Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Pilgrims' First Sabbath on Shore

J.S. Clark, "The Pilgrims' First Sabbath on Shore," in The Illustrated Pilgrim Memorial (1872), p. 8:

Why has no painter immortalized his name by transferring to canvass this Sabbath scene [on Clark's Island], the first ever witnessed on the shores of New England? As an illustration of the true Pilgrim spirit, nothing can exceed it. We see them now, in imagination, grouped in devout posture around a forest fire, while "Deacon Carver," the newly elected governor, reads from his pocket Bible an appropriate chapter, and "lines" a favorite psalm, which gives vent to full-hearted and high-sounding praise. We hear the fervent prayers and earnest prophesyings of Bradford and Winslow, who, though yet young, are much experienced in these exercises. We behold the solemnity that rests even on the sailor's countenance, as, silently musing on perils recently passed, he participates in the service, while not a rising cloud, nor breaking wave, nor frightened sea-gull escapes his ever watchful eye.

But why are they there, under the open canopy of heaven, on that raw December day? Because it was just there that the Sabbath overtook them, while searching to find a place of settlement for themselves and their little ones, whom they left four days ago at the end of Cape Cod, on board the May-Flower, in charge of a captain who begins to talk of setting them all ashore on the sand, unless they find a place soon.* But how is it that, under such a pressing necessity they can spare the time for so much psalm-singing, and prayer, and prophesying? Do they not know that works of "necessity and mercy" are lawful on that day? Yes, but they do not believe that their present necessities are sufficient to justify a suspense of the Sabbath law in the sight of God. They are even more scrupulous than that; rather than approach the Lord's Day under such bodily exhaustion as will unfit them for religious worship (an essential part of their Sabbath observance), they would spend the whole of Saturday in recovering tired nature from extra fatigue, and in preparing for the Sabbath, — as they actually did.

Here we have the Pilgrim Sabbath, not as discussed in a learned treatise, not as explained in a catechism; not as enforced in a sermon, but as actually kept, and that, too, under circumstances which exclude all suspicion of any sham observance — any mere pretence of religious strictness.

* In Bradford's Journal, lately discovered in the Fallhane library, England, and printed by the Massachusetts Historical Society, the account is given thus, immediately after the record of their perilous escape to Clark's Island on that stormy Friday night. "But though this had been a day and night of much trouble and danger unto them, yet God gave them a morning of comfort and refreshing (as usually he doth to his children), for the next day was a fair sunshining day, and they found themselves to be on an island secure from the Indians, where they might dry their stuff, fix their pieces and rest themselves, and give God thanks for his mercies m their manifold deliverances. And this being the last day of the week, they prepared to keep the Sabbath."

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