventories 1633-1669, Picton Press, Camden, Maine

[8] Acts 17:34

[9] Wife of King Uzziah

[10] Sister of King David