Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from Him the right way for us and our little ones and all our possessions.
After King Henry VIII severed ties with Rome and appointed himself head of the Church of England in 1553, three groups of Protestants emerged: (1) Anglicans who continued the traditions of their church; (2) Puritans who wanted to work within Anglicanism to reform and purify it; and (3) Puritans who were Separatists and dissenters determined to establish their own independent congregations. Over the next hundred years, the Puritans and Separatists faced extreme pressure from the English Crown, compelling many of them to flee their country.
The great Puritan migration, led by John Winthrop, occurred between 1620 and 1640, resulting in the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the founding of Boston. But before these Puritans were the Separatists—those who came to Plymouth Rock on Cape Cod aboard the Mayflower in 1620.
The Pilgrims, as we call them, were dissenters who had been “harried out of the land” by various British monarchs. Many of them had fled to Holland, where one Leyden congregation, led by Rev. John Robinson, flourished and tripled in size. But these dissenters grew concerned at how easily their children were being assimilated into the Dutch culture. They were strangers in the land. Somehow an idea arose in their hearts to immigrate to the New World, where they could establish a colony to freely pursue their English customs while retaining religious liberty.
It was a breathtaking idea. With the exception of Jamestown, no English colony had survived in the New World. And Jamestown was hardly an exception—it was a disaster. Of the thirty-six hundred settlers sent to Jamestown between 1619 and 1622, three thousand perished. Going to the New World must have seemed to these dissenters like colonizing the moon. Yet they felt compelled to go.
“It is not with us as with other men,” they said, “whom small things can discourage, or small discontentments cause to wish themselves home again.” As one of them, William Bradford, would later write: “They knew they were pilgrims.”3
Their beloved pastor, John Robinson, was heartbroken when he realized he couldn’t leave the bulk of his congregation to travel with the Pilgrims. He hoped to join them later, though death kept him from fulfilling his dream. Unable to go himself, Robinson led his church in an emotional send-off. About 125 church members had signed up for the first voyage, with the rest planning to come later.
Robinson proclaimed “a day of solemn humiliation” on which he delivered a passionate sermon based on Ezra 8:21, which is about Ezra leading the remnant of Jews from exile to the promised land. Robinson’s text apparently encompassed the following verses of that chapter:
Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from Him the right way for us and our little ones and all our possessions. For I was ashamed to request of the king an escort of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy on the road, because we had spoken to the king, saying, “The hand of our God is upon all those for good who seek Him, but His power and His wrath are against all those who forsake Him.” So we fasted and entreated our God for this, and He answered our prayer. (vv. 21–23)
Robinson didn’t choose this passage at random. The eighth chapter of Ezra tells the story of Ezra’s leading a remnant of Jewish pilgrims back to the promised land of Israel from their exile in Babylon. It would be a hard and dangerous trip, but Ezra wanted to direct the hearts and minds of his people to the protective hand of the God who was leading them. Robinson must have felt like a modern-day Ezra, and, indeed, in many ways he was.
After his sermon, Robinson led the congregation in “powering out prayers to the Lord.” He then traveled with the Pilgrims to the Dutch port of Delfshaven, where “their Reverend Pastor fell down on his knees and they all with him with watery cheeks commended them with the most fervent prayers to the Lord.”
From Delfshaven the Pilgrims sailed to Southampton, where they boarded a creaky little ship called the Mayflower.