Return to Home Page

New Englands:
Reflections on 11 September 2001

And there shall be upon every high mountain, and upon every high hill, rivers and streams of waters in the day of the great slaughter, when the towers fall.

Isaiah 30, 25

The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve.

Shakespeare, The Tempest.

Whenever the United States and the United Kingdom are at war against a common enemy, the ties of kinship between the two peoples are more deeply felt. Never more so that during the last World War and the peoples of these islands will ever feel a profound debt of gratitude to the United States for helping us in our darkest hour. In fact the ties and bonds of kinship between transatlantic cousins go back nearly four centuries to the Puritans.

The Puritans were those who hoped to restore Christianity to its 'ancient purity'. Rejecting grand churches with their towering domes, they believed in a simple life and the power of prayer. Rejected by the State Church in England, twice in the sixteenth century the Puritans tried to establish colonies on Roanoke Island off the coast of present-day North Carolina. The first successful colony, however, began in 1607 when about one hundred colonists led by Captain James Smith founded Jamestown in what is now Virginia. But the most famous settlement was made in 1620, when settlers left England on a ship known as the Mayflower.

This ship was built in Suffolk, almost certainly in Aldeburgh, close by the ancient Cathedral of St Felix and the site of the old monastery of St Botolph, the Patron-Saint of Travellers. Under Captain Miles Standish the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth on 16 September 1620 with a band of 102 mainly East Anglian Saints and Strangers.

Known to history as The Pilgrim Fathers, they finally made landfall on the Atlantic shore in what is now called Massachusetts on 30 December 1620 at a site which they called 'Plymouth Rock'. After many initial privations in a fierce winter, in which the Pilgrims lost half their number, they began to prosper. With the help of Native Americans, with whom nearly all these pilgrims were to live in peace for fifty years, their settlement began to succeed. In 1621, they reaped their first abundant harvest. They invited over ninety Native Americans to a service of thanksgiving and thanking God: they feasted together for three days.

Later more of the same independent-minded East Anglian pilgrims settled alongside the first, carving out of 'New England' three counties, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, and naming their towns after those in the 'old country'.. Many settled in or near the port-town of Boston, named after Boston in Eastern England. This English town was almost certainly named after St Botolph and it is in its American namesake that a few years ago the icon of St Botolph was painted and the service to him written. In 1631, one pilgrim from Essex and a Cambridge graduate, John Eliot, dedicated himself to the spiritual welfare of the Native Americans and translated for them the New Testament into Algonquin, earning himself the title of 'Apostle to the Indians'.

The Pilgrims are honoured as path-finders. As the leader of the group, William Bradford, wrote years after the founding of the Plymouth colony: 'As one small candle may light a thousand, so the life here kindled hath shown unto many, yea, in some sort, to our whole nation'. And as a later writer, Felicia Hemans, wrote in her Pilgrim Poem:
Aye, call it holy ground, / The soil where first they trod! / They have left unstain'd what there they found / - Freedom to worship God!

Many are the misfortunes and abuses that have happened since the arrival of the Pilgrims and the first peace in which they lived with Native Americans. Later, as we might have supposed, their descendants' Protestant faith was found wanting and was compromised in hysterical witch-trials and other failings. And then much began to turn very sour, for later newcomers entirely forgot the Pilgrims' original intention - to find again the 'ancient purity' of the Christian Faith. Indeed whenever America has wandered from that original Pilgrim aim, voices have been heard to speak not so much of an 'American Dream' as of an 'American Nightmare'.. That is why we hope and pray that both American and English folk of all backgrounds will come once more to rekindle the fire of the original Pilgrimage intention, to seek and find again the 'ancient purity' of Christianity, and then both our lands will indeed become true New Englands, worthy to be called 'holy ground'. Then all nightmares will be cast down and dreams fulfilled.

to top of page