The Mayflower and the Warming Fire of Aldersgate
Our United Church in University Place is 50 years old. It began with the uniting of the Mayflower United Church of Christ founded in 1959, and the Alersgate United Methodist Church, founded in 1961. The joining was January 18, 1970. ( A history of the two congregations is found on the website, www.UCUP.org.)
Each congregation was very young, the Mayflower 11 years old, and Aldersgate nine years old. Each church had chosen an old, historic name at the heart of its tradition: Mayflower and Aldersgate. That intrigued me. Those are not just names that romanticize the past. They carry the memory of deep historical spiritual jouneying and formation, and they give a direction for the future.
The story of the ship Mayflower embodies the history of the Pilgrims with their hunger to worship without persecution, and to be a people in a particular covenant with God. Mayflower speaks of being faithful in the midst of life-threatening storms, of endurance, of holding to hope that there would be a new way of being the people of God. God’s Word would give them New Light. The United Church of Christ is one of the descendants of the Pilgrim Congregationalists.
The Aldersgate Experience for Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, marked the joining of religion of the mind, and religion of the heart. Methodists refer to it as the experience of the warm heart and it remains a touchstone for faith in the Methodist tradition.
I would like to open these stories of the congregations which became a new creation we fondly call UCUP, and consider how we might be carrying these stories in our congregation’s DNA today.
Let me begin with the Mayflower. To do that, we have to go beck to the 1500’s. Henry VIII broke with the pope in Rome in the 1500’s and formed the Church of England, also called the Anglican Church. It remained very Catholic in liturgy and doctrine, but broke ties with Rome and so was part of the Protestant Reformation.
But English people had contact with the people and the writings of the Protestant reformers in Europe. They were informed by the Lutheran movement, the Calvinists (Presbyterians) and other reformers. These ideas crossed the English Channel and ignited a fire to do far more to reform the church, than simply deposing the Pope and naming the King as Head of the English church. They objected to the political power of the Church vested in the monarchy and wealthy classes.
These reformers were called Puritans, but not by themselves. Puritan was a derogatory term. They were also called Precisionists. Puritan was an umbrella term for many groups who wanted reform – or the freedom to worship in their own way. Puritans included Baptists, Quakers, Congregationalists and others referred to as Dissenters, Separatists, or Independents and others. The United Church of Christ is a descendant of Congregationalist Puritans, and those later on the Mayflower were Puritans who wanted full separation from the Church of England and King James.
A man named Robert Browne was the first conspicuous advocate of Congregationalism in England. He was a leader for Separatists, and his followers became known as Brownists. He laid out the basic principle of Congregationalism: the only true church was the local body of believers who experienced together the Christian life united to Christ and to one another in a voluntary covenant. The people, not the king or any outside hierarchy had authority to govern. The men in that local body were rightfully the governors, electing their pastor, teacher, elders, and deacons as in the New Testament. For that, Robert Browne was jailed 32 times before he escaped to Holland. (He was jailed “for preaching without a license.”)
Puritans could only worship in secret – in fields, closed buildings, and homes. They were found out, and when found out imprisoned. Property was confiscated. A group of Puritan Separatists were meeting secretly in the home of their spiritual leader, William Brewster. He lived in the town of Scrooby outside of London, and his home was known as Scrooby Manor. They met from 1605 until 1608 when they were discovered by authorities. Members were jailed and others fled to Leiden, Holland.
The Scrooby congregation and other Puritans lived in Holland for 13 years, but life was hard. As immigrants, they could only get the most menial, backbreaking, low paying work. Their sons and daughters were losing their English, and taking on Holland’s language and culture. Then, war threatened. Catholic Spain threatened Holland, and if Spain conquered, the Puritans would be toast—literally. The English King said he’d help Holland, but only if all the independent congregations were outlawed. Persecution was on the horizon, and they knew they had to leave.
The year was 1620 – 400 years ago. We have accounts of the leavetaking from Holland. Far more stayed behind than left. The farewells were heartbreaking. The beloved pastor John Robinson would stay in Holland to care for the larger community. But he gave a charge to the voyagers not to stick fast where Luther and Calvin left them, for he was confident “the Lord has more truth and light yet to break forth out of his Holy Word.” In other words, don’t hold too hard to the past.
They left Holland in the ship Speedwell – and went to England (Plymouth) to meet up with the Mayflower. The Speedwell was not seaworthy, though leader William Brewster felt the captain was sabotaging the ship because he was so afraid of the journey. They departure was delayed for Speedwell repairs. The delay meant that they ate more of their provisions than they had planned, and they missed the good sailing months. Speedwell did not make the voyage.
In the end, there were 102 passengers and 30 crew on the Mayflower, a small ship 100 feet long and 20 feet wide. The sea journey took 10 weeks. The storms were horrific.
They arrived in the New World late in the year and endured a very harsh winter they could not get prepared for. They had thought they would settle in Virginia Colony, and would purchase tools there. But they were in Massachusetts with frozen ground and no shovels. The snowstorms were so heavy they needed snowshoes to get around. They had forgotten the fishing gear. Almost half of the passengers and Mayflower crew died of scurvy, pneumonia, and tuberculosis.
Only 35 of the passengers who left England were Puritans with William Brewster. Others were coming as farmers, servants, laborers. But even before they left the ship, each man signed the Mayflower Compact committing themselves to the safety and welfare of the planned settlement.
The Mayflower Puritan Separatists are called Pilgrims today. But they didn’t call themselves Pilgrims. That name didn’t come until 100 years later. They called one another “Friends” and those not puritans they called “Strangers.”
Now let’s go to Aldersgate. The day was May 24, 1738, 118 years after the Mayflower. Aldersgate and Aldersgate Street is a place in London. John Wesley was 35 years old, and at a low point in his spiritual life.
He had gone to Georgia with high hopes of converting the convicts and the Indians. His mission was a total failure. He actually had to escape out of the colony to avoid arrest.* He wrote, “I went to Georgia to convert the Indians, but who shall convert me?”
Wesley was an ordained priest in the Church of England. As a student, he and some friends had formed a faith accountability group at Oxford, and the group was known for its good works and its disciplined prayer life. Critics called them the Method-ists because of their practice of being intentional about everything they did.
John Wesley had no shortage of deeply held beliefs. His theology was solid. His life-style and compassion had deep integrity. He believed, but he didn’t feel what he believed. The Aldersgate meeting was not a conversion, but it was a profound pivotal spiritual experience. For Wesley, head and heart came together. The heart-warming experience launched him into his career as one of the truly great evangelists of the western church.
Here is how he recorded this event in his journal:
In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart was strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and save me from the law of sin and death.
Wesley had come back from Georgia a failure in love, a failure in his vocation, and a failure in his spiritual life. After Aldersgate Wesley became a transformed man. Wesley went into the meeting full of fears, uncertainty and doubts; he came out the other end with certainty and confidence. He found an assurance that really did revolutionize his life. He was confident about God; he was sure and certain about God. He knew that he was a child of God and that he was really loved by God.
Through the centuries, there have been many divisions, and unions for both the Congregationalists, and the Methodists. I believe that certain of the DNA persists. We recognize it in the stories we tell, the stories we choose to guide us forward into the future, the stories we tell to life us from despair into a recognition that we are children of God, loved by God. Our origins – Mayflower – Aldersgate
*For those who are curious why Wesley had to escape from Georgia . . . briefly, he had a relationship with the Governor’s daughter. She thought they were engaged, as did the Governor. It was a bitter breakup, but Sophie found another man. They came to worship, and forward to receive communion. Rev. John Wesley, ever the stickler for rules at that time, turned them away because they had not registered for it ahead of time. Word came just in time that the Governor’s soldiers were on their way.
So, in 1620, 102 migrated on the Mayflower. Not all were Pilgrims, and of the Pilgrims, more stayed than left. The Pilgrims that arrived on the Mayflower were Separatists, and were known as Congregationalists.