Shout to Jehovah, all the earth.
Serve ye Jehovah with gladness:
before him come with singing-mirth.
Know that Jehovah he God is.
Its he that made us, not we;
his folk, and sheep of his feeding.
O with confession enter ye
his gates, his courtyards with praising:
Confess to him, bless ye his name.
Because Jehovah he good is:
his mercy ever is the same;
and his faith, unto all ages.
(Psalm 100, 1612 Ainsworth translation)
I had a personal encounter with John Bunyan and Pilgrim’s Progress my senior year in high school during spirit week, the week leading up to homecoming. During spirit week there was a 1950’s day when the girls went in search of their mothers’ poodle skirts and the guys went in search of Brill Cream and leather jackets. On one particular day, we were supposed to dress as one of our heroes. I emptied the closets at home in search of a suitable costume, less concerned about paying homage to a hero and more concerned about wearing something funny and unique. It was then I came across an old Pilgrim costume from my off-off-off-off Broadway debut as Governor William Bradford in an 8th grade play about the Pilgrims of Plymouth.
As it happened, the night I found the Pilgrim costume was also the night I had been assigned to begin reading John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress in preparation for a quiz the next day. I planned to wake up early and read it before school, but slept through my alarm. Before heading off to school with the embarrassment of being unprepared for class, I decided my Pilgrim costume needed an apologetic sign for my English teacher. I made the sign big and attached to a piece of wood to look like a protest sign. It read, “Pilgrim Making No Progress” as a confession that I had not started Bunyan’s, Pilgrim’s Progress. Fortunately my teacher had a sense of humor, loved my costume, accepted my confession, and gave me an A for creativity, after which I took a marker and crossed out the “no” from my sign which then read, “Pilgrim Making Progress!”
The word “pilgrim” is an apt description of those English Separatists crossing the Atlantic in The Mayflower. These Pilgrims were on a religious quest to a place where they could freely practice their religion as they saw fit.
A few decades later it was minister and author, John Bunyan, who was fighting for religious freedom. His most famous work is of course, Pilgrim’s Progress, the full name being, The Pilgrim's Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come.
John Bunyan and the Pilgrim Separatists were a subset of English Puritans who, instead of trying to purify the Church of England, chose instead to separate from it—hence the name, Separatist. These nonconformist Christians were determined to follow their religious faith while ignoring the king, who was also the head of the Church of England. Whereas the Pilgrims left persecution behind when they sailed to the New World in 1620, others like Bunyan stayed to fight the good fight in subsequent years. The monarchy made one pronouncement after another in the hopes of taming the nonconformists, but they could not be tamed! These Christians of the Free Church tradition (Congregationalists among them) would never bow to a state controlled church. For his part, John Bunyan refused to obey the religiously constricting laws of his day and was arrested in the year 1660.
He was indicted for having "devilishly and perniciously abstained from coming to church to hear divine service" and having held "several unlawful meetings and conventicles, to the great disturbance and distraction of the good subjects of this kingdom." He was imprisoned for three months, after which he still refused to attend the parish church and desist from preaching. His punishment was 12 long years in a dark and dingy English prison.
However, he made good use of his time for it was in prison that Bunyan wrote Pilgrim’s Progress, the Christian allegory first published in 1678. Pilgrim’s Progress is “…regarded as one of the most significant works of religious English literature and is one of the most published books in the English language… It has been translated into over 200 languages and has never been out of print…1,300 editions having been printed by 1938, 250 years after the author's death….It has also been cited as the first novel written in English.”
Tim Perrine explains Bunyan’s masterpiece like this, “Pilgrim's Progress is a great work of Christian literature. This spiritual allegory has…delighted…readers for over 300 years. Part I tells of ‘Christian’ and his journey to the ‘Celestial City;’ Part II tells of the journey of Christian's wife Christiana and their children to the Celestial City. The two parts work together as a unified whole, which describes and depicts the believer's life and struggles. Indeed, given the easy style of the book, readers of all ages can understand the spiritual significance of the depictions in the story.”
I have great respect for those courageous people who draw a line in the sand and say as Reformer Martin Luther said, “Here I stand. I can do no other, so help me God.” John Bunyan and the Pilgrim Separatists put their lives on the line to interpret the Bible as they understood the Bible, to live lives of faith as they understood faith, and to follow God as they understood God. As Bunyan said through the words of the protagonist, Christian, in Pilgrim’s Progress,
This hill, though high, I covet to ascend;
The difficulty will not me offend.
For I perceive the way to life lies here.
Come, pluck up, heart; let's neither faint nor fear.
Better, though difficult, the right way to go,
Than wrong, though easy, where the end is woe.
Both the Pilgrim Separatists and the Christian nonconformist, John Bunyan, are our spiritual ancestors. They refused the peer pressure of religious conformity in their day, just as we strive to do in our day. After all, ours was the first church to reach out to those living in the EOC area following the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. We have then pastor, Dr. Gerry Parker, to thank for the idea and our one of a kind, Maggie Grundman, to make Adventures in Learning happen for over 30 years. After all, we were the first church in town to hire a fulltime female minister. We were the first and still the only church in town to perform same sex weddings. And to date, we are still the only church in town to open our doors to a public discussion of the issues of abuse and assault raised by #MeToo.
Our goal as The Congregational Church of Manhasset, United Church of Christ, is not to hold back and play it safe in the face of discrimination and injustice. Rather, like our non-conformist forebears of old who set foot on Plymouth Rock on December 21, 1620, we strive to do what we believe is right even if most churches in the world choose to do the opposite. We are nonconformists in our day living as we see fit, and living out our understanding of the Bible, most especially the life and teachings of Jesus.
With God’s help, we, the Pilgrims of 1845 Northern Blvd., Manhasset, New York will continue to make progress, “pilgrim’s progress” you might say! AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
Pilgrim Thanksgiving Sunday
November 19, 2017
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Hear now this Native American Thanksgiving Prayer from the Iroquois people:
We return thanks to our mother, the earth, which sustains us. We return thanks to the rivers and streams, which supply us with water. We return thanks to the herbs, which furnish medicines for the cure of our diseases. We return thanks to the corn, and to her sisters, the beans and squash, which give us life. We return thanks to the bushes and trees, which provide us with fruit. …We return thanks to the moon and the stars, which have given us their light when the sun was gone. We return thanks to our grandfather He-no…who has given to us his rain. We return thanks to the sun, that he has looked upon the earth with a beneficent eye. Lastly, we return thanks to the Great Spirit, in whom is embodied all goodness.