Why the Pilgrims Identified with the Ancient Israelites

The Jews Gathering the Manna in the Desert by Nicolas Poussin, 1637-1639

In their voyage to America, the Pilgrims compared themselves to the Israelites in the Old Testament of the Bible.  The Israelites, also known as Hebrews or Jews, were God’s chosen people.  In the book of Exodus, they escaped from bondage in Egypt with God’s help, wandered in the desert wilderness, renewed their covenant with God at Mount Sinai, and claimed the Promised Land of Canaan.

Like the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, the Pilgrims had left what they saw as an oppressive, degraded situation in Europe, in which they could not worship freely, in order to create a new life in America.  They were God’s people, and America was their Promised Land.  What is more, the Pilgrims, like the Israelites in the wilderness, endured severe trials during their first year at Plymouth Colony in America.  They lacked food, clothing, supplies, and shelter.  They also faced a harsh winter and poor farming conditions.  As such, the Pilgrim`s suffered from starvation, sickness, and death.  Only half of them survived the first year.

In his journal, The History of Plymouth Settlement, Pilgrim leader William Bradford, the second governor of Plymouth Colony, compares the Pilgrim’s voyage to and early experience in America with the Israelites’ migration from Egypt to Canaan:

Our fathers were Englishmen who came over the great ocean and were ready to perish in the wilderness, but they cried to the Lord, and He heard their voice and looked on their adversity….  Yes, let them who have been redeemed of the Lord, show how He has delivered them from the hand of the oppressor.  When they wandered forth into the desert-wilderness, out of the way, and found no city to dwell in, both hungry and thirsty, their soul was overwhelmed in them.  Let them confess before the Lord His loving kindness, and His wonderful works before the sons of men.

Thankfully, the Pilgrims learned how to plant crops from friendly Native Americans, and they planted many crops in the spring.  They also trusted in and had faith in God for His provision, which gave them spiritual and moral fortitude.  The following autumn, they reaped a plentiful harvest.  They thus survived and freely prospered in their new colony in America.

The Pilgrims thus found many similarities with the Israelites in Exodus with regard to their own Pilgrim experiences in migration to and settlement in America.  Trusting in God for direction and provision, the Pilgrims, like the Israelites, experienced oppression, migration, trials, and, ultimately, freedom and blessing in their new land.     

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

Source for more information:
Kamrath, Angela E.  
The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2015.   

Related articles/videos:
1.  Who were the Pilgrims?  Why did they come to America?
2.  The Mayflower Compact:  The Pilgrims’ First Self-Governing Act in America
3.  The Pilgrims’ Mayflower Compact as a Covenant
4:  The Pilgrims and Private Property:  What the Pilgrims Might Have Thought About Communism and Socialism
5.  The History of Thanksgiving Day in America
6.  Three P’s That Led to Freedom in the West:  Printing Press, Protestant Reformation, & Pilgrims

Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 2, Part 1, Activity 7: Comparison Between Pilgrims and Israelites in Migration, pp. 69, 322.  MS-HS.  (This activity continues in Unit 3, Part 1, on Puritans.)

Comparison Between Pilgrims and Israelites in Migration

Purpose/Objective: Students learn about religious/political situation and developments in England and America in the early 1600s, Pilgrims’ identification with the Israelites, & Pilgrims’ desire to migrate to America for religious freedom. Students learn about the Pilgrims’ religious beliefs and values, including God’s sovereignty and covenants, which influenced their political views about popular sovereignty.

Suggested Reading: Chapter 2 of Miracle of America sourcebook/text. Students read sections 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, 2.5. William Bradford, History of Plymouth Plantation.

  • Comparison Chart or Summary Frame. Students read select excerpts of William Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation which links Pilgrims to Israelites in coming to America. Students read excerpts from Exodus 1-20 on Israelites escape from Egypt, entrance into Promised Land. Define/review vocabulary as needed in reading. Students compare Pilgrims with Israelites in Bible using a Comparison Chart, Summary Frame, Vend Diagram, or other comparison/contrast guide. How were Pilgrims like/different from Israelites? Students consider events, political & religious circumstances, historical time & setting, geography, religious beliefs, practice of covenants, etc. Students consider: How did Pilgrims view themselves? See America? Discuss. See “Comparison Among Israelites, Pilgrims, & Puritans in Migration” Comparison Chart in “Supporting Resources” section of this course guide, p. 322.

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