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The Mayflower

The story of a ship

by Brian Radcliffe

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To explore our understanding of tolerance and religious freedom.

Preparation and materials

  • You will need a leader and two readers.

  • Further information about the four-hundredth anniversary of the voyage of the Mayflower from the UK to the New World is available at:


Leader: November 2019 is the month to ‘Illuminate’ (with a capital I). What do I mean? Across the UK, particularly at sites in the East Midlands and along the south coast, there will be a series of spectacular light shows. The biggest will be at Plymouth, which will be lit up from 28 November to 1 December, and at Dartmouth, which will be lit up on 30 November. But what are the light shows celebrating?

It’s all about a ship and her passengers.

Reader 1: The ship in question was called the Mayflower. She wasnt a large ship; she measured about 30 metres long and 7.5 metres at her widest point.

If possible, give some sense of these dimensions in your venue.

She set sail from Plymouth on 16 September 1620, heading across the Atlantic for the newly established Virginia Colony in America, which was known as the New World at the time.

Reader 2: On the Mayflower were 102 passengers and approximately 30 crew, so it was very crowded. Living conditions were poor and the voyage was dangerous because of winter storms.
(Turning to leader) What on earth made these people take the voyage?

Leader: The passengers on the ship - who were later known as Pilgrims - were in search of a new life. Some were seeking religious freedom, whereas others simply wanted a fresh start somewhere else. Many historians have labelled the two groups as Saints and Strangers respectively, reflecting their motivations for making the journey. However, it is unlikely to be as clear-cut as that: many Saints were likely to have been skilled tradesmen and many Strangers may have had their own religious reasons for leaving home.

So, some of the Pilgrims were
migrants fleeing religious persecution. Where were they being persecuted? England.

During the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, religious belief in England was strictly enforced, sometimes by the Church of England, sometimes by the Roman Catholic Church. There were rules about church attendance, how to baptize babies, what to do during the church service and how to behave. It was highly organized.

However, some believers, known as Puritans and Separatists, wanted to be free to worship and act as they wished, following more closely the simple way that Jesus lived. Because of the law, the only way they could do this was by worshipping in secret. For this, they were fined for non-attendance at church, imprisoned and stripped of their money and possessions. They were pressurized to conform to one style of religion.

Some Separatists secretly migrated to Holland, but they still could not freely develop their religious beliefs. This led them to seek a new land where there would be greater tolerance.

Time for reflection

Leader: Have you ever been picked on for something you believe in?

Reader 1: It could be something small, like the football team that you support or your choice of clothing.

Reader 2: Alternatively, it could be the values you stand by, believing that it’s better to share and show care rather than be self-obsessed or bullying.

Reader 1: Some students are picked on because they believe that school is a place for learning rather than messing about.

Reader 2: Some are picked on because of their religious beliefs. They could belong to Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist or many other faith groups.

Leader: We might have been picked on for our political beliefs, our racial beliefs, our gender beliefs: there are so many causes of prejudice and intolerance. If we have been picked on for anything, we can go some way towards understanding how some of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower must have felt. So, the question is, ‘What can we do about it?’

We could take the Mayflower option: we could simply leave and look for a place where we will be tolerated. Much good came from the newly settled Separatist believers. Christian beliefs and values lie at the heart of the US political, financial and legal system.

Reader 1: The first Governor of the New Plymouth settlement, William Bradford, expressed it like this: ‘Just as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many.’

These words are what have inspired the idea of celebrating the Mayflowers voyage through light shows around the country.

Leader: We, too, could take the light of our belief and shine it somewhere else, to the benefit of others. But thats not the only option. Wouldnt it be better if we were allowed to shine the light of our belief, whatever it might be, right here where we are now – today in this school?

Of course, that depends on the attitude of tolerance that we show to one another. Are we prepared to acknowledge that the beliefs of others might be important to them, even when we disagree with what those beliefs are? Are we prepared to live, learn and play together without our differences getting in the way? Are we prepared to listen to what we each believe and maybe gain a little light ourselves?

Pause to allow time for reflection.

Dear Lord,
Thank you for the example of courage of belief shown by the Pilgrims on the Mayflower who were fleeing religious persecution.
Remind us of this when our beliefs are challenged.
May we be tolerant towards the beliefs of those around us.
May we always be willing to stand up for what is right and good.
May we aim to live in peace with other people.

Publication date: November 2019   (Vol.21 No.11)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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